116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Twenty years after a fire destroyed the dome of the University of Iowa’s Old Capitol, the UI now is preparing to redo “failing” gilding at an estimated cost of $200,000 to $500,000.
The UI will pay OPN Architects $23,500 to study the “causes and extents of gilding failure on the Old Capitol dome and develop recommendations for repair and restoration,” according to a contract signed in September. The study may include drone photography, sampling of the gold leaf and consultation with the State Historic Preservation Office.
“Work on any needed repairs will begin in spring 2022 pending the outcome of the study,” said Wendy Moorehead, UI assistant director of facilities management. “Alongside this timeline, the campus is excited to celebrate the upcoming year representing the 175th anniversary of the UI, and the Old Capitol dome, at the heart of campus, will represent that important milestone.”
Another major milestone was the Nov. 20, 2001, fire that destroyed the dome, damaged much of the historic building and kept the Old Capitol shuttered for five years.
First state capital
The Old Capitol Building, for which the cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1840, was to be the hub of state government after Iowa City was chosen as the state capital in 1839.
Many of the Devonian limestone blocks used to build the Greek Revival edifice were quarried along the Iowa River, near North Liberty, floated on barges and then hauled by oxen to the construction site, according to the Old Capitol Museum website.
Four rooms were done by December 1842, when the Iowa Legislative Assembly met in the building for the first time. The Legislature decided in 1857 to move the state’s capital to Des Moines, but that year also appropriated $4,000 to finish the Iowa City building.
Old Cap housed most of the UI classes after the university was founded in 1847. The building also served as the library, chapel, armory and office space for administrators.
The original dome of the Old Capitol was copper. But the UI paid $200 in 1920 to have 6,500 3-inch gold leaf pieces applied to the surface, The Gazette reported in 2001. Periodic regilding has happened since, with the UI paying $304,000 in 1993.
Early Nov. 20, 2001, contractors using open flame torches and heat guns to remove asbestos and paint from the dome accidentally started a fire. The blaze flared through the golden dome, bringing students, faculty and Iowa City residents to the Pentacrest to watch the fire in dismay and horror.
The dome was destroyed and much of the historic building was damaged by smoke and water, causing the UI to close the building for five years. Firefighters were able to cover many artifacts and furniture, including desks used by Iowa’s earliest lawmakers, to protect them from water damage.
The fire ignited years of legal battles over who would pay the $1.3 million restoration cost. The UI had not issued workers permits for heat-based tools, but with many contractors on the job, there was a lot of finger pointing. In 2018, UI settled for $600,000 from six contractors.
A new dome crowned Old Capitol Building in February 2003. The 12,000-pound wooden structure was gilded on the ground and then hoisted to the top of the building. Conrad Schmitt Studios, of New Berlin, Wis., did the gilding work in 2003, the UI reported.
What is gilding?
Gilding, the process of applying gold leaf to a surface, is a specialty craft done by a limited number of studios across the United States. Michael Kramer, president and founder of the Gilders’ Studio in Olney, Md, said 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.
On exterior surfaces, like a building dome, artists often go up on scaffolds or lifts to prime the area and then carefully roll on a single layer of the gold leaf, which is metallic and reflects light.
In some cases, as was the case at the Old Cap in 2003, artists do the work on the ground and then the dome is wrapped and carefully lifted to the top of the building, Kramer said.
“If it’s done correctly, you won’t have to redo it for 30 to 35 years,” Kramer said. “If you don’t do it correctly, it can fail in as few as two years.”
The Gazette called the Conrad Schmitt Studio for comment, but the studio did not return a message left with an employee Thursday.
Weather, sun take a toll
The Gilders’ Studio did the gilding on the Dubuque County Courthouse in 1994, he said, and that work is just now starting to show wear that can be seen from the ground.
Weather takes a toll on gilded surfaces, with hail and hurricanes being the worst, Kramer said. Rain and snow don’t seem to erode the gold leaf as much. Over time, ultraviolet rays from the sun break down the seal between the sheets of gold leaf, he said.
The Gilders’ Studio repaired some of the raised corners on the New York Life building in Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Kramer said.
The UI hired Kramer in 2014 to inspect the gilding on the Old Capitol dome, he said.
“They had me go up on a lift an inspect it,” he said. “It was wearing a lot. The wear was premature.”
Kramer said his studio offers a five-year warranty on gilding — longer if the building owner pays for inspections — but after that he doesn’t think a company could be held responsible for the condition of the gold leaf.
The money for the UI dome restoration will come from the Treasurer’s Temporary Investments/Building renewal funds, Moorehead said.
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