Our old newspaper building now is luxury lofts, but we still love it like a family farm – DesMoinesRegister.com
Former editors David and Randy Witke tour the newly revamped Register and Tribune building, which is being turned into the R&T Lofts.
Brian Powers/The Register
The central staircase turned out to be the real nostalgia trip.
As I shuffled up and down the steps at the heart of the old Register & Tribune building, alongside both current and former colleagues in journalism, it might as well have been 20 years ago when this landmark still rumbled with the full churn of the newspaper presses in the basement. The simple act of climbing those same worn stairs flung me back in time.
But the presses in 2000 were replaced by a new production facility on the south side of the city. And then nearly four years ago we journalists and the rest of our business operation scooted a few blocks down the street to our cozier modern digs in Capital Square.
Since then, what has happened to 715 Locust Street (now 717 Locust) is emblematic of downtown Des Moines, urban centers nationwide and the newspaper industry in general: What once was its own 13 ½-story mechanical media ecosystem has given way to upscale urban living.
Journalists in the digital age don’t need to be so tethered to our newsrooms. And the production side of our business now has more to do with the massive Facebook and Amazon data centers sprouting in suburbs nationwide rather than downtown factories that slap ink on dead trees. So as journalists have fled prime real estate in rejuvenated downtowns, the loft dwellers have flocked to replace us.
Thus the Register & Tribune building, with a $40 million conversion by Indianapolis-based TWG Development, is being transformed into R&T Lofts as part of a boom in downtown rentals. The owners provided a sneak peek Thursday catering to the curiosity of jaded newspaper alumni. Thanks to the preservation requirements of historic tax credits, key features such as the central staircase, terrazzo floors, revolving doors and exterior facade remained visible to jog our memories.
Because this is Iowa, I don’t need to go to great lengths to explain my sentiment for the place, right? Part of our shared heritage here in farm country is how we bond with the land. Generations of toil on family farms routinely makes grown men and women weep. Same goes for this address where so many fought daily battles on behalf of the First Amendment — in the pages of the morning Register as well as the evening Tribune that shut down in 1982.
From the lobby you still can peer up the center shaft of the staircase all the way to the top floor. That’s an apt embedded architectural metaphor for journalism itself: We’re supposed to provide a clear view from the ground up to the highest levels of power and influence.
TWG caught wind of The Register building because it already had worked with our parent company to purchase (and in this case raze) the Indianapolis Star’s former headquarters.
HISTORY:More on the Register’s history
Goodbye, globe, and Hello, Marjorie
Nearly a century ago when The Register building opened it was home not only to the newspaper but to insurance offices, attorneys, a theater chain and a cigar store.
Headlines that summer of 1918 featured news of the “Huns” (Germans) in World War I as well as titillating serialized stories such as “My Life in the Harem of Abdul Hamid.”
The Court Avenue Bridge — supposedly “the widest bridge in the United States” — opened the same summer, and the Hotel Savery was under construction.
Here in the building where we wrote the stories that put people to sleep, I joked to my colleagues, now people actually will sleep.
But in all seriousness the place still felt like a shrine. The ground floor lobby once dominated by the giant globe — now on display at the State Historical Society — has become a bar called Hello, Marjorie that opens April 20.
The bar was named after co-owner Nick Tillinghast’s grandmother, from Latimer, Iowa. Some of the décor is far-flung, such as pink mod furniture procured from a doctor’s office in Miami. But Tillinghast as a onetime aspiring sports journalist has genuine affection for the building’s old mission; he once shadowed former Register sports columnist Sean Keeler.
The drink menu features a cocktail called an “Editor’s Note” and even a “Register & Tribune.”
Similarly, the 164 lofts under construction have been given cute newsy names such as “Above the Fold” or “Scoop.” Monthly rent ranges from just under $1,000 to $2,300 for the two-story units — not exactly priced for the average journalist’s budget, some of us wryly observed.
The tower units are expected to be finished by mid-May, the rest in June.
The building’s first resident may turn out to be a guy who’s interested in 1101 because he’s a devotee of legendary editorial cartoonist (and environmentalist) J.N.“Ding” Darling who worked on that floor.
Jerry Dickison, the construction supervisor, has overseen big projects around the globe. So while he’s unfazed by developing lofts, he pointed out some of the unique challenges of converting a mishmash structure that had been pieced together in seven different phases.
One hurdle was apparent when stepping onto the fourth floor: What had been the newsroom has been sliced into narrow lofts with windows facing west. But there’s also a strangely wide interior hall that will function more like a lounge — made necessary by the several steps’ difference between the newsroom floor and the editor’s and managing editor’s offices so that space had to be left for a disability-friendly ramp.
Our opinion editor, Lynn Hicks, claimed that a toilet has replaced what had been his desk. (I won’t take a cheap shot.) My former spot might be a kitchen counter — perhaps the garbage disposal.
I toured most of the building with the Witke brothers, David and Randy, who both spent more than 40 years here as linchpins of the news operation.
David, a managing editor among his variety of other roles, mostly occupied the fourth floor but also at various times had an office in the basement or on 10. He remembered the “very gentle messaging rumble” that shook the building each time the presses were switched on. Sometimes the first indication was a cigarette jiggling while balanced on the rim of an ashtray.
I stood with the Witkes in the empty, cavernous basement where the presses once roared. Business schemes such as a concert venue, hipster bowling alley and brewery have been considered for the space, but it has yet to find a suitor.
The whirring presses often were spectator sport to kids and even some adults who flocked downtown to watch the ritual printing. Some of the veteran journalists remembered how flashers would line up along the large plate-glass windows on the sidewalk and try to distract the pressmen at work.
Even if all 164 of these lofts quickly fill to capacity, I’m unsure that what transpires in the next century can hope to be as colorful as the stories that already have played out here, or have been handcrafted here.
I’m just glad that the former journalism farm still will be around to give it a shot, with the sorts of posh accommodations and fancy cocktails we ink-stained wretches never had.
Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See more of his columns and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/KyleMunson. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@KyleMunson).
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