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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Iowa lawmakers to ‘intensify’ talks about Historical Building
With 175th anniversary of statehood, fate in question
DES MOINES — As work progresses on making a leakproof roof to protect more than 200 million pieces of Iowa history and culture at the State Historical Building, lawmakers promise to “intensify” their discussion of the planned improvements that could tally as much as $60 million.
The 37-year-old building is a “hive of activity,” said state Department of Cultural Affairs spokesman Michael Morain. This fall, work crews used a crane to remove most of the skylights over the atrium in order to rebuild a watertight roof. The building has remained open, with temporary walls encircling the atrium so visitors can still access the museum galleries and research center
The museum collection reflects the lives of settlers even before Iowa gained statehood — which is marking its 175th anniversary Tuesday of its 1846 admission to the union.
Morain characterizes the work as building maintenance, not a “grand renovation.” But in budget documents, the work that is projected to continue until at least 2025 is described as “total renovation.”
The current project and its price tag have raised questions from Iowa lawmakers, some who see the building down the hill from the Capitol as a money pit. In addition to housing the state Department of Cultural Affairs administrative offices, the building is home to the State Historical Society museum and archives as well its research centers.
As the 2022 Iowa Legislative session approaches, lawmakers promise to step up the discussion of the building’s future, including whether it would make sense to replace it with a new building to showcase Iowa’s history and heritage.
“I guess the only I can say to you is that discussion will intensify,” said Rep. Gary Mohr, R-Bettendorf, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “It has to intensify simply because of the money involved.”
It’s not a new discussion. In a 2016 report, Neumann Monson Architects said the building was a “critical juncture.”
“The building and its systems no longer serve the needs of the DCA or its primary function as the state’s flagship museum,” it wrote in a report to the Legislature. “The department’s ability to serve as a cultural institution is in jeopardy due to building flaws, maintenance and oversized structure.”
Based on that report, Cultural Affairs pitched an $80 million plan to “right-size” the building from 234,000 square feet to 155,000 to make it, according to the architects, “more functional, flexible and adaptable for the future.”
Lawmakers were told it would be the “most sustainable and cost-effective option” for the building that needed more than $40 million in repairs to mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems as well as those leaky skylights. Estimates placed the cost of demolition and construction of a new facility as high as $118 million, which the architects was cost prohibitive.
Legislators didn’t take action on that proposal and, since then, have continued to talk about the building without reaching a decision. “We can’t just continue to throw money at it (because) every year we put millions of dollars into it, it's just another year,” Mohr said.
But that’s essentially what lawmakers have done, according to Rep. Dennis Cohoon, D-Burlington, who sits on the Transportation, Infrastructure and Capitals Appropriations Subcommittee. The problems aren’t new to him. Cohoon recalls there were buckets on the floor to catch water leaking through the roof when he visited the State Historical Building shortly after it opened. In recent years, repairs to the three-story building have continued “kind of piecemeal.”
“It’s like, what’s the minimum that we put in to keep something repaired?” he said. “That doesn't keep up with anything.”
It’s a classic case of legislators “kicking the can down the road,” Cohoon said. “But we’re spending money on it as we're kicking it. It's like we’re putting in money but not enough to really save it.”
A couple of years ago, the Legislature created a $500,000 task force to look at moving the Historical Building to the Iowa State Fairgrounds. There was some interest, but no decision.
“A structure that big, that public, we need a lot of options,” Mohr said about the museum, which attracted nearly 90,000 visitors in 2019, which Cultural Affairs characterized as the last “typical year” before the coronavirus pandemic.
In the meantime, the department plans to continue with improvements to the building. Earlier this year, the Department of Cultural Affairs submitted a request for $13.7 million as a down payment for future phases of the renovation, including replacement of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, vapor barrier applications, fire alarm, security system upgrades and other repairs and renovations. The projects also will include improvements to collection storage, archive digitization, other technology, and exhibits.
The total “ask” for the remaining project would be $57 million, according to the state Department of Administrative Services.
When lawmakers see the numbers, “it’s going to heighten our awareness and heighten our discussions,” Mohr said.
Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, recently said he will look to the Capitol Planning Commission for guidance on whether to continue improvements or replace the building.
The commission is “in support of continued and complete renovation” as outlined in its 2020 annual report, Chairwoman Annette Renaud of Ankeny said. It recommends continuing and completing the phased renovation of the State Historical Building. According to its annual report, that includes $20 million for repairs to exterior walls and lighting, $600,000 for floor repairs, $1.5 million to replace the chiller and $500,000 to replace a boiler, $2.15 million for HVAC controls and $2.275 million to replace elevators.
Quoting from the annual report, Renaud said the commission’s priorities include the preservation and enhancement of “the dignity, beauty, and architectural integrity” of the buildings and grounds of the Capitol complex.
There wasn’t much discussion about the State Historical Building during the pandemic-disrupted 2021 legislative session, Cohoon said, but he expects the conversation will continue when legislators convene in January. However, he’s not confident it will lead to a decision.
“We've talked about this forever,” Cohoon said. “The question was always do we want to pour more money into that and end up spending more on it, literally, than it cost to build?”
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