photo courtesty of Iowa Division of Tourism


Location of the Capitol on its commanding site resulted from a series of decisions that began almost with statehood. The new state quickly recognized that the Capitol should be farther west than Iowa City, and the 1st General Assembly, in 1846, authorized a commission to select a location. Amidst rivalries, a Jasper County selection was made, and then rejected. In 1854, the 5th General Assembly decreed a location "within two miles of the Raccoon fork of the Des Moines River." The exact spot was chosen when Wilson Alexander Scott gave the state 9 ½ acres where the Capitol now stands.

A group of Des Moines citizens built a temporary Capitol (which was later bought by the state) near where the Soldiers and Sailors monument now stands. In 1857, Governor James W. Grimes proclaimed Des Moines to be the capitol city, and state papers and functions were transported there. The temporary Capitol was in use for 30 years, until destroyed by fires; but in the meantime, the permanent Capitol was being planned and built.

In 1870, the General Assembly established a Capitol commission to employ an architect, choose a plan for a building (not to cost more than $1,500,000), and to proceed with the work, but only by using funds available without increasing the tax rate.

The board employed Edward Clark, architect of the Capitol extension in Washington, to aid in selecting plans and modifying them to keep the cost within the limits of appropriations. The board also instituted tests to ascertain whether Iowa stone could be found suitable for building. John C. Cochrane and A.H. Piquenard were designated as architects, and a cornerstone was laid on November 23, 1871. A smaller, full-time commission was appointed in 1872. Much of the original stone deteriorated through waterlogging and severe weather and had to be replaced. The cornerstone was re-laid on September 29, 1873.

Although the building could not be constructed for $1,500,000 as planned, the Cochrane and Piquenard design was retained and modifications were undertaken. Cochrane resigned in 1872, but Piquenard continued until his death in 1876. He was succeeded by two of his assistants, M.E. Bell and W.F. Hackney. Bell resigned in 1883 to become supervising architect for the Department of the Treasury in Washington, and Hackney continued until completion of the building.

Successive legislatures made appropriations, and the commission built within the limits of the funds appropriated. The building was dedicated in January, 1884, when the General Assembly was in session. The governor's and other offices were occupied in 1885. The Supreme Court room was dedicated in 1886.

The building commission made its final report on June 29, 1886. The cost had totaled $2,873,294.59. The audit showed that only $3.77 was unaccounted for in the 15 years. The commission bemoaned that it could not have had another $30,000 to finish the frescoes and build the south and west steps.

In 1902, in order to modernize and repair the building, a third Capitol commission was created. While work proceeded, a disastrous fire in the north wing, on January 4, 1904, ruined the House chamber and damaged other offices. The commission restored the building, purchased paintings and mosaics, and redecorated all of the interior. The original decorations are still in the Senate. These expenditures raised the total cost of the Capitol to $3,296,256.

Design of Capitol

The architectural design of the Capitol, rectangular in form, with great windows and high ceilings, follows the traditional pattern of the nineteenth century planning for public buildings, a modified and refined Renaissance style which gives the impression of strength and dignity combined with utility.

The commanding feature is the central towering dome. This is constructed of steel and stone and covered with 23 carat gold. The gold leafing was replaced in 1964-1965 at a cost of $79,938. The dome is surmounted by a lookout lantern that may be reached by long and winding stairs, and it terminates in a finial that is 275 feet above the ground floor. The rotunda beneath the dome is 67 feet in diameter. Four smaller domes of simple design rise from the four corners of the Capitol. The pediment over the front entrance discloses a fine piece of allegorical sculpture.

Stone for the basement was quarried in Johnson County, Iowa; granite came from Iowa boulders; stone of the main structure from St. Genevieve and Carroll counties, Missouri; steps, columns, and other parts from Anamosa, Iowa; Cleveland, Ohio; Sauk Rapids, Minnesota; Lamont and Joliet, Illinois. Twenty-nine types of imported and domestic marble were used in the interior; and the wood, walnut, cherry, catalpa, butternut, and oak, used was nearly all from Iowa forests.

The beauty, dignity, and arrangement of the interior become apparent as a visitor stands under the dome of the first floor. Broad, lofty corridors extend west, north, and south. Walls are highly decorated. The grand staircase is to the east. Suites opening from the south corridor are those of the governor, auditor of state, and treasurer of state. The Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals office are to the north; the secretary of state's suite is to the west.

