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History of Wesley Acres

History of Wesley Acres

An historical timeline of the development of Wesley Acres, from 1947 through 2006, was prepared by Gladys Austin Bloodworth, a resident and historian for Wesley Acres. WesleyLife is grateful for her efforts in documenting the rich history of the organization. 

First residents

Dining Hall

Original Dining Hall at Wesley Acres

Wesley Acres Home

1947 Marketing Photo 

West Chester or the D.S. Chamberlain Home, located at 3520 Grand Avenue in Des Moines and part of the Wesley Acres campus, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, receiving its designation in January 19, 1984.


West ChesterWest Chester is an excellent example of the Jacobethan Revival in Des Moines. As such it exemplifies the influence of Richard Shaw and predates other local examples of this style in the city. The house was designed by Boston architect William George Rantoul. The central mass of West Chester house consists of a long rectangle on plan (95' by 68') with a square side wing, which thrusts diagonally forward to the east or left hand side. The two-story house is oriented to the north, and presents a series of five gables and dormers on its main facade, which are individually treated with contrasting wall surfaces, window treatments and different half timber effects. The east half of this facade, including two gabled fronts (one of which features an interior end chimney, the other a pavilioned front with stone coping) are fully veneered with reddish-brown Flemish bond brick with darker vitrified stretcher bricks. The remainder of the main facade combines the same brick surface on the first floor with half timbered bays and dormers above. Window treatment varies on the main facade and includes a wide range of varied pane shapes and surrounds. The house has three massive chimneys, two on each side of the east end and one on the west end wall are treated differently. One is in-wall, topped with three chimney pots, another is partially projecting with clustered diagonally set flues. The rear chimney has similar multiple flues set diagonally and is in-wall. The stone foundation projects four inches beyond the wall plane and is joined to that plane by a course of molded brick. The rear or south side of the house consists of two gabled wings, executed in similar half timber style with stucco infil, and a series of shed-roofed dormers which are stepped up the roof line. A balcony porch, which covers part of a rear piazza area has been enclosed and the balcony removed.

The house is styled after the half timbered homes of Chester, England, but does not appear to have attempted to use any single house as a model. The main front entrance consists of a porch with Tudor arch, surmounted by a gabled bay with ornately carved eaves. An entry addition at that point dates from 195^ and is the only point of actual contact between the house and the newer complex which surrounds the house on three sides. The Jacobethan Revival characteristics possessed by this house include gables which rise above the ridged roofline, and tall chimneys with separate shafts for each flue, which are often diagonally clustered. Richard Norman Shaw was an architect who during the l860s popularized the combination of the two storied stucco paneled, half timber with these same attributes. Shaw favored combining the entrance hall with a fireplace and stairway and this combination which was a precursor to the open plan concept is found in this house. The house interior was somewhat transformed during the 1949 conversion, most notably the two-story open living room was eliminated. A small vestibule opened to a small living room with end fireplace and open stairway with a ninety degree turn. The large formal living room in the west end has an end fireplace. The rear chimney serves both a corner fireplace in the dining room and one in the entrance hall or small living room. The original oak woodwork and staircase survive downstairs. The second floor was greatly altered in 1949. In that year, the house was converted for use as a home for the aged.

Fire escapes were added on the south side, with some loss of third story windows. A connecting door was added on the southwest corner, replacing a window. The house is located nearly 300 feet south of Grand Avenue, a major thoroughfare and formerly the location of many major area residences. Originally part of a much larger estate, only the front yard and a part of the original approach drive survive, the remainder of the property being occupied by more recent expansion and construction. The original vista is preserved, and surviving landscape plantings largely screen the newer buildings. Approximately 25 feet of the back yard survives behind the house. Originally the back yard included the lodge house, and a five-car garage, both of which stood along the east side of the property on the other side of a 6 foot retaining wall, which began at the southeast corner of the house and ran due south across the rear yard. Formal gardens and a patio area were terminated by a curved pergola-arbor. These features are non-extant.

Of particular interest is the architect-designed cooling system, possibly the first effort of its kind by Rantoul. Consisting of a 40-inch wide tunnel running lengthwise below the basement floor, with opposing right-angle end tunnels, access tunnels provided fresh air. Convection currents drew cooler air into the house through 10-foot wide ducts, which connected the tunnel and first floor. T The original roof surface (wood shingles) was replaced and the cornice work and half-timber were restored by eliminating a dry rot problem. Further construction on the property will not encroach on the property.

Statement of Significance

West Chester house is an excellent example of the Jacobethan Revival in Des Moines. As such it exemplifies the influence of Richard Shaw and predates other local examples of the style by a quarter of a century. The house was designed by the Boston architect William George Rantoul.

David S. Chamberlain (1848-1933) relocated his family firm, Chamberlain and Company, a patent medicine business, to Des Moines in 1881. The firm in 1892 became the Chamberlain Medicine Company. The 1900 expansion of this firm paralleled the construction of this family house. By 1928 this firm was one of the five largest pharmaceutical and toiletry manufacturing firms in the nation (it is interesting to note that all five firms were owned and operated by lowans). The company had a worldwide trade and was in 1930 the medical part of the firm was sold by the family. Locally, Chamberlain was honored for his securing the establishment of the Scottish Rite Consistory in the city (N H R, 9-9-83) and served as executive chairman of Iowa's Belgian Relief Association. In 1903 he built the Chamberlain Hotel, the first fireproof hotel in the state (non-extant).

Chamberlain bottles

Chamberlain resided in a single story farmhouse or lodge on this property during the construction of this house in the years 1901-03. The architect's rendering has a notation on its frame which states "Started 1898-finished or moved in in 1904." William George Rantoul (1866-1949) was the Boston architect who designed the house. The architect's rendering also appeared in American Architect (Vol. 80, May 2, 1903) titled "A House In Iowa." The original plan was, with only a few minor exceptions, faithfully executed. The 1901 Sanborn Fire Insurance map shows the dwelling with most of its porch elements in place. Chamberlain occupied the house along with his wife Lydia (died 1922) and sister Izanna Chamberlain. The house, library and interior were featured in The Midwestern Magazine in 1907. The lodge house and a five-car garage remained on the property and housed Chamberlain's various trophies from his world wide travels. The house library was cited for its many rare and antique volumes. In 1949, the house was sold and converted for use as a home for the aged. The architectural firm Kratech and Kratech planned the work. Subsequent additions on the rear of the property have not compromised the house's integrity and the original approach is not disturbed.

William George Rantoul designed two similar houses prior to taking on the commission for Chamberlain in Des Moines. These included one for C. S. Roberts in Cambridge, and one for F. S. Moseley, at Beverly Farms. It is possible that Chamberlain saw these houses as published in the American Architect and American Architect and Builder, where they were published in 1896 and 1897. Chamberlain had also commissioned a Chicago architect to design a house prior to selecting Rantoul, so Chamberlain was shopping around. Rantoul appears to have favored this commission above his other works since the complete plans and tear sheets from The Brick Builder (December 1903) and The American Architect (May 1903) of this house are found in his papers at Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts.

For a plot plan, geographical data and bibliography, see the approved National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form, dated Jan. 19, 1984. 

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