Saturday, April 29, 2006

Historic Building Ready to Show Off Its New Look

The state of Iowa's first home and the oldest permanent building on the University of Iowa campus is ready to unveil its new look --which is in fact its old look.

The golden-domed Old Capitol building reopens next Saturday, 4 years after a fire and the resulting water damage forced its closure.

"It's wonderful," said Shalla Wilson, curator of the Old Capitol Museum. "It's hard to believe it's finally getting close to (opening day)."

The university and community will celebrate with a daylong event May 6 that will include an opening ceremony, music and, of course, tours of the renovated building.

What people will see is the Old Capitol as it likely appeared in the 1850s along with two new galleries that will display exhibits on Iowa history and the humanities.

"This is Iowa's first building, it really is UI's first building, and now I think what we've done is really enlivened it again," said Pamela Trimpe, director of UI's Old Capitol and Natural History museums.

The building's appearance --with a new dome, cupola, bell tower and color scheme -- is a far cry from the way it looked immediately after a fire destroyed the domed tower on Nov. 20, 2001.

The fire, which caused an estimated $5.9 million in damage, was later determined to have started when workers from a South Dakota-based company used open flame torches and heat guns to remove asbestos from the building during an exterior repair project. UI settled a lawsuit with the company, Enviro Safe Air, in September 2004 for $1.9 million.

The fire destroyed the dome, cupola and bell tower. It was kept from spreading, and the rest of the building was saved by a concrete slab at the base of the bell tower that was installed during a 1920s restoration project.

But the approximately 50,000 gallons of water used to put out the fire ruined most of the walls and floors in the building. It took 14 months for the building to dry out, and holes had to be drilled into columns and at the base of some walls to drain some of the water.

UI then undertook a three-phase, $9 million project to restore the Old Capitol to the way it would have looked in the 1850s, when it served as the state capitol.

Home of state and UI

The cornerstone for the Old Capitol was laid on July 4, 1840. The building served as Iowa's third territorial capitol until Iowa became a state in 1846, after which it became the state Capitol.

The state constitution was written in the Old Capitol, and UI was founded there on Feb. 25, 1847.

Des Moines became the state capital in 1857, and the Old Capitol housed almost the entire university from 1857 to 1863.

With time, the interior of the building was remodeled and offices were built and walls added. The interior changed so much that it was forgotten that there was a balcony in the House Chambers on the top floor until it was discovered during a 1970s restoration project.

During that work, from 1970-76, the building was restored structurally to how it looked in the 1850s. The latest work has returned the building to how it appeared before the fire with the addition of a color scheme of blues, greens and yellows preservationists believe to be faithful to its original design.

New look

Project officials for the current work relied on old structural drawings, photographs and documents from individuals and state and local historical societies to determine the color and layout of the building.

"We had to piece this together like a puzzle," said Gary Nagle, a UI architect and the manager for the current project.

In addition, the dome, cupola and bell tower had to be reconstructed because of the fire.

The wood dome, which was attached in February 2003, weighs 12,000 pounds and is covered with a thin layer of 23-carat gold leaf that, if compacted, would be the size of a golf ball.

The current bell, the Old Capitol's fourth, was cast in the same foundry at around the same time --in the 1860s -- as the bell that burned in the fire. That bell, the top one-third of it melted, now sits in a glass-enclosed case at the bottom of the building's spiral staircase.

The concrete firewall that snuffed out the 2001 fire remains, and the building now has sprinklers, which are hidden from view to ensure the integrity of the historical building.

The most prominent additions to the Old Capitol are two galleries on the ground floor.

One of the galleries is being called the Discovery Center. It will host interactive displays on Iowa's history. At next week's opening, for example, there will be an interactive map that begins during the time Lewis and Clark explored the territory and morphs chronologically into other Iowa maps up to today.

The other display room is known as the Iowa Humanities Gallery. Its first exhibit traces cornerstones in Iowa history.

Museum officials said that exhibits will rotate once or twice a year, and that eventually the two galleries will be a place where professors and students of the humanities can showcase their work.

"It's the Iowa Center for the Humanities," said Trimpe, the museum's director.

