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!

Our Family Stories: JFK – Memories from the Webber Branch

I asked all of the branches of my family to send me their memories of President Kennedy and of his death. I shared my memories in a previous post. Here are the memories I received from the Webber (my paternal grandmother) side of the family – in the order in which I received them. (I have added photos and video clips.)

Bea Webber Haskins: 
university-of-marylandI was in a large lecture hall, one of those tiered rooms, at the University of Maryland, College Park. I don’t remember what class. All of a sudden, there was a gasp from someone way up high in the back. The professor stopped and asked very sarcastically if he was interrupting someone. A girl’s voice said, very haltingly and seriously, “Oh, my God. The President. The President. He’s been shot.” In the stunned silence that followed, the professor said something like, “How do you know?” or “What are you talking about,” something like that. She held up a transistor radio and said she was sorry, but she had been listening to it during the lecture and this news Zenith_8-transistor_radio.agrwas just announced. The professor, to his credit, realized the student was not fooling around and asked her to bring her radio to the front, where he turned it up as loud as he could so we could all hear it. I don’t know if he dismissed us or if an announcement came over the P.A. system, or what, but eventually we left. Classes were cancelled and it was almost time for the Thanksgiving break. My then boyfriend, later husband, picked me up. He was not a Kennedy fan, but he was as saddened by the assassination as I was.

Photo credit: By ArnoldReinhold (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Tom Kessler:

Tom's parents - Woodrow Wilson Webber and Orville Kessler

Tom’s parents – Woodrow Wilson Webber and Orville Kessler

The election of 1960 when JFK was elected was the first one I remember.  I would have been 6 at that time, and Dad took me with him when he went to vote after work.  I have dim memories of a long voting line and feeling very excited about getting to go along. I was 9 years old and in the 4th grade in November 1963 and can remember learning about President Kennedy being killed from my teacher in school that day after lunch.  I don’t remember much about the discussion except for one boy saying that when he first heard about it he thought it was a bad joke.

riderless horse JFKcapitolNov25'63I had forgotten that the assassination was on a Friday, but that would explain why I have a sense of time sort of standing still and not going back to school until after the funeral which was on the following Monday when school was cancelled.  By that time we had a TV in the house, and I watched all the funeral coverage – including of course the iconic images of the funeral procession with the riderless horse, the flag draped casket and the Kennedy family with JFK, Jr. saluting the casket.

Wilda Morris:

Wilda's "Vava" - Myron D. Webber and Dorinda Webber (my ggrandparents)

Wilda’s “Vava” – Myron D. Webber and Dorinda Webber (my ggrandparents)

I graduated from high school in 1957 and went to American University in Washington DC to study political science. I grew up under the influence of Vava (Grandfather Webber), so of course I joined the Young Democrats (Vava named his youngest daughter Woodrow Wilson Webber; that is pretty strong evidence of his political proclivities).

In the fall of 1960, the Young Democrats succeeded in arranging for John F. Kennedy to speak briefly on campus on October 7, the same day as his second televised debate with Richard Nixon.  I was, of course, in the crowd of excited students listening to and cheering Kennedy. I was also among a small group of American U students who headed up Nebraska Avenue to WRC-TV, the NBC station where the Kennedy-Nixon debate took place. We stood along the

WRC-TV © by James G. Howes, 1962

WRC-TV © by James G. Howes, 1962

street by the driveway into the station and eagerly awaited the arrival of both candidates. Security wasn’t nearly as strict in those days as it is now. I could have reached out and touched Kennedy’s and Nixon’s cars when they arrived (though of course I didn’t). After the candidates went into the station, we returned to campus and watched the debate on the TV in the lounge of a dorm (In those days students did not have TV sets in their dorm rooms.).

The 1960 election was the first presidential election in which I was eligible to vote. After I received my absentee ballot from Johnson County, Iowa, I went with a Republican friend to vote and have our ballots notarized. If my memory is correct, we did that at the Registrar’s Office. We joked about cancelling each other out, though we were voting in different states.

There were evidently not many Iowans vying for tickets to the Kennedy inauguration. At any rate, my Congressman responded favorably to my request for a ticket. I had to pick it up at his office the day before the inauguration. On that day, eight inches of snow fell in D.C., more that DC knows how to handle! A lot of cars were abandoned, and traffic was a mess. It took longer than I expected to get to the Capitol Office Building, but I succeeded in getting my ticket. Standing on a street corner, waiting for a bus that would take me back to campus, I got very cold. I decided it would be better to walk than just stand there. I hiked the bus route, so I could catch the next bus, but it was a long time before one got through.

My roommate had two reserved-seat tickets to the inaugural parade. The temperature had dropped drastically so she decided she did not want to go. A friend (whose name I cannot recall) and I were happy to receive the tickets. My friend did not have a ticket to the inauguration itself, but she stuck close to me. Whenever I had to show my ticket to go through a gate, she just followed me in. No one stopped her. My ticket was for a standing-room section—we had to stand through the whole ceremony, including the new president’s speech. But we were so happy to be there that we didn’t complain. The standing room area was pretty crowded, which helped keep us warm.

After the ceremony, my friend and I walked up Pennsylvania to find our seats. We were quite fortunate, for the seats were in front of the US Treasury Building, just east of the White House. As the parade approached our seats, every act came alive. The bands began to play their best songs. Everything designed for the delight of the new president and his family happened within our view. With our coats buttoned up, our scarves tied tightly, gloved hands in our pockets, and our legs wrapped in blankets, we stayed through the entire parade.

