The History of Sherman Hill
Sherman Hill is one of Des Moines’ oldest neighborhoods, dating back to 1850 when Hoyt Sherman, the first postmaster of Des Moines, purchased five acres of land located at what is now the corner of 15th Street and Woodland Avenue. As a successful banker, businessman, and lawyer, Sherman completed construction of his elaborate Italianate palazzo in 1877. The home would later be expanded upon to include the city’s first public art museum and auditorium. Today, Hoyt Sherman Place stands as a historic landmark for which the neighborhood was named.
Most of the land in Sherman Hill was platted for development from 1877 to 1882, following construction of the Sherman residence. As Des Moines experienced substantial growth during the late nineteenth century, early pioneers settled into this stylish western suburb located on wooded bluffs overlooking the city. Prominent business leaders and politicians moved into the area, including Henry Wallace, founder of Wallace’s Farmer; the Younkers brothers; U.S. Senator Lafayette Young; and African American bandleader T. Fred Henry. However, Sherman Hill was not an exclusive community, as evidenced by the diversity of housing types. Wealthy families constructed large and ornate homes in a variety of Victorian styles, including Queen Anne, Italianate, Eastlake, and others. Lower-income families were also welcomed and settled into smaller, more modest Victorian cottages that are intermingled throughout the neighborhood. While size and scale varied, houses were unified through their common architectural elements including gable roofs, porches, and decorative millwork.
As Des Moines continued to grow into the early 1900s, apartment living became widely accepted as a way to circumvent increasing housing costs within the city. During this time, the neighborhood evolved from one of
The history of Sherman Hill follows the same progression as many American urban neighborhoods, where growth is followed by disinvestment, and finally, revitalization and renewal. Growth stagnated in post-WWI years, and disinvestment began shortly after. This was also the era of “white flight” when wealthier families left Sherman Hill for the new suburbs to the west. Compounding this movement was the practice of redlining and mortgage discrimination, commonly practiced against minorities, immigrants, and even young families. Redlining prevented potential homeowners from purchasing and
The 1960s proved to be another critical period in the history of Sherman Hill. The first phase of construction for Interstate-235 was completed in 1961. While most of Sherman Hill was spared from demolition, the freeway isolated Sherman Hill from its neighbors, with whom they shared parks and historical fabric. At this same time, the City also began implementing wide-sweeping urban renewal projects aimed at eliminating areas deemed as slum and blight. Demolition was the mind-set of the time, and single-family houses in the neighborhood were torn down to make way for new, “modern” apartment buildings. Unfortunately, these large structures with mansard roofs ignored historic architectural forms in the neighborhood and further contributed to its decline. Demolition extended outside of this neighborhood as well. The Center Street neighborhood, located immediately east, was once a thriving hub of African American culture in Iowa and was especially known for the lively jazz clubs that brought nationally renowned musicians to Des Moines. Although the Center Street neighborhood had declined in the previous decade, the commercial district extending from Keo Way west to 15th Street still served many of the residents living in Des Moines at the time. The entire Center Street district, with the exception of two structures, was demolished in the name of urban renewal. In its place today are the expansive Unity Point (Methodist Hospital) parking lots, the Oakridge Neighborhood, and strip commercial development along Keo Way.
The neighborhood officially adopted the Sherman Hill name in the early 1970s. Up until this time, the general area was referred to as “Oakridge” because of the wooded hilltop in which it was located. However, with the construction of the Homes of Oakridge completed in 1970, it was often confusing to differentiate the new housing development from the existing neighborhood. “Sherman Hill” came to be, and with that, so did a renewed sense of urgency to preserve and protect the neighborhood from further decline.
In 1977, residents banded together to form the Sherman Hill Association, Inc. (SHA). This newly formed neighborhood organization was created with the purpose of restoring the quality of life and historic character of the neighborhood through education, preservation, and community action. SHA successfully added Sherman Hill to the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district in 1979, and the neighborhood was designated as one of the first local historic districts in Des Moines in 1982. The Sherman Hill Association completed two neighborhood master plans, the first in 1981 and the second in 1990, that helped guide its focus and activities for its first two decades. In 1993, SHA was officially recognized as a neighborhood association by the City of Des Moines, and in 1999, the neighborhood completed the first Sherman Hill Neighborhood Action Plan as part of the City’s Neighborhood Revitalization Program. The plan provided a solid foundation for building a sense of community and place for the residents of Sherman Hill. Since the adoption of that plan, Sherman Hill has continued to focus on preserving the historic character of the neighborhood.
Since the formation of the SHA and the enactment of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, residents and businesses have returned to Sherman Hill and the neighborhood has experienced a resurgence in prosperity. While the neighborhood has continued the tradition of being a residential neighborhood for downtown Des Moines’ workforce, many residents also work out of their homes, providing retail goods and services to their surrounding neighbors and beyond. SHA continues to work closely with neighborhood residents and city officials to identify potential improvements which highlight the neighborhood’s historic contributions to Greater Des Moines and improve the quality of life in Sherman Hill.