The grand staircase ascends to a landing and divides north and south to bring visitors to the floor above, where the House of Representatives is on the north, the Senate on the south, and the law library on the west.

The Senate hall is 58 feet long, 91 feet wide and 41.9 feet in height. It is finished in marble, white oak, and scagliola, and is furnished in mahogany. The figures in the ceiling represent Industry, Law, Agriculture, Peace, History and Commerce.

The hall of the House of Representatives is 74 by 91.4 feet, and 47. 9 feet in height. It is finished in marble, scagliola, and black walnut.

The law library is 108.4 feet long, 52.6 feet wide, and 44.9 feet high. It is finished in ash and chestnut and beautifully wainscoted in marble.

The Mural "Westward"

Extending the full width of the east wall over the staircase is the great mural painting, "Westward," an idealized representation of the coming of the people who made Iowa. This was completed as part of the 1904 decoration. Edwin H. Blashfield, the artist, wrote of it:

"The main idea of the picture is a symbolical presentation of the Pioneers led by the spirits of Civilization and Enlightenment to the conquest by cultivation of the Great West. Considered pictorially, the canvas shows a prairie schooner drawn by oxen across the prairie. The family ride upon the wagon or walk at its side. Behind them and seen through the growth of stalks of corn at the right, come crowding the other pioneers and later men. In the air and before the wagon are floating four female figures; one holds the shield with the arms of the State of Iowa upon it; one holds a book symbolizing enlightenment; two others carry a basket and scatter the seeds which are symbolical of the change from wilderness to plowed fields and gardens that shall come over the prairie. Behind the wagon and also floating in the air, two female figures hold respectively a model of a stationary steam engine and of an electro dynamo to suggest the forces which come with the later men. In the right hand corner of the picture, melons, pumpkins, etc., among which stand a farmer and a girl, suggest that here is the fringe of cultivation and the beginning of the prairie. At the left a buffalo skull rather emphasizes this suggestion."

On the upper floor level above the "Westward" painting are six mosaics in arched panels depicting Defense, Charities, the Executive, the Legislative, the Judiciary, and Education. These were made in Venice from small pieces of colored stone, according to designs by Frederick Dielman of New York, who also designed the mosaic panels, Law and History, in the Congressional Library.

Twelve statues, high within the rotunda, beginning north of the library door, represent History, Science, Law, Fame, Art, Industry, Peace, Commerce, Agriculture, Victory, Truth, and Justice.

Eight lunettes, or half-moon-shaped paintings, surrounding the rotunda are the work of Kenyon Cox, famous American artist. They are entitled: Hunting, Herding, Agriculture, the Forge, Commerce, Education, Science, and Art. They are allegorical and indicate the progress of civilization.

At the top of the staircase on the south wall is a painting of a basket of corn by Floyd V. Brackney, a native of Marshall County. This picture was the center of the Iowa exhibit at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.

The Governor's Office

On January 1, 1885, Governor Buren R. Sherman became the first occupant of the present offices of the governor of Iowa, following the dedication of the state Capitol building the year before. Much of the decoration and original furnishings of that day are still preserved in the four-room suite. The large, ornate mahogany table in the center of the reception room is an example. The frescoed ceilings were painted in watercolors on the wet plaster more than 80 years ago.

The governor's private office was moved from the center room to the west office by Governor Albert B. Cummins in 1902. The governor's desk also was installed at that time and has been used by all subsequent chief executives of Iowa. Governor Nathan E. Kendall (1921-1925) provided the solid, straightback chairs for visitors. Frescoes of the Great Seal of the State of Iowa and of the Iowa Territorial Seal adorn the ceiling of the governor's private office.

The grandfather clock in the governor's office dates from about 1750 and once was owned by the prominent Iowa author Emerson Hough of Newton (1857-1923). The tall clock in the office of the executive assistant is the original master clock controlling other clocks in the Law Library, Supreme Court, and legislative chambers. Operated by air, the clock must be wound once a week.

The offices are 23 feet 9 inches from floor to ceiling. The draperies are velvet and lined with satin with an underdrape of semi-sheer fabrics. Lamps in the inner office are of pewter. Prisms of cut Czechoslovakian crystal decorate the chandelier in the reception room. The woodwork was carved in cherry and mahogany by skilled German craftsman. The hearths and wainscoting are of fine domestic and imported marble. Paintings in the offices are the works of Iowa artists.

