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What would architect Bill Wagner do?


Really, there’s only one question Dallas County supervisors need to ask as they decide what to do about the sagging floors in the county’s stately courthouse, a 1902 building modeled after a French château that arguably is one of the most beautiful courthouses in Iowa: What would Bill Wagner do?

Who? The guy who insisted on historical authenticity and integrity in the Terrace Hill renovation and staged an uproar over the placement of a modern garage near the mansion; who held the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum and the Living History Farms Church of the Land projects as closely in his heart as a treasured friend; who mapped out a future for the Des Moines River town of Bentonsport that pays homage to its past; and who left his fingerprints on countless architectural gems around the state, taking his stewardship fairly personally as he did it. That Bill Wagner. He was a legend, in Iowa and outside it. Iowa and the world lost a treasure that snowy day in early 2001 when he lost is life in a traffic accident.

If Bill liked you, he’d give you one of his original pen-and-ink drawings of something beautiful he’d happened upon and sketched. They’re priceless, revealing a style many artists have tried to copy but haven’t quite mastered, but to Bill, they were tokens of affection, gifts to be shared for the sheer joy they brought the recipient.

It was the same joy that made him climb scaffolding in the early 1990s, when he was well into his 70s and well after such gymnastics were medically advisable, so he could lovingly watch over the restoration of the main courtroom in the Dallas County Courthouse. Someone once suggested that a man his age had no business scaling the rickety scaffolding, but trying to talk him down was futile. The joy in his face when he discovered hidden under layers of paint the great seals of the nation, the state, the county and the judiciary was the same look that crosses the faces of first-time fathers.

Of the sagging floors, he’d say, “Fix them, of course,” all the while giving a colorful and historically accurate oration on why the courthouse is an unparalleled gem worth saving, sprinkling his speech with details on the period during which a technique called trompe l’oeil, meaning “trick of the eye,” was used to create faux marble on the wainscot in the courtroom, or revealing some other little-known fact about the majestic building’s history. Staying with him in a conversation was like following the path of a golf ball driven from a tee in an 8-foot-by-8-foot tile bathroom, but it was worth the effort. He was a true character in a world where there aren’t nearly enough characters.

Bill Wagner wore his heart very much on his sleeve, his emotions spilling over in tears whether he was talking about the death of his beloved daughter or the neglect of an architectural treasure. He was absolutely adamant about the need – obligation is a better word – to rescue them, and probably browbeat as much as convinced the Dallas County supervisors to commit to making about $2 million in renovations to the stately beauty that anchors Adel’s town square.

The authentically restored landmarks around Iowa are his greatest legacy. It would be a shame to let one of the edifices he loved most, the Dallas County Courthouse, fall through the cracks.

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