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Release: Aug. 19, 2002

UI to open bids Aug. 21 for Old Capitol restoration

Photo: Ann Smothers, director of the Old Capitol Museum, says that restoration work at the Old Capitol is on schedule. (Click on photo for enlargement)

University of Iowa officials will pass another milestone in the estimated $6.2 million restoration of the landmark Old Capitol when they open bids submitted by prospective construction firms Aug. 21.

Gary Nagle, UI Facility Services Group (FSG) project manager and AIA architect, says that the restoration is on target. "We told (former) UI President Mary Sue Coleman that the dome would be completed by February 2003, and we're on schedule." He notes that, following the selection of a contractor for Phase 1 this Thursday, restoration on the remaining phases will proceed as soon as possible.

Phase 1, to begin in September, will involve restoring the dome, cupola and bell tower by February 2003 and replacing the roof by May 2003. Phase 2 will consist of reconstructing fire-damaged interior areas and upgrading building infrastructure including fire alarms and sprinklers, electrical and lighting systems, and the elevator. Phases 3 and 4 will focus on non-fire-related improvements to the building's exterior, such as the west portico and exterior masonry, and landscaping.

Nagle says that the process is painstaking because the work calls for replicating a dome, cupola and bell tower that no longer exist and for which no detailed blueprints existed. A drawing and a few dimensions were sufficient for building a complicated structure in past centuries, however today plans must include much more detail and many more dimensions to ensure that the final product is exactly what is desired. As a consequence, much of the work conducted during the past several months has involved drawing scores of pages of blueprints.

"The amount of time spent researching the history of Old Capitol has been enormous," Nagle says. "The university didn't have detailed enough drawings to work-out the dimensions. We must be very detailed in order to tell the contractors what we want. Every little thing -- from the species of wood and angles of the cuts to the sizes of the bolts and fasteners being used -- have to be detailed."

David Jackson, assistant to the FSG director, says that careful research has revealed 20th century changes that were made to the building, meaning that the current restoration will result in an Old Capitol that will be truer to the original 19th century structure than the building it replaces.

Spokesmen for the two firms selected to restore the Old Capitol Museum -- OPN Architects, Inc. of Cedar Rapids assisted by Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, Architecture & Engineering of Boston -- said that the project offers many challenges and rewards.

David Fixler of Einhorn Yaffee says he is very pleased to be working on the restoration of such an elegant structure.

"In Iowa, the Old Capitol is the greatest example of Greek Revival architecture. It is a symbol of the cultural aspirations of a frontier community, representing the spirit of the early republic and what they were trying to emulate. I have enjoyed working on this project where there is great spirit among the workers and a willingness to do it right and do it well. So far, we've taken eight months to accomplish what can take up to two to three years on other projects," says Fixler, noting that the 1970s restoration of Old Capitol required about six years.

Ann Smothers, director of the Old Capitol Museum, says that the process of renovating Old Capitol sometimes involves simultaneously looking to the future and the past.

"We're talking about a 160-year-old structure where modern safety-related equipment is being added, and we're also trying to make this the most historically accurate project possible. For example, we're putting back two windows that were originally in the dome in the 1800s but were removed in the 1920s. By returning the windows, which will provide light to the interior of the dome and access to the roof, we will be making the roof areas more accessible for monitoring and maintenance," she says.

Restoration work related to the fire continues as a "sister" to the bell destroyed in the fire is being readied for the restored Old Capitol. The replacement bell, manufactured sometime between 1860 and 1890, was cast at the same West Troy, N.Y. foundry that produced the old bell in 1864. The 1,770-pound replacement is being fitted with an automatic ringing system, as well as cleaned, polished and inscribed by the Verdin Co. of Cincinnati, at a cost of about $20,000. Meanwhile, the 1,100-pound bronze bell ruined by the fire is currently on display from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday and Sundays from 12:30 until 4:30 p.m. at the UI Museum of Natural History in Macbride Hall.

Also, about 50 pieces of damaged furniture are being repaired by Schanz Furniture & Refinishing of South Amana, Iowa.

Smothers lauds her staff and colleagues for the work involved in drying and cataloguing some 900 books used as exhibit items as well as drying wooden floors, walls and pillars, many of which are still too wet to hold fresh paint.

"It's been heart-warming to have so many good people work so hard on the project. You learn how many good people work at the university," she says.