Terrace Hill Pool To Return

Nov 19, 2015

Plans are underway to recover a part of Iowa's lost history buried next to the governor’s mansion in Des Moines, known as Terrace Hill. Administrators are preparing to exhume the old swimming pool which was built long before Iowa's first families moved in. 

Several thousand visitors tour the Victorian mansion every year. Among the sightseers this fall was a group of students from Runnells, with a volunteer guide pointing out the highlights.

"Okay, this is the moose. We call him Fred. Now that’s a big moose isn't it?"

Third graders were amused by the giant moose head looming over the grand staircase, but in the 1920's, the novelty was an exclusive outdoor swimming pool installed by Grover Hubbell, son of pioneer businessman Frederick M. Hubbell, who purchased the home from the original owner. Terrace Hill historian John Zickefoose says a lot was going on at the house at the time.

The pool looking down from the mansion's east porch.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

"At that time Grover was making several changes in the house as well, that’s when the lights were converted from gas lights to electricity and so they put in swimming pool which we believe was the first private swimming pool in Des Moines."

Stone ruins of the old pool house stand next to the now-buried pool. The pool was filled in about the time the mansion was donated to the State of Iowa in 1971. Its outline is all that’s visible.  Instead of water, it is covered with grass. Administrator Diane Becker says the relic will be revamped as a reflecting pool.

"We don’t want a full blown swimming pool, but at least it’s more that it brings back the atmosphere, the ambience of what was here when the Hubbell’s lived here and when they built the home."

The original stairway that swimmers used to descend to the pool.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

Swimmers have not descended the steep stairs from the mansion since the '50s, when the pool was drained for safety reasons. Outsiders used to climb over the fence to cool down before air conditioning was common. According to Becker, the attraction has to be respected since Terrace Hill is on the list of National Historic Places.

"We'll use the existing outline of the pool and actually the cement coves and gutters are there and they’re going to try to reuse those," he says.

Black and white photos from the '20s and '30s show pool parties with ladies wearing modest, one-piece bathing suits. James Windsor the Third jumped in as a young boy when visiting his grandparents.

Grover Hubbell, son of F.M. Hubbell, had the pool built in the 1920's.
Credit John Pemble / Terrace Hill

"Some of the grandchildren and some of the friends of the grand children would get in there and skinny dip at night," he says.

Now 82, Windsor was a grandson of Grover Hubbell.

"Grover's bedroom was on the second floor, and  they were skinny dipping and all of a sudden he would wait till he heard a lot of noise then he would flip the lights on which were flood lights which came down, and boy they’d scatter everywhere," Windsor says.

Private donations will cover the cost of the shallow reflecting pool. A possible phase two restoration would address the deteriorating pool house.

Heavy logs that bridged the stone columns above the pool house are now gone, but they still have the original copper lanterns that illuminated privileged guests enjoying this rare symbol of prosperity; a private swimming pool. Historian John Zickefoose wonders what other secrets may surface once the pool is unearthed.

A 1937 poolside photo of unidentified ladies.
Credit John Pemble / Terrace Hill

"Since I've never seen it with water in it I think it would be lovely on a sunny day to see the rippling of the water on the ceilings of the rooms here on the east side of the house."

If all goes according to plan, sometime next summer tour groups will see water in the pool for the first time ever, just as it looked more than 80 years ago. Officials are hoping to make a big splash in July when the nation’s governors gather at Terrace Hill during their national conference in Des Moines. 

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