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Paula Watts Brown papers

Identifier: IWA0002

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Scope and Contents

The Paula Watts Brown papers date from 1930 to 1974 and measure 10 linear feet. The papers are arranged in seven series:

SERIES I:  Personal life, Boxes 1-2

SERIES II: Assorted causes, Boxes 3-8

SERIES III: Billboards, Boxes 9-16

SERIES IV: Des Moines Art Center, Boxes 16-18

SERIES V: Educational interest, Boxes 18-22

SERIES VI: Gray's Lake, Boxes 22-23

SERIES VII: Old Federal Building, Box 23

The Personal life series (1930-1974 and undated) contains primarily correspondence between Brown and her family and friends. The journals subseries contains three diaries each written at a different period of Brown's life: when she was a college student, as a young mother and towards the end of her life.

The Assorted causes series (1948-1974 and undated) is broadly based and eclectic. Included in the series are Brown's papers and research on topical issues such as: city planning, the environment, public housing, population growth, and world peace, among others.

Brown was actively involved in making her community a better place to live. The Billboards series (1953-1974 and undated) contains material from her campaign to restrict billboards that marred the aesthetics of the community. Brown collected resources from across the country from private and public groups to help in her fight. The series contains reports from the subcommittee assigned to evaluate the Des Moines sign ordinance. Brown presented proposals to the city council and wrote several letters to the editor of the Des Moines Register and Tribune concerning billboards. The series also includes correspondence and newspaper clippings relating to the billboard campaign.

The Des Moines Art Center series (1949-1973 and undated) contains papers from Brown's tenure as a trustee of the Edmundson Art Foundation, charged with the administration and operation of the art center. The series includes pamphlets and notices of some of the exhibitions at the center from 1958 to 1973.

The Educational interest series (1950-1974) is comprised of materials relating to the Des Moines school district and education in general. Brown addressed the school board concerning the recognition of academic excellence, promotion of greater student interest in the sciences, student parking, athletics and intramural sports. Included in this series is correspondence between Brown, other concerned citizens and the school board. The series also contains articles and speeches written by Brown and additional articles from magazines and newspapers about issues which interested Brown.

Although Brown's campaigns encountered varying success with the Des Moines City Council, one of her victories was the conservation of Gray's Lake. The Gray's Lake series (1960-1974 and undated) contains reports on the acquisition and zoning of Gray's Lake as a flood zone and newspaper clippings that chronicle the progress of establishing the lake as a recreational area. That the public supported this campaign is evident by the petition and pamphlets that are included in the series. The series also contains a reel-to-reel recording of the September 27, 1966, public hearing.

The drive to save the Old Federal Building (1964-1970 and undated) in downtown Des Moines was not accomplished. This series contains copies of the Des Moines City Council agendas, newspaper clippings and correspondence from Brown to members of city government. Included are maps of downtown Des Moines and drawings of the parking ramp built on the site of the old Federal Building.


  • Creation: 1930-1974


Conditions Governing Access

The papers are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright held by the donor has been transferred to the University of Iowa.

However, copyright status for some collection materials may be unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owner. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility and potential liability based on copyright infringement for any use rests exclusively and solely with the user. Users must properly acknowledge the Iowa Women’s Archives, The University of Iowa Libraries, as the source of the material. For further information, visit

Biographical / Historical

Born in Arkansas, Paula Watts was raised in Oklahoma and attended the University of Oklahoma, where she met and married Kenneth R. Brown. For the first seven years of their marriage, the couple lived in Rockford, Illinois, before moving to Des Moines, Iowa, in 1937.

In Des Moines, Kenneth Brown operated his own engineering company. During World War II, while her husband was in the service, Paula Watts Brown took over the management of Brown Engineering Company. The Browns raised three daughters and one son and were both active in public service organizations.

In 1958 Paula Watts Brown resigned from all public service organizations to begin her own one-woman campaign of political involvement, feeling that she could accomplish more good as an individual than as the member of a group. A June 1, 1967 Perry Daily Chief article said, "Mrs. Brown of Des one of those rare individuals who stands up to be counted--even if she's the only one standing."" Brown attended school board and city council meetings and was instrumental in changes to the education policy of the board and the beautification of Des Moines. Brown campaigned on various issues at school board meetings and in editorial letters to the newspaper. All of her efforts were directed at improving the quality of education by increasing the emphasis on math, the sciences and student achievement.

In 1954 Brown spearheaded a movement to get the school board to begin a policy of recognizing academic achievement in high school. Later, Honors Day ceremonies to honor academic merit and special scholarship recipients were instituted. ""Enriched"" courses were offered in the high schools enabling more students to prepare for college. She also worked for programs to upgrade the science fair held in school. Academic awards and an emphasis on the science fair were ways in which Brown hoped to motivate more students to excel in science and technical courses. The creation of the college track system and better recognition of scholarship were results of Brown's confrontations with the school board.

Brown also used her activism to improve the civic beauty of Des Moines. She fought to preserve the Old Federal Building in downtown. Though the building was lost, the effort made many people conscious of the need to preserve historic buildings. Brown saw billboards as an eyesore; she called them "obnoxious and dangerous" since they are designed to divert a driver's attention from the road. She helped get the Iowa legislature to prohibit future installation of billboards adjacent to interstates and state highways in 1972. Brown's urging convinced the greater Des Monies Chamber of Commerce to acquire most of the land around Gray's Lake to protect it from commercial development. With contributions from the Chamber, businesses, clubs and school classes, Gray's Lake became a park. Brown said afterwards that this campaign had been her only success.

Brown's public service included heading an early membership drive for the Des Moines Art Center. She was one of the first two women to be a member of the Edmundson Foundation Board of Trustees. She served on this art center board for ten years.


10.00 Linear Feet

Photographs in boxes 14, 18, 23-24 boxes

Language of Materials



Civic leader in Des Moines, Iowa.

Method of Acquisition

The papers (donor no.2 ) were donated by Kenneth R. Brown in 1976.

Randel W. Lackore, 1995 and Special Collections Staff (MsC 313) 1976.
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Iowa Women's Archives Repository

100 Main Library
University of Iowa Libraries
Iowa City IA 52242 IaU
319-335-5900 (Fax)