From the very beginning, the original Iowa State House in Iowa City was designed to draw attention to itself – but before any plans were “officially” drawn up (1839), there was much debate on what the new capitol might look like.
Can you imagine a clock tower as the iconic symbol of the University of Iowa instead of our golden dome?
On July 4, 1839, the first published map of Iowa City was released and on it there was an artist’s rendition of the new capitol building. As you can see, that proposed design was vastly different than what we actually ended up with. And, aren’t you glad about that!
You can read more here, but suffice to say that Iowa City’s Old Stone Capitol has its unique look because it was designed by John F. Rague – the same architect – and a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln – who designed the first state capitol building of Illinois – located in Springfield.
(P-0350) As you can see from these early pictures, the dome sitting atop Old Capitol has not always been gold. The original dome was copper – which, as you probably know, turns green over time. But SUI paid $200 in the 1920’s – during a complete rehabilitation of the building – to have 6,500 three-inch gold leaf pieces applied to the surface, and from that point on, Old Capitol has featured its golden dome. More on that gold-leafing process later, so now, let’s go inside and start our 40-foot ascent to the top of that dome…
Many visitors assume they are looking at the underside of Old Capitol’s dome when they see the beautiful chandelier hanging from the domed ceiling (see pics above) rising above the beautiful reverse-spiral staircase. In actuality, what we are seeing when we look upward from the second floor is the massive “false” dome (see pic below) and a concrete slab that serves as a firewall between Old Capitol itself and the cupola that rises above it.
This first section of Old Capitol’s dome is simply the large base compartment that is made up of a narrow, steep stairway surrounding the ‘top-side’ of the massive ‘false dome’ that visitors see when looking up from the second floor of Old Cap.
Now, we get to the noisy section of The Dome. This is where the University Bell resides.
A large bell has hung in the Old Capitol Bell Tower from 1864 to the present: tolling for three days and nights after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, chiming for several days to mark the end of World War II, ringing in celebration of America’s Bicentennial on July 4, 1976, and solemnly marking the loss of so many lives immediately following 9/11 in 2001. More on this iconic bell later.
Old Capitol’s cupola includes a large pillared section that supports the golden dome. In architecture, a cupola is a relatively small, most often dome-like, tall structure on top of a building – often used to provide a lookout or to admit light and air. The word comes from Latin (cupula) and Greek (kúpellon) – meaning a ‘small cup’ turned upside-down.
It’s from this high point above campus, where both the United States and Iowa State flags are flown.
As we said earlier, the dome on Old Capitol was given its golden look in the 1920’s. It was at that time when the building went through an extensive rehabilitation which included steel reinforcements and a concrete firewall that separated the main building from the cupola. It was this firewall above the second floor ceiling that saved Old Capitol from the devastating cupola fire in 2001!
In the early 2000’s, The University of Iowa began yet another round of renovations – the previous ones were in the 1920’s and 1970’s – to upgrade Old Capitol. Part of the repairs called for asbestos to be removed from the dome/cupola area.
On November 20, 2001, contractors using open flame torches and heat guns on the cupola supporting the building’s golden dome accidentally set it on fire. Fortunately, the fire was limited to the cupola of the building – thanks to that concrete slab firewall that was installed during the 1920’s rehabilitation!
The bell (1864) at the top of Old Capitol was irreparably damaged, the dome/cupola was destroyed, and the tens of thousands of gallons of water used to douse the blaze caused major damage inside – closing much of the building for over four years! Read more here.
In late 2002, Conrad Schmitt Studios of New Berlin, Wisconsin constructed a new, 12,000 pound wooden dome in a hangar at the Iowa City Airport. The new dome was gilded – covered with 23 and 3⁄4 carat gold leaf – and in February 2003 (see pics above) was hoisted to the top of the building.
In December of 2002, a new bell was also installed in the bell tower, and on May 6, 2006, Old Capitol was finally reopened to the public. But that’s not the end of our story…
The process of regilding a dome like the one on Old Capitol is a very delicate process. In an article appearing in the January 20, 2022 edition of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, we find these details…
Gilding is a specialty craft done by a limited number of studios. Michael Kramer, president and founder of the Gilders’ Studio in Olney, Md., told The Gazette that even fewer studios focus on large-scale outdoor projects like building domes. “It was probably more prevalent in the late 1800s into the early 20th century to gild exterior ornament,” Kramer said. But “we gilded a new building in Dubai a few years ago.“ The Gilders’ Studio custom orders its gold leaf from an Italian company, which uses electric hammers to beat an alloy of mostly 23 3/4-karat gold into thin sheets that are put on rolls for application. The leaf is so thin a stack of 10,000 sheets is no thicker than a dime, Kramer said.
As we said earlier, the first application of gold-leafing – 6,500 three-inch gold leaf pieces applied to the surface – was done at a cost of $200 in the early 1920’s, and records indicate that a regilding was done again in 1993. According to the experts, if the process is done correctly, a gold leaf covering will last from 30 to 35 years, but in our case, the new 2003 dome at Old Capitol began showing problems (see pics above) only ten years after the project was completed.
Using scaffolding and industrial rope, workmen began removing the 2003 gold leaf in the summer of 2022. Once down to the sheet metal – the dome received a primer, followed by two topcoats tinted to a yellow base. Then a special product is used to help the delicate gold leaf adhere to the primer, followed finally with the new gold leaf – which should now keep the Old Capitol golden dome defect-free for the next 30-35 years.
A huge thanks to The University of Iowa Pentacrest Museums for this montage of pics from the Old Capitol Museum. Be sure to click here to visit their fabulous website.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.