Battle Flags

The battle flags carried by the Iowa regiments in various wars are preserved in niches on the main floor- Civil War, 36; Spanish American War, 13; First World War, 26. In the west hall is a plaque done by Nellie V. Walker in commemoration of the work of Iowa women in the fight for political equality. Also in the west hall is a model of the battleship Iowa. The model is 18 feet 7 inches long and weighs about 1,350 pounds. It is a perfect scale model ¼inch equalling 1 foot. It is on loan from the U.S. Navy Department.

In the south hall across from the governor's office is the collection of dolls representing the 41 Iowa first ladies in replicas of their inaugural gowns. The idea was suggested by Mrs. Robert Ray as her Bicentennial project and was presented to the state in 1976. Much research was done to make the dresses as authentic as possible. Where actual descriptions of the gowns could not be found, they are typical of the period. The dolls are porcelain and the faces were done from a profile of Mrs. Ray. As future first ladies take their place, they too will be represented.

Above the doll case is a photograph of the 168th Infantry of the Rainbow Division after their return from France in 1919. It is 26 feet long and 6 feet high and is one of the largest reproduction photographs in the world.

A lofty banner, stretched high under the vault of the dome, is a G.A.R. emblem. Painted by Joseph Czizek on the occasion of a Des Moines convention of the Grand Army of the Republic, the banner is retained as a permanent decoration by order of Governor Nathan E. Kendall in 1922.

Above the grand stairway, facing the large "Westward," are quotations. On the south side is one by Patrick Henry: "No free government or the blessings of Liberty can be preserved to any people but a firm adherence to Justice, Moderation, Temperance, Frugality, and Virtue and by a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles."

On the north side is one by G.W. Curtis: "Courageous confidence in the intelligence of the community is the sure sign of leadership and success."

Underneath it is one by Solon: "The ideal state - that in which an injury done to the least of its citizens is an injury done to all."

Around the rotunda on the frieze above the columns is the famous Abraham Lincoln quotation: "That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."


Information provided by the Department of General Services, Design and Construction Team.

If your school or tour group is planning a visit to Iowa's State Capitol in the near future, you will undoubtedly notice scaffolding surrounding various portions of the exterior of the building. Although it obscures the normal view, the temporary scaffolding represents the latest and perhaps one of the most ambitious efforts to restore the architectural integrity of the Iowa Statehouse.

Early Efforts

The latest effort is not the first time Iowans have shown concern for preserving the architectural heritage of their Statehouse. Minor restoration maintenance is documented as early as the years immediately following the building's completion in 1886. In 1904, when fire swept through the areas that now house the Supreme Court and Iowa House of Representatives, major restoration was performed and documented.

There is little information about who performed the actual restoration during these early years, but there is evidence that Joseph Czizek, a Statehouse decorator, made significant changes in the 1920's and 1930's. In the years preceding World War II, much of the maintenance work was contracted and awarded to government works programs.

The earlier efforts to preserve the Statehouse mostly dealt with maintaining and

upgrading the buildings interior. It was not until 1965, when the dome was regilded, that a large scale preservation effort and investment was made to the buildings exterior.

Renewed Efforts

By the 1950's, many of the rooms and corridors of the Statehouse had been repainted to reflect changing attitudes in design. Victorian use of color and pattern were no longer considered attractive or contemporary. Lighter colored paint replaced the dark, richer Victorian tones covering much of the building's intricate stenciling.

Beginning in 1976, celebration of the nation's 200th birthday prompted an increased interest in the preservation and restoration of old buildings. In Iowa, attention turned to the Statehouse. It was during this period that restoration painter Jerry Miller began the restoration effort of the Statehouse interior. Until his retirement in 1988, Miller, and restoration painter Dick Labertew, painstakingly performed the task of transforming the Capitol interiors back to their original Victorian splendor. Water leaks and other damage over the years, as well as locating proper tools and materials, presented special challenges to Miller and Labertew. After Miller's retirement in 1988, Mark Lundberg joined Labertew to carry on the task of restoring the decorative painting in the offices, meeting rooms, and corridors of the Capitol Building.

The decorative painting restoration begins with research. Various documents and photographs are reviewed for evidence of original designs and colors. Also, original designs are uncovered on the walls and ceilings by using paint scrapers, razor blades, and chemical paint removers. After the designs are found, original colors are documented, measurements are taken and recorded, and tracings are drawn. The tracings are then used to make stencils and patterns. Once stencils have been made for a particular design (some designs may require as many as five separate stencils), the stencils are taped to the working area and hand-painting begins. Original colors are matched as closely as possible to paints currently available by using color decks. Paint colors are then hand mixed to achieve the most accurate color to the original. Background colors are painted with rollers and brushes. The designs are then applied using original techniques of stenciling, patterns, glazing, and fine handwork.

