Des Moines Register
Elbert: Designer comes to the rescue of old buildings in need
Kent Mauck picks out the properties in Des Moines and helps rejuvenate them
By DAVID ELBERT
DOWN TO BUSINESS
Des Moines designer Kent Mauck collects old buildings the way some people
collect rare books, with an appreciation for history and a desire to keep telling the
A friend once chided Mauck's affinity for empty, run-down buildings. "He said I
was only interested in buildings that had been in a fire or that had trees growing
through the roof," Mauck said.
His latest acquisition, a two-story building on High Street directly east of Principal
Financial Group's headquarters, is neither charred nor collapsing.
It is, however, a typical property for this atypical Des Moines developer.
The building at 623 High St. was once proclaimed by a Des Moines Register
columnist to be one of the ugliest buildings in downtown Des Moines. It was later
revived with an award-winning makeover by architect Cal Lewis in the early
1990s, but it is once again vacant.
Mauck bought the 16,000-square-foot building at what he says was a bargain
price of $500,000 two months ago from Regions Bank.
"He's always had a nose for things that no one else wants and is able to make
them into something by just believing in it," said architect Phil Hodgin of RDG
Planning & Design, a longtime collaborator and friend.
To understand Mauck's attraction for old buildings, it helps to know that he and
his wife, Sheila, collect a lot of things. It was Sheila Mauck who purchased the
historic Electric Stairs sign from the downtown Younkers store this month at a
price of $50.
Over the years, the Maucks have launched collections that blend historical and
personal significance. There are collections of antique microphones because he
once had a job in broadcasting, editorial cartoons because Mauck works in
publishing, and a collection of old signs because his formal training is as a
A native of Mount Pleasant, Kent Mauck graduated from the Kansas City Art
Institute in 1982 and went to work for Better Homes and Gardens magazine in
Des Moines before joining a Chicago firm where he helped design large-scale
museum and trade-show exhibits.
He was soon back in Des Moines, though, because he liked the size of the city
and saw unlimited design opportunity here.
"Kent dabbles in all kinds of things, but it's always with this creative eye," said
Carole Custer, director of university marketing for Iowa State University.
ISU is one of Mauck's largest clients. He's designed everything from invitations to
posters and magazines for the Ames school since the early 1990s.
"He can sit down with a diverse group of people who have different ideas about
something," Custer said. "He'll sit there, and it looks like he's just doodling. But
then, he'll hold up a sketch and say, 'Is this what you mean?' and quite often it
That ability to synthesize others' comments into a collaborative, creative vision
helped propel Mauck's design career in a variety of directions. He's worked with
educators, health care professionals, artists and architects in both professional
and volunteer capacities.
His resume of volunteer work is a who's who of downtown organizations that
includes the Des Moines Arts Festival, Downtown Community Alliance, Operation
Downtown, Downtown Events Group and the Greater Des Moines Partnership.
Longtime associations with several local architects helped steer him into real
Mauck worked closely with architects in the late 1980s and early '90s to design
leased loft space for his own firm before he saw a chance to become an owner in
Businesswoman Connie Wimer wanted to sell a two-story building on Third
Street, half a block north of Grand Avenue.
Mauck got a loan for 90 percent of the sale price from the Corporation for
Economic Development and bought his first commercial property. Architect Paul
Manning's renovation of the upper floor of that building won state and regional
architectural awards, which confirmed what Mauck already knew: He had an eye
for developing older properties.
It wasn't long before another opportunity appeared. The Kenyon Building at 301
Grand Ave., a location steeped in local automobile and advertising history, went
up for sale. The Kenyon Co. had been an early 20th-century manufacturer of
advertising specialty items. After World War II, the Third Street corner of the
building was redesigned to create a showroom for the Tucker automobile, an
innovative 1948 car that never got off the ground.
By the 1990s, though, the building's only purpose was for storing records. "I think
there was just one guy working there, keeping track of things," Mauck said.
The open space lent itself to a loft design, and Mauck showed the location to
friends at the architectural firm RDG, who agreed.
Mauck bought the property for $150,000 in 1999. He and RDG spent $2 million
over the next two years to renovate the 22,000 square feet into another award-
winning design. The building now serves as RDG's home.
More recently, Mauck purchased and renovated an adjacent building at 510 Third
St. That 1907 building has three stories and houses Mauck's office.
"When I started buying property down here," Mauck said, "I think there were only
three people working in all three of these buildings. Today, there's about 125."
The latest addition to his collection, the building at 623 High St., was home to
Polk County Federal Savings and Loan for more than 50 years until the late
1980s, when the savings and loan was sold. At that time, the building looked like
something out of New Orleans' French Quarter with green shutters on a yellow
A later owner, MidAmerica Savings Bank, hired Lewis to put a new facade on the
building, which remains in place today.
Mauck isn't sure yet what he'll do with the building.
His first thought is to lease the ground floor to a bank. That's what it's designed
for, and there's still a drive-up window, he said.
The upstairs, which has been vacant for years, could be remodeled into
apartments or office space.
Whatever he decides should be good.
Business Editor David Elbert can be reached at (515) 284-8533 or