Government

Iowa lawmakers consider moving State Historical Building

Major repair estimate prompts talk of options, including state fairgrounds

The State Historical Building in Des Moines needs about $50 million in repairs, prompting lawmakers on Thursday to suggest the state consider options, such as building a new museum near the Capitol or at the state fairgrounds. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The State Historical Building in Des Moines needs about $50 million in repairs, prompting lawmakers on Thursday to suggest the state consider options, such as building a new museum near the Capitol or at the state fairgrounds. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
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DES MOINES — A legislative panel is considering options for the State Historical Building, including a move to the State Fairgrounds, given the building’s need for up to $50 million in repairs.

“I think that’s a travesty to have to spend that kind of money on a 30-year-old building, so I think it’s important to look at other options,” Rep. Gary Mohr, R-Bettendorf, said Thursday.

Mohr chairs the House Transportation, Infrastructure and Capitals Appropriations Subcommittee that received a $49.8 million estimate for repairs to the building, just west of the Capitol.

Mohr is frustrated that ongoing problems haven’t been fixed.

“I don’t want to say this can has been kicked down the road for 30 years because I’m sure that the first few years there wasn’t a problem,” he said. “But, again, as I understand this, this has been an ongoing problem with the building for quite some time.”

Lawmakers have been aware of problems with the building for years.

In fact, Rep. Dennis Cohoon of Burlington, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, remembers visiting the building when it opened in 1987 and seeing buckets catching dripping water.

“It’s time to make a decision,” Cohoon said. “Either we fix it and keep it or decide that it’s a better investment to look at another location.”

Cohoon said it would cost an estimated $125 million to replace the building with a new structure.

A 2016 report to the Legislature by architects and construction firms said the Historical Building’s shortcomings include a “failing building envelope with no vapor barrier, exposed pipes above exhibits and collection storage, unsealed concrete ceilings, water leaks, a faulty internal drainage system, failing exterior granite and an outdated heating and cooling system that needs to be replaced in its entirety.”

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According to the report, “the building and its systems no longer serve the needs of the Department of Cultural Affairs or its primary function as the state’s flagship museum. The department’s ability to serve as a cultural institution is in jeopardy due to building flaws, maintenance and oversized structure.”

“I’m not a construction engineer, (but) being an Iowan, I think it’s a travesty if our buildings don’t last more than 30 years,” Mohr said.

So in House Study Bill 251, Mohr and the subcommittee included a $1 million planning grant for a 10-person task force to look at options for the Historical Building.

If approved, the task force would include four lawmakers and representatives of the Departments of Cultural Affairs and Administrative Services, the state fair board and its Blue Ribbon Foundation, the governor and a facilities manager.

The task force is to make an interim report in December and a final report by Jan. 1, 2021.

“The feeling is that perhaps more people would go through the Historical Building during the 10 days of the state fair than go through it all year around at the current location,” Mohr said.

He’s not limiting the search for a solution to the building or relocation to the fairgrounds.

“I think it’s important we step back and look at other options because putting $30 million to $50 million into an existing structure shouldn’t be our only option,” he said.

Other options could include renovating the current structure in Des Moines’ East Village or looking for a new location near the Capitol, he said. Selling the current Des Moines location, at 600 E. Locust St., might provide funding for a new facility.

“I’ve been coming to the Capitol since 1967 since I worked down here as a high school kid,” said Mohr, a retired college administrator. “The value of that block is probably more today than it has been in the last 52 years I have been coming to Des Moines to the Capitol. I think we need to take that into account.”

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Legislators also have to weigh whether the Historical Building should take priority over other needs, such as structural problems that cause mold in the Wallace Building, Cohoon said.

Mohr noted that the Historical Building and Wallace, which are a block apart, have at least $80 million in repair needs.

“We don’t have the resources,” he told the House Appropriations Committee.

The state, Cohoon said, has identified $379 million in major maintenance needs at its universities and other facilities, “and we’re putting in $20 million” toward those repairs.

The subcommittee’s budget, House Study Bill 251, was approved 24-0 by the full Appropriations Committee Thursday.

l Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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