The original building (1948) by Eliel Saarinen was elected to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.
Eliel Saarinen (American, born Finland 1873-1950) first achieved international fame in his native Finland and built upon that reputation after moving to the United States in 1923. It is ironic, however, that two of his most famous American projects were never built: his acclaimed proposal for the Chicago Tribune building in 1922 and his award-winning design for the Smithsonian Art Gallery. It was his design for the Smithsonian that first attracted serious local attention as the centerpiece of an exhibition in Des Moines organized by the Fine Arts Association in 1939. Five years later, as the search for an architect to design the museum began in earnest, Saarinen was the only architect to receive serious consideration for the job.
After several attempts, a final design for the museum was approved by the board of trustees on March 22, 1945, and Eliel Saarinen was commissioned as architect of the Des Moines Art Center. The accepted design was a distinctly modern building that would hug the ground rather than overwhelm the natural setting of the city’s Greenwood Park.
It owed its horizontal profile and flat roof to his earlier design for the Smithsonian and some of its details to buildings he had designed for the campus of Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where he was president. The Lannon stone cladding appears to be a later request from the trustees, who perhaps were looking for a consistency in materials between the new museum and the existing stone pylons already in place in the gardens behind the area where the Art Center would be built.
Saarinen’s design called for a U-shaped organization of the galleries, foyer and auditorium with a separate wing-like extension for classrooms and studios. The U was to encircle a reflecting pool, and the classroom/studio wing would frame the parking lot. The interiors offered large rambling spaces, starting with the spacious foyer and moving into the galleries.
The choice of materials including rift-grain oak on the walls, coved plaster ceilings and wide-plank oak floors enhance the relatively casual interior design.
This initial design was so successful that it has remained virtually intact since the museum opened in 1948. The only major change was moving the auditorium to the Pei addition and the conversion of that space into additional exhibition galleries. The philosophy behind the trustees’ decision to build "the best type of architecture of the period in which the museum is built" rather than the typical classical temple-style museum, likewise has proven to be so successful that it too remained intact when the board set out to choose an architect to design an addition to the Des Moines Art Center.