Big art & a big buzz on the Raccoon River Valley Trail!

Trail Sponsors

Latest Posts

Big art & a big buzz on the Raccoon River Valley Trail!


WAUKEE, Iowa, March 22, 2018 -- It has taken nearly seven years, $1.1 million, and thousands of hours of work by a few hundred people.  And now a huge and colorful public art installation "Waukee Railroad Pergola -- in the shadow of the rails" is ready for public inspection, review, use and enjoyment.

It is located at the southeast gateway trailhead of the 89-mile, paved Raccoon River Valley Trail on the west edge of this city, which means it's also on the west edge of the Des Moines metro area.

A ribbon-cutting and first official lighting of the artwork is set for Tuesday, March 27, at 7 p.m.  It is free and the public is invited. In fact, people are encouraged to bring their bicycles and go for an evening ride after the ceremony, experiencing a first ride through the lighted pergola.  Sponsoring the event are the City of Waukee, the Raccoon River Valley Trail Association, the Waukee Betterment Foundation and the Waukee Public Art Committee.

The art installation was designed and built under the direction of nationally-known public artist and sculptor David Dahlquist, of Des Moines and Lake Panorama, and his colleagues at RDG Planning & Design.  You can read about and see photos of several other major art installations the Dahlquist team has done around Iowa, the U.S. and beyond right here.

The "pergola" -- a term for a structure like an arbor or gateway -- extends 340 feet along and over the trail.  It is a structure of steel and concrete covered with large ceramic tiles glazed in the bright colors of red, white and black. It stands 15 feet high and 18 feet wide.  It will be lighted from dusk to dawn with solar-powered LED tube lights, and the color of the light can be varied and animated. Lighted "bollards" -- chubby concrete posts taller than an adult -- line U.S. Highway 6 (or Hickman Road) and Dallas County Road R22, which are on the other two sides of the triangular-shaped trailhead.

The “Waukee Railroad Pergola – in the shadow of the rails” will be ready for public use, both day and night, after its ribbon-cutting and first official lighting at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 27, at the Raccoon River Valley Trail’s gateway trailhead on the west side of Waukee. This photo was taken the evening of March 13 when the lights were tested."

"We imagined the design to be a reflection of the railroad heritage of the trail, which has been built almost entirely on routes that trains used for 100 years or more," Dahlquist said in an interview this week. "The 14 towns out here in these three counties were connected by the railroad for commerce, for travel and for communication. It was a lifeline for these towns.  It still is.  But now it's a recreational trail connecting the communities, and people are using it for fun, for recreation, for health," even as a get-away.  "So the design is both a reflection of the past and a celebration of what we have today with the Raccoon River Valley Trail."

You can read more about the railroad heritage of the trail right here.

Dahlquist, 59, was born in the Chicago suburb of La Grange, moved with his parents to Wisconsin and graduated from Wisconsin Dells High School and then the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He did his graduate work in ceramics at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. He came to Iowa in 1983 as artist-in-residence at the Des Moines Art Center and spent five years there.  He taught art and ceramics at Iowa State University from 1987 to 1993, and began growing his own company, Dahlquist Clayworks, Inc. 

In 2004, RDG Planning & Design hired him to start Dahlquist Art Studio as a part of the larger architectural and development firm. "When you put all this together, you've got artistically-gifted people working here, and you've also got great resources available from across the company in everything from visualization, sustainability, water quality management, lighting, technology and more. RDG was a very rare firm that put a hands-on art studio in as one of its departments.  They saw a trend of integrating more art in big projects, and they were ahead of the curve that way. We're able to brainstorm, ask questions of one another, take risks.  What we've done together is on the cutting edge."

Another thing Dahlquist brought to this specific project -- he knows the Raccoon River Valley Trail very well.  He rides his bicycle on it often, sometimes using the trail to commute from his lake home at Panora and his home & studio in Des Moines.