The museum saw between 30,000 and 40,000 visitors annually before the fire. Trimpe said she doesn't think it's impossible for that to double. The building will be open for self-guided tours Mondays through Saturdays, whereas before there were only guided tours conducted by appointment.

In addition, UI meetings, speeches and doctoral defenses will again take place at the Old Capitol.

'Favorite building'

The renovated building is already drawing rave reviews.

"I had great expectations, and they're far exceeded by the reality of what's been achieved," said former UI president Willard "Sandy" Boyd.

Boyd was the last UI president to have an office in the Old Capitol, and it was at his suggestion in 1970 that the building be turned into a museum.

Alumni and donors, too, are awaiting the return of the Old Capitol. About $2.7 million, $700,000 over goal, was raised in a UI Foundation campaign for the Old Capitol.

"All of them (donors) had personal memories or some kind of link to the building itself," said Susan Sweeney, co-director of the campaign.

Perhaps the person with the greatest personal link is Margaret Keyes, a retired professor of home economics at UI and a leader in the field of historic preservation. She conducted the research that guided the 1970s effort to return the Old Capitol to its original form, which is detailed in her 1988 book, "Old Capitol: Portrait of a Landmark."

Now 88 and still living in Iowa City, Keyes said earlier this week that she was excited for the upcoming reopening of the Old Capitol.

"After all," she said, "it's my favorite building."


Saturday, April 29, 2006

Life of the Old Capitol

The Press-Citizen asked residents and Old Capitol officials to share their memories of the Iowa City landmark. Here are several:

As a small child I came to live in a barrack at 125 Riverside Drive in Iowa City. My father returned to complete his UI education, and my mother was a nurse working at University Hospitals. I do not recall a time that I don't remember Old Capitol and the University of Iowa. As children, Old Capitol and the Museum of Natural History were favorite after-school haunts for my brothers and me. During that time, Old Capitol was the administration building for the University of Iowa. On occasion, when we thought it was time for another view of the reverse spiral staircase, we were kindly told to "run along." A lot of the fun was running -- running up the steps and opening the big doors, and running up the staircase. Being treated so kindly by those who worked there made a great impression on us.

And I cannot remember a time that I didn't know about what significance that building played in the formation of our state and the University of Iowa. My great-great-great grandfather was a territory and state of Iowa legislator from 1838 until the capital of Iowa was moved to Des Moines in 1857. I try to envision what it was like to plan, hire an architect, watch it being built, serve inside and celebrate on the outside as our young state and university were forming. The structure itself is beautiful.

I have favorite memories such as the restoration and rededication of Old Capitol in 1976, working with Margaret Keyes and Bette Thompson, and the sesquicentennial celebrations for both the state and the university.

I have sad memories, too. Attending the John F. Kennedy Memorial Service and watching the Vietnam War demonstrations. I remember the numbers of people who came to Old Capitol after 9/11. And those that came said they needed to be there because of what the building represented. The day of the fire was horrific.

I have comical memories. I was reading thank you notes from school children. The students' letters began with Old Capitol, To Whom It May Concern, Madam, Sir, Miss, etc. and then I came across this neatly printed letter that began People -- not Dear People, just People. Obviously, the student chose what he or she thought was a proper salutation for the docents of Old Capitol. And the day I looked up from my desk and a visitor standing in the doorway said, "Just what do you do?" I still smile when I think of those memories.

Thousands of people remember walking past, sitting on the steps, touring the building, defending their Ph.D. theses, attending lectures, concerts, memorial services, receptions, award ceremonies, working inside, next to, across the river from and seeing the Old Capitol gold dome from many parts of the city. I, too, have many memories. And the memories are not just events. The visitors, the community, students, docents, faculty, staff and administrators are what gives Old Capitol its life.

Ann Smothers
former director, Old Capitol Museum

Jumping from the steps

As a child growing up in Iowa City in the '40s, I lived in the 200 block of Iowa Avenue, just a block and a half from the Old Capitol, so it was always there. My childhood was at a time when children spent most of their spare time playing outdoors, all day, and they were never in danger. My playmates and I felt that the UI campus, much different than it is now, was just an extension of our play area, and one of our favorite things was to dare each other to jump from the top of the steps of Old Capitol to the ground below, which, of course, seemed like a huge distance to us at the time. I am glad that Old Capitol is still with us, and I hope it will remain for many generations to come.

