Middlesex Plat Historic District

Des Moines City, Polk County, IA

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The Middlesex Plat Historic District [†] represents a residential district that experienced rapid infilling as a number of major house contractors combined their efforts to provide square house and bungalow plans. While it was part of the westward residential expansion of Des Moines, the plat actually represented an eastward infilling of the area between Ingersoll Avenue (south) and Kingman Boulevard. Des Moines growth had plunged directly west in the area south of Ingersoll Avenue, and northwest into the region north of Center Street. The area between Kingman Boulevard and Ingersoll was delayed in its development by the lack of streetcar service. The closest line was along University Avenue well to the north, and other lines in the Drake and Sherman Hill areas terminated well east of this area. The 1906-07 completion of the Ingersoll Run sewer into Northwest Des Moines in addition to improved streetcar service, encouraged the Middlesex developers to market their land. The Middlesex parcel was also withheld from the real estate market for many years. It was part of the large J. Callanan property as of 1882 and 1898. Callanan retained the land between 28th and 31 st streets for many years and this quarter-mile square block located immediately east of the district reflects a later architecture period and infilling pattern.

The historical context 'Own Your Own Home' Campaign and Des Moines' Record Home Ownership Level, 1908-1942 applies to the Middlesex district. Single family housing comprised a very high percentage of the city's residential properties and home ownership promotional efforts made the city the national leader in the percentage of home ownership. The square house and bungalow directly facilitated this remarkable achievement by providing relatively lowcost housing forms for a growing home-buying market.

The historical context Transportation's Role in Fostering and Directing Residential Expansion, 1900-1942 similarly applies because this addition was promoted and was successful because of its proximity to streetcar service (see: Streetcar Suburbs). The district's development pre-dated the ascendancy of the automobile. The district's development was part of a broader westward residential expansion that relied initially on streetcar/interurban service and then additionally upon automobile service as well.

Finally the historical context The Role of House Design, Construction and Marketing in Fostering and Influencing Des Moines Residential Construction and Expansion, 1900-1942 has application to this district because of the role played by the plat developers and a small number of home builders. Collectively they aggressively marketed and developed an architecturally cohesive residential middle class neighborhood. Middlesex stands out in sharp contrast to most city plats and to many contemporaneous nearby neighborhoods because of this visual unity.

The Middlesex Plat was filed by the [P. K.] Witmer and [B. F.] Kauffman Insurance Company on August 16, 1907. The company first sold insurance but established a separate real estate department in late 1906. Middlesex Plat #2 includes Lots 37-119, the middle four blocks of the eight-block plat. Nothing happened in the development for a year after filing aside from some internal trading. B. J. Huffman transferred the ownership of the outermost four blocks to Witmer in August 1908 and most of these remained in the hands of Witmer and Kauffman as of February 1912, along with a majority of the Middlesex #2 lots. By the opening of the 1909 building season, the Middlesex Addition had made its mark in the city. The Register & Leader observed that the "opening of the Middlesex Addition is doing a great deal to build up the district lying between Ingersoll avenue and Center streets, and will eventually be the means of securing a continuation of the Center street car line west from Seventeenth Street." The 160 lots were selling for $500 to $1,200. The same source continued, "the cross streets have all been opened, sewer, gas and water mains have been laid and cement sidewalks are rapidly being put in place over the entire tract." Houses had to cost at least $2,000 and the newspaper listed seven individuals who were building in 1909 (Register & Leader, May 23,1909; Capital, October 13, 1906).

Witmer & Kauffman built more than 30 houses in the plat in 1908 to promote sales and to set an architectural example for other builders. The building dates do not appear to substantiate this claim but those dates tend to be later than actual construction. The developers of nearby Woodland Place square house plans were favored and the earliest Middlesex houses similarly were front gable square plans. Witmer & Kauffman built at least one district property in the later years of their sales campaign. They offered 3110 Woodland Avenue for sale in late May 1916 as a "California Type Bungalow"

The company financed homebuilders at six percent interest and it is not clear whether Witmer & Kauffman then did the building as well for their clients. An east-west sequence of construction was described in the plat advertisements. The developers first opened up 31st and 32nd streets in 1908 and then opened "our very best street" (33rd Street) in 1909. An averaging of construction dates on a street by street basis shows that 31 st Street houses have an average age of 1912.3 years, while those along 32nd Street average 1912.9 in the 600's block, and 1917 in the 700's. Houses on 33rd Street average to 1915.5 while those on 34th Street average 1916. The houses along the east side of 31 st Street average to 1915. Cumulatively these figures document the rapid and solid infilling of the district. At any rate Witmer and Kauffman were quite pleased with their undertaking. One of their 1909 promotions boasted that "We have had the most rapid sale of high-grade improved residence property that has ever taken place in this city." One homebuilder was one of the promoters, B. F. Kauffman who announced plans to build a $9,000 home in the spring of 1909.

Another sustained sales campaign unfolded during the spring of 1910. Witmer & Kauffman first ran a unified real estate ad for their four developments, Middlesex, Tonawanda Place, Grand Avenue Heights, and Highland Park. These additions covered the east and west sides of Des Moines. The sales focus was placed on the speculative value of buying a lot in Middlesex. A 20-40 percent increase in value had already been realized since the first lot offerings two years previous and a doubling was promised within the next two years. In the face of a barrage of substantial sales ads, buyers were advised that "only a few lots remain unsold. At the end of April an advertisement promised that "A Middlesex lot is the best savings bank for you." The increase in value was driven by house building. The same source explained "homes are going up so rapidly that lot values are increasing every day." Another sales angle was the highly developed nature of the plat. "Pioneering has been removed from Middlesex" it was promised. By May 11 the promoters reported "[lot sales] are going rapidly. In a short time they will be off the market." Two days later, "just a few" lots remained unsold.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
31st Street • 32nd Street • 33rd Street • 34th Sreeet • 35th Street • Center Street • Woodland Avenue

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