David Dahlquist, the artist who led the project team at RDG Planning & Design’s Dahlquist Art Studio in Des Moines, has become one of the nation’s busiest and best-known public artists. He is especially know for his installations in the “art in transit” genre.

But he resists excessive personal accolades for the pergola. 

"I don't consider this 'my' project," Dahlquist said. "It's very much an 'our' project. It's been a collaboration with the City of Waukee, the Raccoon River Valley Trail Association, the people of Waukee and a whole lot of us here at the studio and in other departments at RDG." 

He checked his files and reported that a total of 39 employees of RDG Planning & Design have been involved in the pergola so far.  There have been 12 people involved in the production of the 5,816 ceramic tiles, working 3,144 total hours on the tiles, which were made from 29 tons of clay.  There were 113 gallons of the colored glaze applied.

Dahlquist's key collaborators on developing the theme were RDG/Dahlquist artist Matt Niebuhr and RDG landscape architect Scott Crawford.  He pointed out that it was input from the people of Waukee and other trail communities that stirred and shaped their thinking about theme and design.  There were five different public meetings, the first three of which were people sharing ideas about what the artwork could or should be, and the last two meetings were public reviews of the art team's proposals. (A key moment in those initial meetings, Dahlquist said, "was when one of the high school kids said something like he 'wished there was something at the trailhead that he could ride his bike through'.")

When it came time for fabrication of the components and on-site construction, Frank Hoifeldt, the project manager for RDG, coordinated with seven sub-contractors: C Green Contractor for concrete work, Iowa Metal Fabrication, Des Moines Marble & Mantle Company for tile installation, Biermann Electric Company for electrical and lighting work, the Baker Group for solar power installation, ASI Signage Innovations for the large trail map and donor board at the site, and Midwest Caulking for sealant installation.

The theme and design of the artwork was endorsed three years ago by the leadership of all 14 towns and three counties that the RRVT crosses.  Components of the "pergola" will be replicated in smaller trailhead installations in at least eight other trail communities, with the construction to be completed in five of those towns during 2018 and the others in 2019.  Trail officials hope that eventually, all 14 towns will have installations featuring colorful components telling the "in the shadow of the rails" story.

Dahlquist will speak about the artwork at the event Tuesday. Others offering remarks will be Waukee Mayor Bill Peard, fundraising chairperson Jim Miller, and Don Blum, vice-president of the Waukee Betterment Foundation.

A year ago, Jim Miller (left) and Randy Jensen (right), the key fundraisers for the public art installation in Waukee, were given ceremonial keys to the city and official proclamations recognizing their work on the project by Mayor Bill Peard (center).

Miller, who lives in rural Waukee, teamed with Randy Jensen, of Des Moines and Lake Panorama, who did much of the grant writing, and they did five years of fundraising for the project.  They met and spoke with more than 100 individuals, and were gratified to have a total of 71 donors -- individuals, government agencies, businesses, corporations, organizations, foundations -- make gifts to help pay for the artwork.  Making the largest donations -- all more than six figures -- were the Iowa Great Places program, the City of Waukee, Prairie Meadows, the Vision Iowa Program's Community Attractions & Tourism fund, and the W.T. and Edna M. Dahl Trust of Des Moines.

"This project grew from the community and had very wide support," Miller said in an interview. "The final product in Waukee is very impressive and is generating the buzz we hoped for.  The ongoing expansion of the project to other trail communities validates the original vision of the group of people who first gathered in April of 2012.  It has been a fun project to work on, and will now be enjoyed by thousands of people for years to come."

Jensen said "what really is encouraging, now that we've achieved the initial installation, is that now we're taking the synergy of it to six other locations on the RRVT that are already funded, and a couple others that are in the works."

Having the artwork all along the 89 miles of the trail, Jensen continued, "is going to help us market and promote this whole area as the 'Raccoon River Valley Trail Corridor,' where we not only have a fine trail but we've got our history and culture on display 'in the shadow of the rails.' I think that's going to bring regional if not national recognition. And when we think that in the near future, we hope to connect the RRVT with the High Trestle Trail, the impact will be even more profound."

