A Permanent Statehouse

Building a New, Permanent Statehouse

The first capitol building in Des Moines was a brick building that was supposed to be a temporary location for the legislature. But it was used for 26 years. In 1871 work began on a new capitol building.

Many people opposed building a new, permanent statehouse. Some believed the cost was too high while others wanted the capital moved to their part of the state. Railroad companies wanted the capital city on their line. But John A. Kasson, a political leader who favored a new building, spoke about state pride.

A state, like an individual, should present a decent exterior to the world—a grand building with noble lines and elegant architecture would be an inspiration and a stabilizing influence.

A Grand Building with Noble Lines and Elegant Architecture

The Iowa General Assembly finally agreed to provide funds for a new capitol. The legislature allotted $1.5 million with the understanding that taxes would not be raised to pay for the building. In 1871 workers began laying the concrete foundation. When the basement walls had neared completion, a defect was found. The stone chosen for the project was full of moisture. When the cold freezing weather arrived, many stones cracked. Although it added to the construction costs, the first basement walls were removed and replaced with stone from the Old Capitol quarry near Iowa City.

Construction continued for many years. From time to time suggestions to cut costs were made. Ideas to leave out the domes and replace marble columns with iron were considered. When the domes were kept in the plan, a disagreement arose about gilding them. Some people believed the gold was in bad taste, but eventually, those wanting the gold won. The central dome was gilded and the smaller domes were trimmed with gold.

The building had been completed at a cost of $2,873,294 and was paid for by the time of completion. The legislature had found the extra money without raising taxes or borrowing money.

An Impressive Sight and a Difficult Beginning

The legislators moved into the capitol in January 1884. A reception and open house highlighted the day and evening. The people of Iowa were invited to visit their capitol, walk through its rooms and meet their governor. Over 30,000 Iowans accepted the invitation, many traveling by train to see the new building. It was an impressive sight: the gilded dome shone by day in the sun; the lights blazed at the top of Capitol Hill by night.

Work on the capitol's interior decoration continued through the years and had just been completed when fire broke out in the House of Representatives wing. Both the governor and legislators helped fight the blaze. The legislative session was scheduled to begin one week later, and despite the damage the legislators met on time. They simply moved their meeting place to an undamaged part of the building while debris from the House chamber was removed. The charred walls and ceiling were covered with white canvas. Blue bunting hung in graceful garlands for a touch of color in the otherwise "white chamber." The chamber was completely redecorated after the legislators returned home.

The Capitol Campus

As the years passed the number of people needed to take care of government business increased, and the departments outgrew their space in the capitol. New government buildings arose on the hill overlooking the Des Moines River valley. The original ten acres grew to 165. The additional land provided space for attractive grounds around the capitol as well as for office buildings for the different departments of state government.

In 1983 a major restoration project began on the exterior and interior of the capitol. The project took several years to complete. The gold dome was rebuilt and much of the decorative stonework was restored. The windows were replaced and the interior was repainted.

The gold-domed building continues to serve as the seat of Iowa's government. The General Assembly meets there every year, and many state officials, including the governor and the Justices of the Supreme Court, work in the building.


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “A Place for Government,” The Goldfinch 5, no. 4 (April 1984).