Developer transforms historic southside Des Moines landmark

KCCI — A $40 million renovation has transformed a historic southside landmark. The 100-year-old Fort Des Moines military complex is now home to 142 low-income apartments.

The Fort Des Moines is next to the Blank Park Zoo on the south side. For decades, it was an abandoned eyesore, full of rundown buildings. Then Blackbird Investments came to the rescue.

The brand new Fort Des Moines two-bedroom apartment is actually inside a century-old military horse barn. It’s new on the inside, but it still maintains the original brick structure on the outside.

“Everything that we could to maintain that historic look is as is,” said Rachel Wegmann, with Blackbird Investments.

Wegmann gave KCCI the first look at the most unusual southside housing project in decades. The company bought the century-old Fort Des Moines complex four years ago when it was in terrible shape, rundown and falling apart.

“It was an eyesore for the southside,” Wegmann said.

But Blackbird Investments could imagine a diamond in the rough. First, there is the history. The Fort Des Moines was home to the nation’s first African-American officer training school in 1917 and the first Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, or WAAC, during World War II.

And then there’s the need for low-income housing in the metro. Thanks to a mix of federal and state tax credits, Blackbird was able to create 142 units in 10 historic buildings.

“We wanted to make sure people did remember that cool history, so when you come in here, you’re going to see those exposed beams. You’re going to see the open equestrian windows. We didn’t want to take away that history,” Wegmann said.

Across the street, KCCI toured more units that occupy a former army barracks. Some walls are new, but much of the wood flooring, stairways and brickwork are original. It’s a new life for a very old Des Moines landmark.

“When people come in here to do a tour and we tell them that this used to be the former equestrian stable for the cavalry to store their horses, they get a little shocked,” Wegmann said.

The income restriction for the Fort Des Moines apartments is around $38,000. One-bedroom apartments go for $750 a month and two-bedroom apartments are $895.