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Olmsted Center (Built 1973)

Originally submitted by: Jared Netley, Drake University, Nov, 25, 2010

Olmsted from the Outside- Looking North/East from GK-Photo by Jared Netley

Basic Information

Olmsted is a 66,000 square foot building located on the west side of Drake's campus. The building cost $4.1 million to build. [1] Olmsted was designed to be a multi-purpose building to hold educational and social events. Olmsted features the Bulldog Theatre, a game area with pool tables and originally hockey tables and pinball machines. The building also features Parents Hall, located in the top of the building that can hold 1,000 people for social events and a cafeteria in the basement. Before renovations took place, the building offered a television room, a music room, and a bar. [2]

The Namesake

General George H Olmsted (1973)-Photo by Drake University

Olmsted Center is named for General George H. Olmsted. General Olmsted grew up in West Des Moines, Iowa and went to school at Iowa State University for a short period of time, but transferred to West Point. He graduated in 1922 after being the president of his class for three years. He returned back to Des Moines, and started working with his father at an insurance company. He married his high school sweetheart, Virginia, and opened his own business, Olmsted Inc. Agency. During WWII Olmsted worked for the United States' Army, working for the Lend Lease program in aiding other countries with goods for the war and later for the Office of Strategic Services by helping free American soldiers from Japanese POW camps. Olmsted received many awards and honors for helping in the war efforts, including the Distinguished Service Medal. Olmsted also owned parts of the International Bank of Washington and served as a board member on many insurance companies and security companies. General Olmsted believed in improving the quality of higher education and was on Drake University's Board of Trustees. The Olmsted's gave Drake University $2 million to build the student union. [3]

[[File:Olmstead_1980[1].jpeg|297x231px|right|thumb|Olmsted Facing South West (Contributed by Mr. Chuck Hinkle, BA '82)]]

Architecture and Design

The building was designed by Harry Weese and Associates, a company out of Chicago, Ill. The build was designed to be functional. The designers created multiple entries on the first floor so students could easily access the building. The building's design was built to reflect an enclosed mall with a club scene as the building's decor. The buildings outside has rounded edge and round windows to help provide the modern club appearance. Some say the building looks like a bulldog when looking at it from the west. The lower terrace looks like the bulldogs lip and the rounded windows look like eyes. [4]

Cafe and Sitting Area-Main Floor-East Side-Photo by Jared Netley

Construction Process

Construction for the Olmsted Center started June 1972 and was scheduled to be finished December 31 of the same year. However, the project was delayed by multiple issues that pushed backed back the opening until April 1973. Major problems arose when strikes at American Standard shut down productions for fixtures that were ordered for the building. The strike took place is the summer and was settled by August 9th, but the kilns had to be reheated, a process that takes eight months, which was holding up and productions until the first week in October. Another problem that arose was a shortage of insulation and roofing materials. The lack of insulation held up building the walls and interior work, which postponed other projects and had to delay the delivery of food equipment and furniture. The building finally opened for use in April, just days before the Drake Relays, which planned to use multiple rooms in the building. The only area not finished in time for the relays was the Bulldog Theatre in the basement, which was finished in the fall. [4]

Cafeteria-Lower Level-Facing North-Photo by Jared Netley


Olmsted Center's 66,000 sq. feet offered a variety of social spaces for students and staff. The basement of Olmsted featured a cafeteria that connected to the terrace outside. The cafeteria served three meals a day and could hold more than 4oo students at a time. The Rathskellar, a bar, was located in the basement and served beer, pop, pizza and deli items. The bar offered coffeehouse concerts throughout the year. The basement also includes the Bulldog Theatre, a 250 seat area planned for lectures and movies, and ten private dining rooms for small group and studying. [5]

The main level offered students a game room with pool, pinball, and air hockey tables. A music room was built and included an 8-track tape player that could play 16 hours of music with just a touch of a button. 12 track tapes were purchased; one for each month of the year. A Television room was also available for students and included two color TVs and seating. The main level office also featured areas for student offices and offices of the university. Lastly, The D-Store provided students a place to buy magazines, cigarettes, pipes, cards, school supplies, clothing and snacks. [6]

The third level featured Parents Hall, a spacious room that could hold dances, lectures, and conference for off-campus organizations. The upper floor also offered another banquette room and a mezzanine that over-looked the campus. Dinning services could be provided to events upstairs through elevators that could transport food from the basement to the top floor. [5]

Computers for Students-Main Level-Photo by Jared Netley

Olmsted Today

Today Olmsted still offers student a place to hang out and study at seating areas. Dart boards and pool tables are available for students to use. The D-Store still provides students with a place to purchase clothing, some school items, and miscellaneous items. The cafeteria in the basement still offers students a place to dine and study, but only serves lunch. Bulldog Theatre is available for events and shows movies and special TV events on occasion. The bar in the basement was removed and replaced with offices. The TV room and music room were replaced by student government offices. Computers were added for student and visitor use. A cafe was added on the main level and provides coffee and deli items. The Pomerantz stage holds events such as concerts, comedians, and speakers.

Olmsted Upset

Designer Sketches-1972-Drawing by Weese and Associates

After Olmsted opened in April, Parent's Hall became a popular meeting ground for area business to hold conferences as well as local organizations. Reservations had to be made in advance to use Parent Hall. The catering service out of Olmsted also provided the building with food as well as catering at local venues around Des Moines. The building and catering service provided cheap services because it was based out of a private college, so it didn't have to pay taxes. Many local catering companies in the area protested that they weren't playing on the same level since the college could out bid most of the competition. Local hotels also reported a loss of business in their conference rooms. [7] Letters to the editors were sent to the school paper. Drake's response to the paper was to limit the catering only to on-campus events and limited how many organizations could rent the hall. Since Olmsted has no educational benefit to the school, it has its own account to pay for upkeep and goods. With a lack of money, Olmsted had to find other ways to pay for the cost of the building. [8]

Artwork in Olmsted

"Allee" by Stuart Davis-Located on the Upper Level-Photo by Jared Netley

Located on the upper level of Olmsted Center, Allee, is a rare mural painted by Stuart Davis. The 8-by-33 foot painting is worth approximately $2.5 million. The Cowles Foundation commissioned Davis to paint the mural as a gift to the school in 1945. The painting, made up of geometric shapes, angles, and colors has been loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The mural is waiting funding to move to the lower level of Olmsted after funding is raised to get a glass case and plaque for it. [9]

For More Information


  • [1] Plavac, M. (1973, April 24). Olmsted to open in June. The Times Delphic. 1.
  • [2] Thompson, W. (1976, April 12). Olmsted discussed. The Times Delphic. 4.
  • [3] George Olmsted's Biography. (n.d.) Retrieved September 15, 2010 from The George and Carol Olmsted Foundation Web site: www.olmstedfoundation.org/olmsted/web/index.cfm?view=vwAboutUs&entID=29
  • [4] Plavac, M. (1973, April 24). Olmsted to open in June. The Times Delphic. 1.
  • [5] Janssen, H. (1973, October 9). Olmsted Center work far behind schedule. The Times Delphic. 1.
  • [6] Drake University. (1974). Board of Trustees Recognition Dinner in honor of General George H. Olmsted. [Brochure]. Des Moines, IA. Author.
  • [7] Thompson, W. (1976, April 12). Olmsted discussed. The Times Delphic. 4.
  • [8] Norman, J. (1978, October 31). Olmsted business limited. The Times Delphic 1.
  • [9] Strenge, R. (2004, February 12). Rare mural to be moved to student union. The Times Delphic. 5.