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Construction of the first three stories of Des Moines' Flynn-Griffin Building was completed in 1885, and the top three stories were added in 1906. The building was the site of a significant civil rights protest and is also significant for its association with entrepreneur Martin Flynn. Flynn's wealth came through finance, and his bank served as the building's main occupant for decades. As a result, the structure became known as "Flynn's Block," and its combination of office spaces and retail outlets on the first floor proved highly influential in the development of Des Moines' commercial success. In 1930, the bank left, and Katz Drug Store moved into the first floor. Although the state of Iowa passed civil rights laws in the late 19th century, they were largely ignored. In 1948, civil rights activist Edna Griffin and her friends sat down at the white-only Katz counter and requested service. They were denied, and Griffin sued the company for violating the law. The incident eventually resulted in Katz ending their policy of racial discrimination after the authorities and courts continually ruled to uphold the state civil rights law thanks to the perseverance of Edna Griffin and other African Americans. The building today functions as an apartment complex, and a new drug store is planning to occupy the lower level of the building.

  • 2016 Photo of the Flynn-Griffin Building in Des Moines.
  • Civil Rights protesters outside of Katz Department Story
  • Undated photo of Edna Griffin

The Flynn–Griffin Building also goes by many other names, including the Flynn Block, Peoples' Savings Bank Building, and the Edna M. Griffin Building. The building enjoys significance for its long connection to commerce in Des Moines and its association with a significant Civil Rights event in 1948. Edna Griffin, an outspoken African American woman, and her friends, definitely entered the whites-only Katz Drug Store on the building's first floor to buy ice cream and sodas.

The erection of the structure occurred in two stages, with the first three floors finished by 1885 and the top three floors completed in 1906. The first portion of the Flynn-Griffin building name is tied to Martin Flynn, a successful entrepreneur who gained wealth in the cattle and railroad industries before getting into banking. He worked as part of a group that created Peoples' Savings Bank, and its success led to the creation of the historic six-story building. The bank occupied the northwest corner of the building through 1905 when its success, coupled with the city's growth and prosperity resulted in the expansion and remodeling of the building in 1906. The Peoples' Savings Bank assumed a much larger space in the newly renovated building, and the exterior and interior spaces were modified to reflect the bank's rising status. 

The "Flynn Block" as it was known during the nineteenth century because of its city-block-sized width stood at the edge of the quickly growing commercial district of Des Moines. Stores that occupied the first floor included dry goods and clothing stores, as well as several department stores. Des Moines also served as an influential marketplace for the insurance industry by the heart of the Industrial Revolution. Numerous insurance companies maintained offices on the upper floors, such as Prudential, Aetna, National Life Insurance Co., Mutual Fire Insurance Co., and Equitable Life Insurance Co.

In 1930, after the bank departed, the Katz Drug Store moved into the first floor, and it would later serve as the home to one of the states, if not the nation's most notorious civil rights movement incidents. Despite laws against racial segregation in Iowa, it existed in practice. In 1948 Edna Griffin, with her infant daughter Phyllis, John Bibbs, and Leonard Hudson sat at the whites-only lunch counter at Katz's and ordered ice cream. The store refused to serve them, stating that they were "not equipped" to serve Negros. The authorities charged Katz of violating the state's civil rights law. The store appealed their conviction but the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the decision in 1949. The decision was significant as other businesses in Des Moines ended their sometimes unstated policy of only serving white customers in response. 

Griffen continued to be an activist into her senior years as demonstrated by her arrest at an army base near Omaha, Nebraska, where, as a 75-year old grandmother, Griffin sat in the middle of the highway to stop nuclear warheads from being shipped to the base. Among her many awards and honors, Griffin was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 1985 and into the Iowa African Americans' Hall of Fame in 1998, honors representative of her significance in the history of Iowa. 

Brigham, Johnson. Des Moines: The Pioneer of Municipal Progress And Reform of the Middle West, Together With the History of Polk County, Iowa, the Largest, Most Populous And Most Prosperous County In the State of Iowa. Chicago: The S. J. Clarke publishing company, 1911.

Lawrence, Noah. “Since it is my right, I would like to have it: Edna Griffin and the Katz Drug Store Desegregation Movement.” The Annals of Iowa, Third Series, Vol. 67, No. 4, Fall 2008. 

McDowell, Alexa. "Nomination Form: Flynn Building." National Register of Historic Places. May 3, 2016.

Image Sources(Click to expand)

By Alexa McDowell - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Iowa Women's Archives at the University of Iowa Librarie

Iowa Women's Archives at the University of Iowa Librarie