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The Elbert Files: Snyder’s Capitol stories


Here’s some little-known Iowa history from Rosa Snyder, an artist and lecturer who spent a portion of her career helping restore the interior of the Iowa Capitol and learning its story.   

In 1846, the year Iowa became a state, lawmakers meeting in the then-capital of Iowa City created a three-member commission to find a location for a new capital nearer the state’s geographic center.

They selected a site in Jasper County between Monroe and Prairie City. It was supposed to be a secret, but one commissioner told friends and before long, Snyder said, there were wagons and people passing through Oskaloosa.

“People followed them up to where they were exploring and buying land because it would make them money if this was the state capital,” Snyder said.
But the governor found out and nixed the deal, leaving the speculators holding the bag.  

In 1854, lawmakers tried again. This time they said the new location would be near the growing community of Fort Des Moines.

There were already clusters of buildings on both sides of the Des Moines River, and each side vied for the new Capitol building.

“Had the Capitol been put on the west side, it would have been approximately where St. Ambrose Church is today” at Sixth Avenue and High Street, Snyder said.
But the east side won. The site selected was property donated by ferry operator Wilson Alexander Scott, who died before construction began and is buried just south of today’s Iowa Judicial Building.

It was later revealed that at least one of the five people on the site selection committee had solicited bribes from promoters on both sides of the river.  
Another surprise, Snyder said, was that the Illinois architects who designed the Iowa Statehouse had copied their own plans for the Capitol in Springfield, Ill.

The plans were later modified, she said, but “when you look at the blueprints, it has ‘Illinois Capitol’ crossed out and ‘Iowa Capitol’ written above it.”

Architects John C. Cochrane and Alfred H. Piquenard were hired in 1869 – one year after ground was broken for the Illinois Capitol. They were selected following a curious but unexplained decision by state officials to not go with any of three proposals that had won cash prizes in a design contest.

Construction began in 1871 and continued for 15 years. The cost was $2.8 million on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Workers were in the process of updating the building and installing electric lighting in 1904 when a fire caused extensive damage to the north wing, which includes the Iowa House chamber. The fire began, Snyder said, when a construction worker left for the day without extinguishing a candle he had used while working between walls.

Following the fire, New York artist Elmer Garnsey, who had worked at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and for the Library of Congress, was hired to supervise the repair of areas damaged by the fire and completion of decorative work throughout the Capitol.

Years later, much of that work, along with the building’s original decorative finishes, were painted over and were not uncovered until restoration efforts began in the 1980s.

Snyder was part of the restoration team and stood on scaffolding to repaint 20-foot ceilings in the treasurer’s and governor’s offices, until back problems forced her to quit.

She was then a tour guide for many years, collecting and sharing stories, which she now retells to community gatherings throughout Iowa as part of a lecture series sponsored by Humanities Iowa.

“People are surprised,” Snyder said, “when I tell them there are 120 rooms in the Capitol and almost all of them, even the bathrooms, have decorative painting, because in other capitols, it’s only the main offices and hallways.”

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