Home & Garden

A grand history: Iowa's Terrace Hill celebrates its 150th anniversary

The receiving room sits adjacent to the front door and main hallway on the first floor of Terrace Hill in Des Moines. Completed in 1869, the home was built Des Moines’ first millionaire, Benjamin Franklin Allen, and sold to Frederick Marion Hubbell when Allen lost his fortune. The Hubbell family donated the mansion to the state in 1971 for use as the governor’s residence. Photographed on Monday, March 18, 2019. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
The receiving room sits adjacent to the front door and main hallway on the first floor of Terrace Hill in Des Moines. Completed in 1869, the home was built Des Moines’ first millionaire, Benjamin Franklin Allen, and sold to Frederick Marion Hubbell when Allen lost his fortune. The Hubbell family donated the mansion to the state in 1971 for use as the governor’s residence. Photographed on Monday, March 18, 2019. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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Everything about Terrace Hill is grand in scale. The Iowa governor’s residence — fittingly on Grand Avenue — has an 85-foot-tall tower that greets visitors at the front door. At 18,000 square feet, Terrace Hill is large enough to encompass seven 2,500-square-foot homes.

Mounted animal heads, including Fred the moose, are two to three times larger than deer heads Iowans may have mounted; the staircase landing reveals a wall of stained-glass windows saturated with color; even the interior door hardware is massive — around the size of a 3x5 index card. That’s not surprising considering the doors weigh from 200 to 400 pounds.

Walking in it’s hard not to notice how you feel simultaneously small and large. The ceilings are almost 15 feet tall, and the doorways are 12 feet high. The door frames, many of them arched, are around a foot wide, carved and in great condition. Then there’s the furniture. The chairs, sofas and tete-a-tete have seat heights better suited for children than today’s adults. Frederick M. Hubbell, the home’s second owner, stood at 5 feet 2 inches.

Iowans stand taller in 2019, but the stature of Terrace Hill remains unchanged.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Terrace Hill. An event June 2 will celebrate the anniversary. Terrace Hill is open for tours Tuesday through Saturday from March through December. Visitors will see the first and second floors. The third floor, which once housed the servants’ quarters, now is home to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and her family.

Molly Thompson, one of Terrace Hill’s two administrative staff, said her favorite part of the home is seeing some of the furniture in the same place now that it was in historic photos on display in the carriage house.

In the late 1860s, when a single-family home in Des Moines cost less than $5,000, B.F. Allen commissioned Chicago architect William Boyington to build Terrace Hill. Using the best materials and offering modern features such as hot and cold water and indoor restrooms, the home cost $250,000. Terrace Hill is an example of Second Empire architectural style, which appeared in the United States in the mid-19th century, making it another modern facet.

Mansard roofs, which flare out and allow additional room to stand, and tall towers are typical features. Elaborate ornamentation on the exterior includes rectangular and segmental arched windows, brackets, and contrasting white quoins, which are masonry bricks at the intersection of two walls. Inside visitors will see petticoat tables, a hall tree and furniture made from laminated wood that has been curved and intricately carved by John Henry Belter.

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Boyington brought an insistence on symmetry and details to the home. When Allen’s wife said she didn’t want one particular window in the drawing room, the architect came up with a solution to satisfy both. From the exterior, there is a window but inside that space has a wall in its place. Boyington was more involved with interior design decisions than most architects. The overhead arches in the entry hallway descend in height to focus a person’s attention on the staircase. It’s an effect that makes a person want to go in and explore the home. A circle motif is carried throughout the home’s doors.

It was said that a foolish man built Terrace Hill but a wise man would live in it. Allen, Iowa’s first millionaire, was not able to maintain his fortune. Somehow after declaring bankruptcy and facing legal challenges, Allen emerged with the title and sold Terrace Hill in 1884 for $55,000 to Iowa’s richest man, Frederick Marion Hubbell. That price included a hall tree belonging to Allen — perhaps because it was too heavy to move.

Hubbell bought when the time was right. It was clear he maintained the home with care — so much so that he begrudged son Grover for modernizing the lighting in 1924. Visitors, Thompson said, often remark on the light fixtures. They are original to the home and aligned across rooms.

The Hubbell family lived in Terrace Hill until 1956. For 15 years, it was vacant. In 1971, the family donated it to the state, which has maintained it as a National Historic Landmark and returned rooms to their original functions.

Hubbell added two elements to Terrace Hill.

Speaking of grand, these features brought a bounty of sparkle and color. The first, a seven-and-a-half-foot tall-chandelier in the drawing room, came from Czechoslovakia and weighs 250 pounds. Standing in the hallway between the drawing and reception rooms, guests see the chandelier reflected in mirrors as if it extends infinitely. The 2,200 crystal prisms are occasionally taken down and cleaned. Don’t worry — they’ve been numbered for reassembly.

As grand as it is, Terrace Hill has touches of everyday Iowa. The room beneath the tower on the second floor, which in the past was a place for seamstresses to work and children to play, has a solid walnut table from the poultry barn at the fairgrounds. A garden provides fruits, vegetables and herbs for the kitchen. Tour guide Joyce Andrews said Kevin Reynolds has a taste for brussels sprouts.

With the everyday also comes the extraordinary. There was the time daughter Beulah Hubbell met Queen Elizabeth II. Like the many other family celebrations, her marriage to Swedish Count Carl Wachtmeister in May 1899 was held at Terrace Hill. A signed portrait of the queen hangs in the library to commemorate that meeting.

The tiger on the reception room floor formerly lived on a farm near Marshalltown. Named Toby, he was brought back to Iowa by a GI after World War II and taken to school on show-and-tell days.

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Perhaps the rarest item in Terrace Hill is the Lincoln sewing cabinet in the family gathering room. This piece stands on a trio of cabriole legs that support a brass domed container. Lincoln’s profile is done in relief on top. Only 10 were produced, but it is by whom that is most interesting. They were made by prisoners held in the Civil War.

The rosewood, the six white and two pink Italian marble fireplace surrounds, and the gold leaf framed mirrors were awe-inspiring to guests in the 19th century. Even in 2019, it’s not easy to contain the oohs and aahs.

Terrace Hill is a testament to family, a job well done and ingenuity in Iowa. Like another classic connected to Iowa, Terrace Hill proves if you build it, they will come. My tour guide fell in love with the home on her tour. A year later, she relocated to Des Moines from Wisconsin.

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