The Gilded Old Lady

I spent my early years in Iowa, but not in Des Moines, so when news broke that the historic Younkers department store building had been destroyed by fire on March 29, 2014, I was saddened by the loss, but felt no personal connection to the building.

The Younkers building, more than a century old, closed in 2005 and was under renovation as a multipurpose building – residences on the upper floors and retail space on the bottom. No cause for the fire has been determined and the building was a total loss.

My cousin Karen felt the loss personally and wrote down a few of her memories and posted them to Facebook. She has kindly given me permission to share them here.

Before we get to Karen’s piece, I thought this video would be a nice introduction because it portrays the same sense of loss and provides a glimpse into the building of the past. If my understanding is correct, the video was made by a husband and wife who met while working at Younkers. I believe they are the giver and receiver of the gift later in the video – and have the chandelier from the tearoom in their store.


May the Gilded Old Lady Rise From The Ashes

By: Karen Lonsdale

Younkers skywalkWhen I worked downtown at the Capital Square, I would walk the skywalk with Jennifer, one of my best friends. We chattered like schoolgirls. We shared confidences, giggled and laughed, and sometimes cried although we were in our fifties. But when we reached the Younkers building, I nearly always looked up from watching where we were going to peruse the blacked out windows, remembering what was, imagining what is, and pondering what could be.

The “what was” was an elegant but old-fashioned lady of gilt with accents of red, blue, green, crystal…whatever season it might be. I could see the elevator with the seasoned old man who asked what floor we wanted. And there was that half-floor, the mezzanine. Did it provide an opportunity to shop for shoes? I don’t remember, but just that I always seemed to land on it when I was looking for the floor above or below.

One of my most poignant memories of my mother, now gone five years, involves the downtown Younkers store. When I was around twenty, she bought me a burgundy, velour, drop-waist dress in an upper-floor woman’s department. I was so excited for several reasons. Not only was it beautiful, it was a size smaller than I had been wearing, and it was a Liz Claiborne! My first designer dress! I wore that dress for years and never wore it out. And every time I put it on , I thought of Younkers downtown and Mom.

I liked to shop at the downtown Younkers store at Christmas for all of my gifts. I could find anything from the smallest nic nacs to unusual men’s ties to things I could not identify. I would amble around in the basement looking at and touching men’s items, household goods, and…stop! What did I find? Pastries! Gooey, delectable, flakey goodies. And of course I had to stop for that. And that brings to mind my favorite part of the downtown store. The tearoom.

Younkers TearoomI think my mother introduced me to the tearoom way before I was able to go by myself. And after I married and began shopping alone, I would head for the tearoom for the lettuce salad with cucumbers. No matter what dressing I had, it had the flavor of cucumbers which I still look for and crave whenever I eat a garden salad. I was so disappointed when the Merle Hay Mall Younkers store was built without a tearoom, especially after the downtown store tearoom had been closed.

The “what is” was sad. I tried to look between the blackout papers someone had applied to the inside of old lady’s windows on the skywalk, but the crack was just too small. So what I saw in my mind was the gilded lady draped in darkness. It was hard to visualize the racks of multi-colored clothes missing, the gold-toned tube that carried the money from the departments’s stations to finance and back to the clerk gone, the dings that were a part of the living Younkers silent, the display counters gone or broken. It was not possible that my memories—and those of others, I was sure—were blocked from sight, to be hidden from us.

Younkers chandelierFriday, March 28, 2014 the “could bes” that I voiced to Jennifer were coming true. I had fantasized that, “Someone should renovate this, make boutiques and stores on the main floor and apartments above.” Someone had purchased the old lady and was starting renovations. I was glad. I was excited, hoping someday to go to the boutiques and to maybe see pictures of the condominiums. But at midnight, March 29, 2014 a fire, already blazing stories high, was reported in the old, gilded lady. The icon was ablaze. And we rose six hours later to learn the old lady was gone, a total loss, unsalvageable.

And so the memories will live in my mind, but I can never again visit the old lady to make my mind dance to these memories. I am sad, and I am heartsick. My one hope regarding this grand old dame is that she rise out of the ashes stronger and, hopefully, looking much as she did in her early years.

If you have any memories of the old Younkers building in Des Moines, please share them in the comments or send me an email!

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