As noteworthy as the art collection is at the Des Moines Art Center, the museum likewise boasts an outstanding collection of architecture. The three architects who have collaborated in the design of the museum, Eliel Saarinen, I. M. Pei and Richard Meier, are among the greatest names in architecture of the 20th century. Though each represents a very different style and period of modern architecture, their combined efforts, starting with Saarinen’s original Lannon stone building, followed in 1968 by Pei’s bushhammered concrete addition, and Meier’s three-part clad porcelain and granite addition in 1985, have resulted in a unique architectural achievement.
The Art Center’s origin, however, is humble. It can be traced to the Des Moines Association of Fine Arts, which operated out of the turn-of-the-century Beaux Arts-style Main Library building on the banks of the Des Moines River in downtown Des Moines beginning in 1916. A separate museum became possible with a bequest from James D. Edmundson. At the time of his death in 1933, a trust worth more than half a million dollars was established with the stipulation that the money be held for 10 years in the hope that the assets would recover from the Depression. They did, and in 1943, leading citizens of Des Moines drew up plans for a modern museum of art.