The art installation in Waukee is owned and will be maintained by the City of Waukee, specifically the Parks and Recreation Department, of which Matt Jermier is director. He said that once construction began on the pergola and local citizens began to see how big, bold and colorful it is, reactions from Waukee citizens have been mostly positive.

"When the idea first came out, there were some people who naturally were questioning whether the city government should be spending money on an art installation like this," he said. "And frankly, there was some doubt about whether the committee would be able to raise the rest of the money.  But the way we put this all together, the city's financial share of the construction has really just been the paving of the two parking lots and other site enhancements," about $187,000.  "Jim Miller and Randy Jensen did a tremendous job of finding all the grants and donations, and we've wound up with a million-dollar art installation for a relatively small investment from the city government.  We've got a new gateway, a gathering point, a real icon for our community."

Jermier noted that the pergola's neighborhood is changing rapidly.  Until now, there have been farm fields just to the west and north of the RRVT trailhead.  In the past year, Waukee Community School District voters have approved a $117 million school bond proposal that will pay for a new second high school for the city being built about a half-mile north of the trailhead, along with a 160-acre sports park adjacent to the new school.  A new Deery Brothers auto dealership is now under construction just southwest of the pergola.  And in another development announced in recent months, the IT megacorporation Apple announced it will build two huge new data centers west of the trailhead, on both the north and south sides of U.S. Highway 6.  Plus this: It is expected that about 7,000 housing units will be added in the same general area, west and north of the trailhead and pergola.

Think of it: In the near future, with thousands of additional people living and working within a mile or two of the pergola, the use of the trail and the importance of the pergola as a gathering place will mushroom, Jermier predicted.

You can learn more about the project in the photos and captions below here. 

On a cold, snowy February day in 2017, artist David Dahlquist and others from his team made site visits to other RRVT trailheads, where components of the pergola will be installed during 2018 and 2019.  Here Dahlquist was standing at the north end of the RRVT in Jefferson, visualizing what columns and an overhead rail will look like there.

Consulting about the art installation that will go at the trailhead in tiny Cooper in Greene County were (left to right) artist David Dahlquist, fundraiser Randy Jensen, Dan Towers and Michelle Fields of the Greene County public arts team, and Scott Crawford, landscape architect for RDG Planning & Design.

In the spring of 2017 in the Dahlquist Art Studio of RDG Planning & Design, artists Kate Chandler and Brian Frederiksen were already hard at work shaping, firing and glazing the first of 5,816 clay tiles that would all go the “Waukee Railroad Pergola.”

Three key members of the art team, artists Matt Niebuhr and David Dahlquist and production manager Brian Frederiksen are shown here in the Dahlquist Art Studio of RDG Planning & Design with some of the completed ceramic tiles, ready for mounting on the columns of “Waukee Railroad Pergola – in the shadow of the rails.”

In April 2017, three advocates for the Raccoon River Valley Trail Association – Dan Towers, Michelle Fields and Cindy Jensen – checked a line-up of ceramic tiles that would be used to “wrap” one of the concrete columns in the pergola design.

David Dahlquist (left) is shown here last April with Frank Hoifeldt, who took over as project manager of the pergola for RDG Planning & Design after the initial manager, Don Scandrett, had retired from the company.  The company has been at work on the project for five years.

Fantastic artwork comes out of the Dahlquist Art Studio of RDG Planning & Design in Des Moines and is installed at beautiful sites across the nation. But the exterior of the studio building on the south edge of downtown Des Moines sure isn’t very artful or fancy!

Here’s a daytime view this week of the “Waukee Railroad Pergola – in the shadow of the rails.”

The donor recognition board recognizes the people, government agencies, corporations, companies, organizations and foundations that made the $1.1 million public art installation become a reality.

The Waukee trailhead, as the new trail map at the pergola shows, is the gateway to the 89-mile paved trail that connects 14 towns and three counties just west of the Des Moines metro area.