Statehouse Gets a Facelift

By the early 1980's, the exterior of the Capitol Building had noticeably deteriorated. Sandstone pieces had begun falling from the building prompting the installation of steel canopies at all entrances of the building to protect pedestrians. Decorative stone, whose deterioration had first been documented as early as the turn of the century, had eroded further. The erosion was so severe that carved decorations were no longer discernible. This situation was further accelerated due to a copper roof which had reached the end of its useful life span. The roof was allowing water to infiltrate the stone walls, damaging both interior and exterior surfaces.

A systematic examination of the building exterior was performed. The structure's stone walls, windows, and roof revealed particular problems. A program for corrective action following a restoration approach was generated, and legislation was passed to implement the restoration plan. Work included in the program for corrective action includes the complete replacement of the Carroll County, Missouri, calcareous sandstone (bluestone), which constitutes all of the decorative stone. The replacement stone is Indiana Limestone, which is similar in color but much less susceptible to deterioration from weathering and corrosive atmospheric conditions. The St. Genevieve, Missouri, siliceous sandstone (brownstone), which makes up the majority of the exterior wall stone, is typically in very sound condition and will require little restoration other than in limited areas where the stone has been penetrated by moisture. The copper roof, copper gutter liner, and skylights are in very critical condition and are being totally replaced. The original wood window sashes are rotting and the large panes of glass are on the verge of falling out. These windows are being replaced with new wood units that duplicate the appearance of the original windows and hardware, but have fixed insulating glass and inconspicuous vents for natural ventilation.

Actual construction of the exterior restoration plan began in the spring of 1983. The first four phases constituted the four recesses (insets) of the building, with the construction of the first phase beginning on the southwest recess (inset). Phase 5 included all work on the east wing of the building. The west wing of the building (phase 6) included the replication of the symbolic, larger than life statuary in the pediment high above the entry porch. These carvings, which represent commerce, justice, liberty, knowledge, and agriculture, took nine months to complete and were installed in the fall of 1991. Phase 7, which includes the north face of the building and the two north corner pavilions (corner domes), is currently under construction and should be completed by the fall of 1999. Construction is expected to begin on Phase 8, the south face of the building and the two south corner pavilions (corner domes), in the spring of 1997 and should be completed by the fall of 2000. Phase 9, the last phase of the exterior restoration, will include all work to restore the central dome of the Capitol. Part of this work will include the regilding of the dome, one of the largest gold domes in the world. Phase 9 work is scheduled to begin in the spring of 1998 with completion of phase 9 and the entire capitol exterior restoration scheduled for the fall of 2000, at an estimated cost of $41 million.

Into the 21st Century

The design of the Iowa State Capitol, state of the art in the 1870's, fulfilled the vision of the planners. However, many of the features which contribute to the grand and inspiring architecture inherently reduce safety. Also, past changes to the building, such as adding intermediate floor levels in certain areas of the building, accelerate safety problems. To keep up with technological advances, wiring has been strung, wherever possible, throughout the building. Mechanical and electrical systems have become outdated and impossible to maintain.

With all these problems in mind, a task force was formed in 1991 to study various aspects of building use and condition in an integrated approach. In January 1992, a task force study report was prepared and distributed. Recommendations included in the report are as follows:

1. Install a fast reaction sprinkler system throughout the building.

2. Remove all intermediate floor levels.

3. Upgrade protection of the wood floor areas at the chamber floors and gallery levels.

4. Provide accessibility where feasibly possible throughout the building.

5. Replace the existing mechanical system.

6. Install a new electrical and communication distribution system throughout the building.

7. Continue the historical accuracy of the interior renovation.

Legislation has been passed to proceed with the interior renovation of the Capitol building. A thorough interior review of the building has been done for design purposes, and bidding documents will be completed in early 1997 for phase A, which will include all work in the southwest quarter of the building. Phase B will include all work in the northwest quarter of the building and phase C will include the southeast corner of the building. Construction is scheduled to begin during early summer of 1997, with the interior renovation scheduled to be completed by the fall of 2001, at an estimated cost of $18.5 million.

Restoration and renovation of the remainder of the building will be completed after construction of the new Judicial and Legislative Support Buildings.