Rosemary Paul
Iowa City

Sentinel still stands

On April 13, a tornado tore through downtown Iowa City. As I huddled in my basement and listened to the news reports, I heard that a funnel cloud had touched down near the Pentacrest. I was devastated that possibly once again Old Capitol was in the path of disaster. Once the weather cleared, and we all climbed out of our basements, my first mission was to find out if Old Capitol was still standing. I finally contacted my friend Steve Nichols at KCRG, who told me the flag was still flying and the building was standing strong.

The next few days, I was deeply saddened and shaken by the destruction that our community had experienced. As I contacted friends that had been in or near the path of the storm, I found that instead of comforting them, they were immediately expressing their relief to me that Old Capitol had dodged this bullet and that our cherished landmark was standing strong and proud in the center of our community. I felt a pang of guilt as I spoke to my friend who was having her roof inspected and would have to have it repaired, but I also remembered the day after the fire and how devastated this community felt when the tower and dome were gone.

For more than 160 years, Old Capitol has stood as a sentinel on the hill. Decades have come and gone, but Old Capitol has stood strong through the joy and sorrow of our community, state and nation. As the curator, I am merely the caretaker, but I hold this position as a great honor. To all of us, Old Capitol is a significant part of our lives and a cherished landmark of our heritage.

Shalla Wilson
Curator, Old Capitol Museum

Returning to glory

The Old Capitol has always been a part of my life. Growing up in nearby Mount Vernon, I was able to admire it as one of the landmarks of not only the UI campus, but the Midwest. I then had the good fortune to be on the faculty of the university for 24 years (1951-1975). I taught my classes in MacBride Hall. I was able to see the Old Capitol every day from my office window. The "capstone" of my career came one day when I received a call from then UI President Willard "Sandy" Boyd. He asked if I would undertake the job of researching the history of the Old Capitol for its renovation in 1976 as part of the nation's bicentennial anniversary celebration. Of course my answer was "yes." What followed was four years (1972-1975) of dedicated work and financial support from thousands of students, alumni and friends to bring this wonderful campus landmark back to its original glory. Although tragedy struck on Nov. 20, 2001, again through the efforts of countless alumni and friends, my favorite building was restored once more. I can't wait until May 6 when it is reopened so that other people can admire it like I have for all these years.

Margaret Keyes
Former director, Old Capitol Museum

Our View: Reopening the Old Capitol is a cause for celebration
Press-Citizen editorial

Saturday, April 29, 2006

For nearly 4 years, the vast majority of the university community has been kept out of one of most recognizable symbols of Iowa and Iowa City. The fire that destroyed the Old Capitol's dome, cupola and bell tower on Nov. 20, 2001, came little more than two months after the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. No one claimed that our local destruction was in any way comparable to the national catastrophe, but the absence of the Old Capitol's dome gave us our own sense of communal loss.

Next Saturday, the Old Capitol will officially reopen. The Faculty Senate already held the first university meeting in the structure earlier this week, and today's Press-Citizen is filled with stories, photos and illustrations that tell the history of building. But next week's reopening also comes less than a month after hail rained down and a tornado passed through downtown Iowa City. Luckily, the weather spared the newly renovated Old Capitol. In fact, many people walking through the downtown streets on April 13 and 14 took comfort in seeing the flag flying over the golden dome.

Because many of us have had recent cause to appreciate the need for preserving Iowa City's historic structures, the reopening of the Old Capitol will be greeted with applause by history buffs and everyday folks alike.

The building that we'll see next week has been restored to circa 1850 -- back to when the building was the actual state capitol -- rather than to what we would have seen on the day before the 2001 fire. With a new dome, cupola, bell tower and color scheme, the new Old Capitol will be an version of the capitol older than any in our living memory.

