Interactive Dinkey, restored Pantorium sign lights planned for Ames History Museum expansion

Danielle Gehr
Ames Tribune

The Ames History Museum hopes one day residents and guests will not only learn about the city's old steam engine "The Dinkey" but also be able to walk inside it. 

The museum developed renderings of what the new expansion into the neighboring Douglas Avenue storefront with the memorable Pantorium sign could look like.

With nearly five times the exhibit space, the museum would be able to keep a permanent exhibit of Ames history, including an interactive replica of the Dinkey, a train that once connected Iowa State's campus and downtown. 

The project will cost $4.2 million, half of which has been fundraised, Ames History Museum board member Sharon Wirth said. The museum plans to start construction in 2023 and open to the public in early 2024.

"A new museum is just going to be a great attraction for downtown," Ames History Museum executive director Casie Vance said. "We have such a wonderful downtown in Ames and I think this all contributes to that."

Along with the permanent Ames history exhibit, the museum will continue to have rotating exhibits like the current Black trailblazers exhibit. The expansion involves the restoration and preservation of its new home. 

The red Ames Pantorium sign is a memorable piece of downtown that the History Museum hopes to bring back to life by restoring its lights — though those new to the community within the last decade may not know what the sign means. 

The Ames History Museum is planning to expand into the Pantorium building, which will add nearly five times the exhibit space, as well as a conference space available for rent and rooms for exhibit design and storage.

A space with a history of its own 

A dry cleaner, the Ames Pantorium opened its doors on 410 Douglas Ave after the building was erected in 1926 — though the proprietor, E.M. Kooker, began soliciting business in 1905 with just a buck and scrub table, according to a 1931 Ames Daily Tribune Times article. 

His business operated at a few other locations before settling on Douglas Avenue, where the business operated until 2010. By 2011, building rehabilitation began for community radio station KHOI to move in, according to Ames Tribune archives. 

The building's dry cleaning history means high ceilings to fit all the equipment needed for the business. It is perfect for museum exhibits, Vance said.

The Ames History Museum moved next door to the Pantorium in 2007, and officials began feeling they'd outgrown the building after about a decade. Plans for expansion were halted by the pandemic but found new momentum when the building was put up for sale in 2021.

"We really love it because it lets us have a historic building and a historic front," Vance said.

Some relics of the building's former occupant remain, such as an old cash register and parts of the old conveyor system, which may be repurposed as lamps, Wirth said. 

Upstairs, where the Ames History Museum will have new conference space available to the community for rent, there is a history of its own. The Bungalow Tea Room moved above the Pantorium in 1932, a restaurant that hosted baby showers, group meetings and other Ames society events, but closed in 1939. The museum plans to put up old newspapers that mention the old tea room, Vance said. 

After becoming an apartment in the 1990s, Wirth said they are excited to return the space to its historical function.

The planned permanent exhibit at the Ames History Museum will include an interactive model of "The Dinkey," the steam engine that connected Ames' Main Street to Iowa State's campus.

Adding to the 'cultural corner'

The expansion also means a reading and research room and an exhibit fabrication space, dedicated to working on exhibits. 

The current Ames History Museum exhibit includes a large model airplane to represent the plane flown by J. Herman Banning, the first Black aviator. Exhibits director Alex Fejfar and other staff needed to be creative about where to build the plane with their limited space. 

"You never knew where you'd find him (Alex)," Wirth said. "Maybe in his office, maybe in the parking lot, maybe he was in his garage. We just don't have a dedicated space to do that kind of stuff."

As well as renovating the current building for an "exhibits vault" and office space — some of which will be available for rent — the museum will add an extension where a parking lot currently sits behind the building where the permanent exhibit will be. The 2,400 square feet of exhibit space will include an expanded museum store, likely to carry Ames-focused merchandise.

Across the street from the Octogan Center for the Arts and near the Ames Public Library, the expansion will add to a hub of culture in Ames downtown. 

"We internally call this the cultural corner here. Other people call it the cultural corridor," Wirth said. "There's a lot of exciting things going on on Fifth Street right now, so we're right there with it all ... So we are excited to be part of that growth of the cultural corridor."

Danielle Gehr is a politics and government reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at, phone at (515) 663-6925 or on Twitter at @Dani_Gehr.