Creating the Iowa State Fair Barns and Livestock Pavilion

Our Great State Fair | Clip
Aug 1, 2023 | 2 min

Like many of the original buildings at the fair, the livestock barns were timber structures. Post World War I, fair organizers saw the need to replace the deteriorating wood barns with more permanent structures.


[Thomas Leslie, Architect and Historian] So, the fair organizers realized that they basically had to up their game and they first paved the streets, which was a huge improvement. 

(Six white, wood-frame barns stand adjacent to the race track)

They also realized that the barns themselves had to go from being something that was temporary and just agricultural into something that was more permanent, more monumental and that reflected the fact that even though this was an agricultural event it was taking place in Iowa's largest city. The barns are mostly symmetrical, they are formal. When you walk into them you might feel a little bit like you're walking into a county courthouse or something. Once you go inside the barns, they are all ventilation and light, they are all built with fairly cheap metal roofing and structure, but the skin around the barns is brick and terracotta. The names of the barns are etched in limestone, a much more formal language of architecture, and one that really relates more to the fact that this is in Des Moines, it is in the biggest city in Iowa and it is an urban event. And that really helped take the fair from this collection of shacks on a muddy site into something that we recognize almost as an extension of the Des Moines street grid.

[Narrator] The Livestock Pavilion was the first example of this new standard of architecture on the fairgrounds.

[Thomas Leslie] It's an arena. It's a place where you're watching competition and it's some of the best entertainment at the fair. I think that is part of the logic behind the Livestock Pavilion, that the fair did go from something that was very much about farmers comparing notes to something that people came to see, that became more of a spectacle.