Sherman Hill Historic District
The Sherman Hill Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2015, The Gombach Group.
The Sherman Hill area is one of Des Moines' oldest residential suburbs, and today contains the city's highest concentration of late 19th and early 20th century domestic architecture. Unlike other historic districts in Des Moines, particularly Terrace Hill and Owl's Head, which are and have historically been more exclusive areas, Sherman Hill appears to have been from the earliest development a neighborhood open to a range of incomes — as reflected in the variety of its building stock. The architecture of Sherman Hill with the exception of mid-20th-century apartment complexes, dates almost exclusively from the period 1880 to 1920. It reflects not only the changing economic circumstances of the district, but also certain changes in life styles in the area, as, after the turn of the century, apartment house living became an acceptable way to circumvent the growing costs of housing in an expanding city.
The two basic building forms in Sherman Hill are the single-family dwelling and the multi-family block. The first, with examples from the entire 40-year period, is distinguished by its wide variety of form and scale, ranging from lavish, late-Victorian "mansions" to the very simple hipped box, the ubiquitous gable-roofed "vernacular" of the early 20th century, and the small cottage type. Despite the variety, these buildings do have elements in common: mostly frame construction, and lively exterior surfaces (dormers, porches, bays and gables; shingling and millwork on eaves and porches). They occur in all stages of integrity, but even the most altered examples retain elements of their original forms. The second form, the multi-family block, dates from 1900-1920. This form is typified by simple rectilinear shape, brick construction, and concentration of decorative detail at cornice level and at door and window openings. These blocks are among the best-preserved buildings in the district, and, because of their relative size (particularly the 3-5 story blocks) are visually quite prominent.
The variety of residential architecture in Sherman Hill offers graphic illustration of the district's history. Organized development of the area began in the late 1870's, when banker Hoyt Sherman built his brick "palazzo" on a hill overlooking the city center, and local developers such as Talmadge Brown, James Savory and W.C. Burton began to lay out streets and lots in the first of eventually 7 subdivisions which now comprise the district. During the first decades, Sherman Hill attracted many wealthy businessmen and the majority of the largest and most elaborate houses were built during this period. Nonetheless, the existence of smaller, simpler houses, including cottages and middle-size, gable-roofed forms at this period, indicates that people with incomes lower than those of Sherman or George Maish also found room to build in Sherman Hill. The turn of the century brought new patterns of living to the district, in the form of brick apartment blocks and two- or four-family dwellings. In some cases, these structures were built on empty lots; in others, older houses were removed to make way for new construction. During this period (1900-1920) single-family housing also changed character, as complex roofscapes and decorative millwork were rejected in favor of the simpler lines of the "hipped box." By the end of World War I, the various architectural patterns of Sherman Hill were in place. They remained undisturbed, but gradually deteriorating, over the next 30 to 35 years. Wealthier residents moved to newer suburbs on the south and west sides of Des Moines, but the population of Sherman Hill increased even as its prosperity declined. The larger houses were eventually divided into apartments, and absentee landlords became a common phenomenon. By the mid-20th century, Sherman Hill was fast becoming a tree-lined ghetto, and was hardly improved by abandonment or condemnation of housing and the erection, beginning in the early 1960's, of cheap and unaesthetic apartment complexes. In recent years, this trend has been slowed, if not reversed, as local residents, newcomers, and the City of Des Moines have taken an interest in conserving the many fine features of Sherman Hill's built environment.
During the most prosperous years of Sherman Hill (c. 1880 to shortly after the turn of the century), the area was home for a variety of businessmen then prominent in the commercial life of Des Moines. Together, they represented a good cross-section of the business and industrial leaders of the city at that time. Among the earliest residents was Hoyt Sherman (whose house is now part of the Hoyt Sherman Place complex at 1501 Woodland), lawyer, banker, and local politician. George Maish (1623 Center) in 1882 built a house whose scale and appointments were visual demonstrations of his success as a banker. Henry Scholte Nollen (664 18th Street), grandson of the founder of the Dutch community at Pella, Iowa, was in the insurance business, still a major enterprise in Des Moines. Samuel Saucerman (1510 Center) was active in Des Moines real estate, and is credited with developing much of the area northwest of Drake University.
Around the turn of the century, Sherman Hill housed prominent members of the city's growing Jewish community, particularly along 18th Street and Woodland Avenue. These businessmen often followed mercantile pursuits, particularly in the areas of clothing manufacture and sale. Meyer Rosenfield (696 18th Street) was an original partner in the Frankel clothing store (still in business). Individuals in Sherman Hill associated with Lederer, Strauss, and Co., then among the city's largest mercantile establishments, included Morris Samish (697 18th Street), Leon Strauss (815 18th Street) and Max Schloss (1623 Woodland). The Younker Brothers clothing stores, with branches around Iowa today, were represented then by Aaron Younker (823 18th Street). Leopold Sheuerman (1605 Woodland) combined banking with his Capital City Woolen Mills, which at their height employed 400, with branches in Newton and Marshalltown.
A variety of other businesses and professions were represented by residents of Sherman Hill in the early decades. Lafayette Young (822 18th Street) was publisher of—and active contributor to—the Des Moines Capital, once one of the city's major newspapers. His son, Lafayette, Jr., is remembered in Des Moines history as the organizer of the Des Moines Committee, a reform-minded group of businessmen whose Greater Des Moines Movement led to local government by commission and the annexation of extensive areas on all sides of the city. Robert S. Finkbine (808 19th Street), who lived in Sherman Hill from about 1886 to 1900, was Superintendent of Construction of the Iowa State Capitol, which took 13 years to complete. T. Fred Henry, a locally-known black musician and leader of T.F. Henry's Band, purchased 1701 Woodland from banker Henry S. Butler about 1910. Henry Wallace (756 16th Street), grandfather of a U.S. Vice President, lived in Sherman Hill c. 1893-1910. A crusader for agricultural improvement and reform, Wallace edited the Homestead, and, with his sons, in 1895 founded Wallace's Farm and Dairy, still a major national publication under the name Wallace's Farmer.
† Claudia Cackler, Director, Sherman Hill Association and M.H. Bowers, Iowa Division of Historic Preservation, Sherman Hill Historic District, Polk County, IA, nomination document, 1978, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.