The Iowa Statehouse

Monday, October 27, 2008 -- Winterset, IA

The "exploration for the day" on Sunday was the Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines. One of the multiple themes of our travels these days is to see as many of the statehouses as we can. They're full of history, usually very ornate and rich with art and symbolism, and there's an aura or feeling of importance, orderliness, and solidness -- after all, it's the place our state laws are proposed, legislated, and adjudicated.

The Iowa Statehouse is the only Capitol in the United States that has 5 domes. The main dome rises 275 feet above the first floor of the rotunda and it's exterior is covered in gold leaf -- thin sheets of pure gold. Because the gold is so thin, it must be replaced every 30 years or so. It was last done in 1998.

Interesting factoid: 250,000 sheets of gold leaf would form a stack only 1 inch high. So while you might think it'd take tens of millions of dollars to cover a dome this size with pure gold, the total cost of re-gilding in 1998 was $482,000 -- and that includes labor. A mere pittance of two-bits per man, woman, and child in the State.

Over the years the building grew tired and wasn't maintained to a high standard. In fact, layers of paint were applied on top of all kinds of things... marble columns, stenciled walls, gold-leaf detailing, etc. Maybe some governor or influential senator had a relative in the painting business?... I don't know. But about 10 years ago, a project to revitalize the place began with the goal to restore it to it's original grandeur. The job is nearly done and it looks magnificent -- even to my untrained eye.

We joined a guided tour, with a positively delightful tour guide, who took us places the public doesn't usually go and told us things the public doesn't usually hear. The "high point" of the tour was a climb up hundreds (or was it thousands?) of steps to the balcony at the top of the dome.

Construction on this building began in 1871 and was completed in 1886, which makes it almost 125 years old. To me, it looks like it'll easily make it another 125 years, and at that point it'd still be considered new in Europe.

What is it about the American psyche that, it seems by default, wants to constantly replace the old with something new?

T
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