The Governor’s Mansion: Terrace Hill

Perhaps the most well-known historical site excavated by the Luther College Archaeological Research Center is the gardens at Terrace Hill, a 19th century mansion which now serves as the residence of Iowa’s governors. Constructed between 1866 and 1869 by Iowa businessman B. F. Allen, the palatial residence was an imposing site on the landscape of early Des Moines, standing almost 90 feet high and constructed with 15-foot ceilings, twelve-foot arched doorways, and custom made furniture, mirrors, carpets, statues, and more.

As B.F. Allen’s fortune waned in the last quarter of the 19th century, he no longer had the funds to hold onto his “Prairie Palace”, and sold it to fellow businessman Frederick M. Hubbell. After Hubbell's death in 1930, Terrace Hill was held in trust by his family. In 1957, none of the Hubbell heirs wished to live at Terrace Hill, and for 15 years the house stood empty. As the Hubbells sought to find an occupant for their home, it became clear that the only suitable owner of the property was the state of Iowa. Coupled with the fact that Iowa’s national and international profile was rising and the then governor’s residence was becoming inadequate, the state of Iowa accepted the donation of Terrace Hill from the Hubbell trust. As the state gained ownership, questions started to rise as to what improvements should be made to the house. Should it be modernized or restored to its original look? Should the governor live in the entire house, or should part be turned into a museum? It was eventually settled that the third floor be converted into a residence for the governor, the second floor into a conference and office area, while the first floor and the grounds should be restored to their original state.

It was towards the goal of restoration that Luther College was called in to excavate at Terrace Hill. In 1981, under the direction of Dale Henning, a group of Luther students dug on the grounds of Terrace Hill in order to ascertain the exact location and dimensions of the 19th-century garden. Their secondary goals included determining the age and location of the greenhouse known to have existed, as well as identifying any other features present in the garden. Through both excavations and soil probing, they were able to locate the greenhouse and the shape of the garden, as well as identify a few independent structures, one of which may have housed a boiler to heat the greenhouse. Artifacts collected at the site include large panes of glass, verifying the presence and location of the greenhouse, and a few pieces of fine garden art, relaying the wealth of the site. Having succeeded with their stated goals, the excavations of Luther College students allowed the garden to be reconstructed and restored to reflect how the garden appeared in the 1860’s.

More information about the history of Terrace Hill can be found in the Winter 1979 issue of The Iowan, or by visiting the Terrace Hill website.