Highland Park College

The area where Park Fair Mall now stands at Second and Euclid is the site of an interesting piece of Des Moines educational history. Highland Park College, Des Moines University, and the University of Lawsonomy once stood on this spot.

Highland Park College was established here in 1889 and operated under that name until 1918, when the Baptist church bought it and renamed it Des Moines University. The school had some 40,000 students and 1,000 pharmacy graduates in its first twenty-five years. Trouble began when a fundamentalist group known as the Baptist Bible Union of North America took over the school in 1927. The administration required all faculty members to agree to eighteen articles of faith. Many faculty members objected to this, and several of them left the university and joined Carl Weeks (later founder of the Armand Cosmetic Company) in forming Des Moines College of Pharmacy in downtown Des Moines. All but two of the pharmacy students at the university left to enroll in the new school.

At the same time that faculty were being required to agree to the articles of faith, students were also having many restrictions placed upon them. It is reported that three girls were disciplined for doing cartwheels during a vaudeville skit. General unhappiness spread, and things came to a head when board chairman Thomas T. Shields fired the entire faculty on May 11, 1929. A few hours later a riot broke out among the students. Angry students marched on the administration building in the afternoon, and that night 150 students attacked the building where the board of trustees was meeting. They threw eggs and rocks and attempted to break down the door to the room where the board members were hiding. Eventually police drove the students from the building, but not before they had wrecked the front office of the school administration building. The school closed in September 1929, and the buildings remained empty until the third, and even stranger, chapter of the area’s history began.

In 1943, Alfred W. Lawson of Detroit bought the property and founded the Des Moines University of Lawsonomy. Early in his career, Lawson was involved in the aviation industry. By the time he came to Des Moines, he was promoting Lawsonomy, sweepingly billed as “the study of everything.” It was said that students (men only) would be required to study for thirty years to achieve the degree of “Knowledgian.” Lawsonomy was based on forty-seven principles based on books written by Lawson, and the curriculum of the school consisted largely of memorizing Lawson’s books. Enrollment at the school was as much as 100 at one time, but dwindled gradually to fewer than twenty by the time the university closed in 1954. The property was sold to developer Frank A. DePuydt for $250, 000, and Lawson died two weeks later on November 29, 1954. DePuydt built the Park Fair Shopping Mall on the site, and a chapter of Des Moines educational history came to an end.

Sources
The Riot That Closed Des Moines U.,
Des Moines Tribune, May 11, 1979, p. 38.

7 Responses

  1. I had no idea! How interesting. Lawsonomy makes me laugh. I think I am studying my own version of it. 🙂

  2. I found a small journal that belonged to my grandfather. It listed fellow students (presumably) that he went to school with and well wishes from those individuals. The dates range from April 1916 to Jan 1917. The pages usually state H.P.C. or spelled out Highland Park College and often listed areas of specialty like auto mach, machining, or electrical engineering. My grandfather was a machinist and taught at Dubuque H.S. and invented the recoil huddle. It was fun to make a connection to this bit of history above.

  3. Barb, I am glad that you found a connection. You should look at today’s post from the Midwestern. It includes several photos of the campus and classrooms.

    Kathy, I will do a post on Lawsonomy sometime down the road. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Great, I would love to read it. I am slowly working my way through all of these blog posts. I love them. Well done!

  5. My grandparents met at Highland Park College around 1900-1902, grandmother traveled from Montana & grandfather from Iowa. Darlene

  6. My grandmother, Nellie Hanna, and her siblings James, Frank, Charlotte, and George all attended Highland Park College in the late 1800s. James stayed on 20 years to teach and became Dean of the Liberal Arts College. Active in public affairs, he served as Mayor of Des Moines from 1910 to 1916. Frank also stayed on 9 years to teach and became head of the mathematics department. He later became a well known engineering designer of dams and irrigation systems, heading at one time the East Bay Municipal Water District, developing the water system for Oakland, Calif. and surrounding communities. The other three became teachers. George was Superintendent of Schools in Valley City, ND for 50 years.

  7. Frederick M. Hubbell brought Woodrow Wilson to Highland Park College on March 2, 1912 (along w/John Cownie & Mr. Magill). The future president made an address at the college on that date and was elected president later that Fall. This is according to “The Little Man with the Long Shadow” pg. 203; by George S. Mills.

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