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Ashby Manor Historic District

Des Moines City, Polk County, IA

Ashby Manor HIstoric District

Photo: Several historic houses located in the Historic District. The nearest one shows the typical Beaverdale Brick style typical in the district and surrounding neighborhood. Photographed by wikimedia commons username: Goddesshanna (own work) 2012 [cc 3.0], listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992; accessed December, 2020.

Significant neighborhoods such as the Ashby Manor historic District [†] illustrate the physical development of modern Des Moines. They shine as fine examples of well‑planned residential development of enduring value and reflect the housing preferences of the period. These special places reflect the prosperity of the Capital City between the world wars that permitted the creation of attractive neighborhoods across the city. With its distinctive, relatively unaltered appearance and its importance for understanding community planning and development of Des Moines between the world wars, the Ashby Manor historic district is eligible for the National Register under Criteria A (community planning and development) and C (landscape architecture and architecture).

The Ashby Manor neighborhood illustrates the practical art of designing natural elements to provide a distinctive suburban development. Because of an accident in history, the prevailing street grid of the surrounding area was broken, not because of an innate desire to provide variety, but to prevent demolition of the Ashby farmhouse which, at it turned out, was leveled after all, leaving an island in the street pattern to mark its passing. In addition, the development of Ashby Manor reveals the circumstances behind designing and changing the physical structure of Des Moines to enhance the quality of life. The neighborhood as a unit and the houses within it also express distinctive characteristics of the period between the world wars and collectively represent a distinguishable and significant entity whose components may lack individual distinction.

Twenty‑two houses rated as contributing to the district were constructed in 1940 or 1941. These properties derive their significance as integral components of the district and were built within the district's period of significance. These properties, and related garages, exhibit design motifs, materials, and other architectural and historical elements developed in the 1920s and 1930s in the district. In addition, their construction may well reflect changes in federal policies in 1938 that encouraged housing construction.

The majority of district properties are over fifty years old and all of the contributing district properties are also over fifty years old. Regardless of age, 61 Per cent of all properties contribute to the cohesive appearance of the district, and over 90 per cent of all housing was constructed during the period of significance, 1925‑1941.

Ashby Manor derives its name from Newton B. and Harriet Wallace Ashby who owned a farm encompassing the present district. Purchased by Harriet Ashby in January, 1911, the farm encompassed 20.56 acres. In succeeding years they were to become the developers and namesakes of the district. Harriet Wallace Ashby came from a prominent family in the field of publishing and, in succeeding generations, national politics. She served as associate editor of the Wallace Publishing Company. Newton Ashby also served in the Wallace Publishing Company under his father‑in‑law, Henry Wallace. From 1892 to 1896 he served as U.S. Consul in Dublin, Ireland. After serving in the Department of Agriculture he and Harriet returned to Des Moines in 1898. Their farm, called Springmound, was named after Harriet's father's birthplace. Their home was located on the present island between Ashby Avenue and Wallace Lane. No above‑grade trace of it remains. An article in the Des Moines Register and Leader dated September 24, 1911, described Springmound as modern and surrounded by fruit trees and large vegetable and flower gardens, Harriet raised white Wyandot chickens at Springmound in an effort to produce a strain suitable for both exhibition and utility.

The Ashby's were sole owners of Ashby Manor and joint owners of Ashby Woods with B.C. Hopkins. In the early 1930's Chamberlain, Kirk and Company, realtors, purchased some of Ashby Woods, which they subsequently developed. The Ashby home was demolished sometime between 1926 and 1927 to make way for the development of Ashby Manor and Ashby Woods, which were officially platted in December 1927 and December 1926, respectively.

Portions of the land were sold to the city of Des Moines for improvements such as the 38th Street right‑of‑way in 1916, the 40th Street right‑of‑way in 1927, and a sewer right‑of‑way in 1927. Bell Telephone purchased a right‑of‑way for telephones lines for $1.00 in 1927. In 1925 the city of Des Moines purchased land for use as a park for $18,714 from the Ashbys and B.C. Hopkins. This land was determined to be unsuitable for a park as it was not wooded enough. Land was traded and Ashby Park was located at its present site at 38th Street and Davisson Road, on the east side of the district. In 1926 a tiny sliver of land was purchased for the park from Rion Dows for $1.00. Ashby Park encompasses eleven acres of land.

