The construction of Terrace Hill began in 1866 at the height of B.F. Allen’s fortune. In October 1866, a local newspaper announced the employment of workers to prepare a 29-acre site for Allen’s new home. It described “a country residence in modern French design with a mansard roof.” Another early newspaper source referred to a “fairy-land castle with towers and turrets.” The 29-acre site began at approximately 17th Street on the east, running west to 29th Street. The Raccoon River was the southern border and present-day Grand Avenue was the northern border. Allen selected Chicago architect William W. Boyington to design Terrace Hill. Additionally, Job T. Elletson, a landscape gardener from England, was hired to design the grass-plats, flower banks, vineyards, and orchards with graveled walks and drives throughout.
Terrace Hill's Architect: William W. Boyington
William W. Boyington, born on July 22, 1818, in Massachusetts, trained first as a carpenter, then as an architect and engineer. Boyington is generally credited as one of Chicago’s earliest professional architects. The early part of the 19th century saw the rise of the academically-trained, professional architect, and he was one of several who were instrumental in developing architecture as a unique profession.
Professionally, Boyington varied his designs from modest cottages to elaborate office and commercial buildings. He was one of the few prominent architects in Chicago before the disastrous Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The Chicago Water Tower (1869) is a rare survivor that still stands today. Terrace Hill is one of the three important residential Second Empire designs that Boyington created outside of Chicago during this period. The others are the General Dodge House in Council Bluffs, Iowa (1869) and the Hegeler-Carus mansion in La Salle, Illinois (1874).
At one time there were four of Boyington’s buildings in Des Moines: the Old Armory (present site of the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates), an early building for the Des Moines Register, the Second Ward School building (present site of the Des Moines Social Club), and an early building for the parish of Central Presbyterian Church, which stood at the corner of 8th and High Streets.
Boyington died on October 16, 1898, at the age of 80 and is buried at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago. The gate he designed for the cemetery still stands at the main entrance. His obituary, published in the November 1898, issue of the Inland Architect reported, “The statement he is said to have once made, that if all the buildings he had planned were placed in a row, they would reach from Chicago to Highland Park, a distance of about 25 miles, was probably no exaggeration.”
The French Second Empire Style
Boyington did not possess a distinct personal style as an architect. He supplied his clients with fashionable designs and was especially fond of the French Second Empire Style. Boyington’s plans for Terrace Hill were completed in the spring of 1867. An April 1867 account in the Iowa State Register promised, “B.F. Allen’s residence will be built and his grounds fitted up immediately.” Allen’s villa would sit on a terraced site 400 feet off the road. The plans also included a carriage house, an ice house, and a self-regulating windmill to pump water from the Raccoon River.
Once completed in 1869, Terrace Hill’s floor plan was nearly the same on all four levels. The third floor housed the live-in staff with their rooms accessed from the large central hall. The basement contained the kitchen, laundry facilities, drying and airing rooms, storerooms, servants’ dining hall, and a vault. The first and second floors were decorated in current styles, with carpets, curtains, and custom designed furniture acquired from New York. The four marble mantels on the first floor were designed and built by Sherman Cole and Company of Chicago. The grand staircase was built by the local firm, Foster Brothers. Railroads reached Des Moines in 1867 (in large part due to Allen), which aided construction immensely. The exterior of the home is trimmed in a combination of artificial stone, dressed limestone, and ornamental wood millwork. Decorative wood-carved rope molding surrounds the doors and windows.
Terrace Hill is an exceptional example of the French Second Empire style. Use of the Second Empire style for domestic architecture became popular by the mid-1850s with examples built through the 1880s in various parts of the country. A steeply-pitched mansard roof, multi-colored slate shingles, open verandas, dormer windows with elaborate surrounds, and bracketed cornices are all part of this “Prairie Palace of the West.” Today, Terrace Hill represents a pure, minimally altered Second Empire building constructed for domestic use at the height of its style in the United States.