Iowa Public Television


Get the Flash Player to see this player.

Terrace Hill, Des Moines, Iowa

Join Dan Kaercher as he takes a tour of Terrace Hill. Its home to the governor ... and its open for tours.

 It's often called Iowa's palace on the prairie.  It's home to the Governor and open to the public for tours. 

 Actually this is quite a cozy stairway for such a grand home.

 Yes, it is indeed.  These doors are I think about sixteen feet high.  Welcome.

 I've just stepped back in time and I'm in awe of the architecture, craftsmanship and sheer history of this 1869 house built by Iowa's first millionaire, B.F. Allen.  The house was later owned for many years by another Des Moines family, the Hubbells, before being donated to the state of Iowa in 1971.  The third floor is the official residence of the Governor.  The second floor includes guest bedrooms and offices.  The first floor is used for receptions and parties and can be toured by the public.  I'm getting a tour with docent John Zickefoose.

 Zickefoose: One of the highlights here at Terrace Hill is certainly the woodwork.  Not only the woodwork around the windows but also these enormous doors.  They are about fourteen feet high and they are solid walnut and they weigh about 400 pounds each. 

 Kaercher: The mirrors create quite an effect here.

 Zickefoose: They do actually.  This mirror lines up perfectly with the mirror on the west wall in the drawing room.  So when you're standing in the right position you get just mirror after mirror after mirror, like the hall of Versailles, the hall of mirrors in Versailles.

 Kaercher: Exactly. 

 Zickefoose: Let's go into the drawing room.  This would have been the most formal room in the house and it is the biggest room in the house.  And, of course, certainly one of the highlights of this room in addition to its size is this wonderful rock crystal chandelier.  This is something that the Hubbells added.  It is laid out in a style called the room at rest because the room isn't being used.  So all the furniture was pushed out to the walls so it could be then moved as they needed to for whatever event they were planning.

 Kaercher: Now, the architect of Terrace Hill used a number of visual tricks.  And you pointed out one of them in this room when it comes to the windows.

 Zickefoose: Yes, indeed.  On the outside of the house right here on the north facade there is a window.  But when we get in the room there is just a wall here.  And the story is that Mrs. Allen, the builder's wife, said to the architect, there's enough windows in the drawing room, I want a wall.  So they compromised and she got her wall here on this side and he got his window on the other.

 There's also an exterior window behind this large mirror.  Speaking of architecture, John points out the repetition of circles in the woodwork trim and doors, which mimic the architectural embellishments on the outside of the house.  This 18,000 square foot house has sixteen rooms so I don't get to all of them.  But I just had to see the dining room --

 -- where I was lucky enough to meet the Governor's chef.

 Kaercher: Sharon, what are you setting up for here today?

 Sharon VanVerth: This is set up for a state dinner.  This is Pickard china.  Most Governors’ mansions in the United States have a state seal china made by Pickard.  It is the same china that is used in the White House and Air Force One.  This is a domed silver service that we use for Victorian dinners because it is reminiscent of what they would use when they did table side service.

 Kaercher: Now, Sharon, tell me, how many dinners do you do here and for how many people?

 VanVerth: Usually about fifteen a month and we serve from 16 to 22 when we're in the dining room.

 Zickefoose: Certainly another highlight here at Terrace Hill is this wonderful stairway which leads up to this beautiful stained glass window.  There was a window here originally but it was just clear glass and looked out into the garden.  The window is nine feet wide and thirteen feet high.

 Kaercher: Oh my gosh, that's bigger than a typical room.  And what kind of wood is the staircase here?

 Zickefoose: Well, this is rosewood from Columbia.  You can tell that by the dark grain of the wood in the banister.

 Kaercher: Just beautiful.  What a grand staircase for making an entrance if you're entertaining.

 Zickefoose: It's terrific.  You can see something like 21 arches from this point.

 Kaercher: In such a historic home how do you integrate modern technology, John?

 Zickefoose: Well, one of the ways that it has been done here is you'll notice the ceiling rosettes have been slightly lowered.  Originally they would have been attached directly to the ceiling but they have been lowered to allow for the heating and air conditioning ventilation.

 As long as we're looking up, we asked to keep going upwards to a place not open to the public but one you may be curious about.  It's a climb up to the 90 foot tower which is part staircase and part ladder.

 Zickefoose: It was designed to go up this ladder and then up to the next level and then there are window seats up there at the windows and you were designed to stay there and look at the view and be there for a while and experience being this high in the air.

 And we learned that everyone who makes the climb to the top is invited to sign their name on the tower walls -- from politicians and their families, to an occasional TV crew.  There's so much to see here, from the Spanish pink marble fireplaces to a 1927 Grant Wood painting done before he settled on his more well known regionalism style. 

 On the quirky side, there's even a political skeleton in the Governor's closet.  This closet used to house a one person elevator.  The round windows in the door indicated the first floor.  The next floor up had rectangular windows in the door.  The grounds outside had a pool that has since been filled in.  A carriage house, a formal garden and a comfy porch atop a terraced landscape leading to a historic home on a hill.  Terrace Hill.


Post your photos to our "Iowa's Simple Pleasures" Flickr group. See ALL group photos.

Tags: Des Moines homes Iowa IowasSimplePleasures mansions Polk County relaxation Terrace Hill tourism travel


blog comments powered by Disqus

Comment Policy

Iowa Public Television encourages conversation and debate around issues, events and ideas related to program topics.

  • The editorial staff of Iowa Public Television reserves the right to take down comments it deems inappropriate.
  • Profanity, personal attacks, off-topic posts, advertisements and spam will not be tolerated.

Find out more about's privacy policy and terms of use.