This new Old Capitol will also feature two new galleries on the ground floor -- the Discovery Center and the Iowa Humanities Gallery -- that will help interpret the building's history for an estimated 60,000-80,000 tourists a year. And the building itself will be place for forming new memories as it again gets used for UI meetings, speeches and doctoral defenses.

In previous editorials, we've lamented the loss of the dome, and we've commended the renovation projects as an investment in the heritage of the city and state. It's been a long time since we've seen the interior of this building, and we're looking forward to seeing what all the time, money and hard work has accomplished.

Sunday, May 7, 2006
More than 400 attend Old Capitol reopening
By Rob Daniel
Iowa City Press-Citizen

On Nov. 20, 2001, a fire started at the Old Capitol building on the University of Iowa campus, destroying the original dome. Four and a half years later, more than 400 people welcomed the refurbished Old Capitol with a grand reopening ceremony Saturday morning on the Pentacrest lawn. The building, which suffered fire damage to its dome and water damage in much of the interior from the 50,000 gallons of water used to put out the fire, had been restored, showcasing the way the capitol building looked when it served as Iowa's seat of government from 1840 to 1857.

"I know I got goose bumps the first time I saw the flag go up on the refurbished dome," UI president David Skorton said after the raising of the U.S. and Iowa flags. "Old Cap is in many ways the heart of our campus and the fire left a hole (in it)."

The fire that destroyed the dome began as work continued on the refurbishment of the building. The dome was replaced in February 2003. State and local officials determined the fire started when workers from North Sioux City, S.D.-based Enviro Safe Air used open flame torches and heat guns to remove asbestos from the building during an exterior repair project. The resulting fire caused an estimated $5.6 million in damage. In September 2004, UI settled the lawsuit with Enviro Safe Air for $1.9 million.

But on Saturday, Skorton, along with Bob Downer of the Iowa state Board of Regents, unlocked the front door of the Old Capitol and opened the doors to the public. It was 30 years after the Old Capitol had last been refurbished and opened to the public as a museum for the first time, Downer said to the crowd. "This is a building, in my opinion, that is breathtaking in its beauty and its simplicity," he said. "Old Capitol's returned to us better than ever. More than any other symbol, Old Capitol pulls us together."

Iowa City Councilor Regena Bailey said the city was reminded of the importance of Old Capitol after a tornado struck downtown Iowa City on April 13. She said the building was one of the first places Fire Chief Andy Rocca checked for damage. "It's part of who we are," she said.

The building houses the Old Capitol museum, which includes a changing exhibit gallery on the ground floor. The former Senate chambers will be used as a room for lectures, concerts and Ph.D defenses, with the building containing interactive displays for visitors, as well. That was enough to bring in UI alumni who came to remember and visitors who came to see the building for the first time.

Lynn and Sally Stiles of Muscatine had contributed to the 1976 refurbishment campaign. Sally Stiles said called being in the Old Capitol a fine feeling. "It's kind of turning to the heart of the state," she said. "It's pleasing to us that we have another chapter in maintaining the history of Iowa."

Walter Sparks of Iowa City came with his daughter, Abby, who said she was impressed with history of Old Capitol. "I've been here forever and this is the first time I've been here in my life," Abby, 12, said. "You can see the real thing."

Mary Barrett of Iowa City said she was a UI student in 1976, and she brought her 11-year-old daughter, Rebecca, to visit the building. She said seeing the old bell -- which had rung after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- made them emotional.

"We almost teared up when we saw that connection," Barrett said.


by Press-Citizen photographer  Hannah van Zutphen-Kann
photos with (
*) by Harvey Henry
click photos to enlarge

Old Capitol 1869 Herbert Hoover 1928 Flag raising 6 May 2006*
President Skorton addresses crowd* Bob Downer addresses crowd* House Chamber*
House Chamber carpet* Senate Chamber window* Senate Chamber carpet*
Auditor's Office Auditor's Office Treasurer's  Office
Supreme Court Room Spiral Stair Spiral Stair looking down
Senate Chamber Light in House Chamber House Chamber
Library Inner dome over spiral stair Wood burning stove

Click here for information on the restoration in the 1970's