I graduated from American University in 1961, but stayed in DC for the summer, working fulltime in the Registrar’s Office. I met Edgar Morris briefly on the last Monday evening of the summer—shortly before we both started graduate school at the University of Illinois. After we were married on August 31, 1963, we moved to College Park, Maryland, because Ed had a job at the National Bureau of Standards. As a result, we were back in the Washington area at the time of the assassination of President Kennedy. I was at home, straightening up the apartment and listening to the radio when I heard the terrible news. I called Ed at work to tell him, but I think he had heard the news there. I remember the radio playing mournful music between updates. The Bureau of Standards closed and Ed came home early. This was the first big shared sorrow of our married life.

caisson_bearing_the_flag-draped_casket_of_President_John_F._Kennedy_leaving_the_White_House..._-_NARA_-_200455Ed and I went to DC to watch the procession that transferred the President’s body from the White House to the Capitol Building. We had the sense that we were witnessing a tragic piece of history as the riderless horse passed by.

Howard and Sue Rees who worked with Baptist students in the DC area knew we were pretty distraught by the president’s death. They also knew we didn’t own a TV, so they invited us to their home to watch the funeral with their family. Had it been just me, I might have gone downtown in hopes of seeing some of the world leaders who came for the funeral. Some of our friends from Calvary Baptist Church did go to the vicinity of Saint Matthew’s Roman Catholic Church, and saw Charles de Gaulle and Haile Selassie, as well as others who attended the service. We only saw them on TV.

I lost some of my naiveté and some of my optimism when Kennedy was assassinated. Before the assassination, I don’t think I believed things like that still happened—they were part of history but not the present. Would that it were so!

Yvonne Addis:
Yvonne's Grandmother n- Dorinda Webber

Yvonne’s Grandmother Dorinda Webber

On that November 22, I was at my sorority house in Iowa City eating lunch in the dining room downstairs when our house mother came into the doorway and said, “Girls, the president has been shot.”  It is a freeze-frame moment for me.  We all went up to her apartment and huddled around the TV. Another memory I have is that soon after he was killed, I took my Grandmother Webber for a ride in our car.  I remember her weeping and saying, “It’s like losing a member of the family.”
P.S. It’s not too late to share your memories, Webber (or any other branch) family. I’ll just add them on.
And any other readers – please share your memories too!
2013.11W.11I’m linking this to Sepia Saturday as it fits the prompt theme for today.
Please feel free to read my personal memories of JFK here and my memories of the space shuttle Challenger disaster here.
But, my all means, see what others are sharing at Sepia Saturday!

Vintage Baby Cards = Vintage Me

When I was working on my last post, The Book of Me – My Birth, I found the gift cards from a baby shower and lots of other cards sent to my parents when I was born. I love the style of these cards from the 50s and, although I hate to admit it, these vintage cards date me as vintage too.

I thought I’d share a few of the cards – either because they are cute or depict the style of the day – or because I thought the present day descendants of the senders would like to see them.

This first one is strictly shown for its style.
kathy baby card 1 front

kathy baby card 1 front inside1


kathy baby card 1 front inside2

kathy baby card 1 front inside3

The card below is from my great aunt and uncle – Woodye Webber Kessler (my grandmother Abbie’s sister) and Orville Kessler and their girls. This card is hand made – I assume by Aunt Woodye. All of the little babies are cut out – possibly from another card. I love the little diapers on the clothes line that she cut out and glued into place. And it is all so neatly done!
kathy baby card from Woodye kathy baby card from Woodye inside


This note makes me want to know more.
kathy baby card Grandmother Smith

kathy baby card Grandmother Smith back

Effie B. Hall Smith

Effie B. Hall Smith

I don’t know who wrote the note. It is addressed to “Dear Grandchildren” – I assume this means my parents. The note refers to Grandmother Smith – my Dad’s grandmother. Did Grandmother Smith write this note about herself in the 3rd person? That’s what it sounds like to me.

She apparently made a quilt and blanket for me. I never knew my Great-grandmother Smith and I didn’t know that she made these gifts for me. I wish I could see them or know what they looked like!

I think this is the only picture I have of my Great-grandmother Smith. It looks to me like she is crocheting a big afghan or blanket in this picture. She must have been a woman who liked to keep her hands busy.

This last card is from my Mom’s brother and his wife. (Click to enlarge.)
kathy baby card Al and Miriamkathy baby card Al and Miriam inside

It looks like all of the cards were once glued into a scrapbook and later torn out. I also found a scrapbook page with a few notes (written by my mom) about a baby shower given by my Grandmother Abbie and a couple of other women. Grandma Abbie was a crafty lady – I bet she did the napkins folded to look like a baby gown – or at least found the idea for them.
kathy baby shower scrapbook page

Baby Shower
Hostesses Doris Karell, Alma Oliver & Abbie Smith
The napkin

Cream & sugar served from small baby bottles with tops cut off nipples.
Hazel brought blanket with dummy inside to look like baby. Used mirror for face.

The scrapbook page is folded over and this is what is on the reverse.
kathy baby shower scrapbook page reverse

… the details of a couple of games that were played at the baby shower. The list looks like words to unscramble. The difficult-to-read note says: Also passed around tray of different articles you take a good look then tray is removed you write down items you can remember.

There are many more cards, but I think that’s enough to share here. I enjoyed looking through all of them and imagining the ladies at the baby shower.