Ashby Avenue, from Beaver Avenue east to the park, and Wallace Lane were graded, paved and curbed in 1927. Previously, in 1911 there had been some sort of paving on what was to become Ashby Avenue. From the abstract, it is unclear where this paving was brick or merely grading.

Building restrictions were written, binding and to run for twenty‑five years from January 1, 1928. Among these were the construction of residences only, one residence per lot, an ethnic restriction, locations of house setbacks from the front lot lines, minimum cost of construction ($4,500 for most and $4,000 for others), and buildings materials to be used — brick, stone, wood or stucco walls and any roofing other than rolled asphalt roofing. All wooden surfaces were to be painted with two coats of paint. No temporary structure was to be used as a dwelling for more than six months from the time it was erected. All buildings under construction were to be continued until completed. All sales and transfers of said lots were to be subject to said restrictions.

Water, sewer, electricity, paving and telephone lines were all in place by 1927 for Ashby Manor and Ashby Woods. Unfortunately, many of the lots remained unsold when the stock market crashed in 1929 and during the Great Depression which followed. Much of the Ashby Manor development was lost in foreclosure proceedings. Apparently Ashby Woods was not lost as it had co‑ownership. In March of 1933 Jackson Investment Company acquired the unsold lots for nonpayment of taxes from 1931 through 1933, special assessments and easements, unpaid interest and penalties, and a lien against the unpaid mortgage. Jackson Investment Company was under the direction of O.M. Garrett, president, and Laird M. Fryer, secretary, who were also assistant cashiers at the Iowa Des Moines National Bank and Trust Company, which was the same bank that was assigned the Ashby's $15,000 mortgages in 1929.

Twenty‑three of the lots in Ashby Manor, acquired by Jackson Investment Company went unsold for two years and were finally sold at a tax sale on May 9, 1935. Lots 18, 19, and 20, which had been sold to the Ashbys in 1930 to John Wilcox, were also involved in foreclosure and were sold at this tax sale, also known as a "Scavenger Sale." The price of these lots ranged from a low of $38.19 to a high of $101.69, with Polk County buying many of them and Inter‑Ocean Reinsurance Company of Cedar Rapids, Iowa buying the remainder. This Cedar Rapids company then bought the lots purchased by Polk County and held the twenty‑six lots for one year as required by law to permit former owners the chance to redeem their property. As required by law, the "Iowa Bystander" newspaper published the expiration notice of right of redemption for three consecutive weeks. None of the lots were redeemed.

In 1936 a lawsuit concerning the twenty‑six lots in Ashby Manor occurred between the plaintiff, Inter‑Ocean Reinsurance Company, and defendants, Jackson Investment Company, T.A. Wilcox, Iowa National Bank and Trust Company, and the city of Des Moines. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff and on March 3, 1937 Inter‑Ocean Reinsurance Company was the undisputed owner of the twenty‑six lots. Modern Home Builders, Inc., E.T. McMurray builder, purchased the twenty‑six lots in Ashby Manor from Inter‑Ocean in February, 1938. E.T. McMurray lived on Ashby Avenue, west of Beaver Avenue, and was a realtor prior to becoming one of Des Moines 1 most respected home builders. The Ashby Manor homes were among the first constructed by this company. Guy McDowell, a home designer, was employed by the builder to design these homes and his name appears on the surviving drawings, At the times of construction, the original plat was modified, adjusting the lot sizes. These adjustments are shown on the legal descriptions of properties. Occupancy of the houses, although exhibiting a relatively high turnover rate, was typical of similar developments. Two properties remain with the families of the original occupants. They are 4059 Ovid, the home of the Barquist family, and 4120 Ovid, the home of the Eide family.

The district has maintained a stable population of middle and upper‑middle class residents. As can been seen by an examination of occupations of the first residents they ranged from typical middle class positions such as sales personnel and teachers to upper middle class positions such as owners or partners of businesses. The stability of this neighborhood within a larger context of a stable area surrounding the district has contributed to the good state of architectural and landscape preservation. The relatively modest size of the houses has eliminated any subdivision of housing into apartments or rooming houses. Thus the neighborhood remains an enclave of single‑family houses maintained in good condition by their residents.

† David Arbogast, Architectural Conservator, Ashby Manor Historic District, 1991, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C., accessed December, 2020.

Street Names
40th Place • Ashby Avenue • Beaver Avenue • Ovid Avenue • Wallace Lane