Old Capitol’s history began as the seat of the territorial government of Iowa. It became the University’s first permanent building in 1857 when the state legislature moved to Des Moines. In addition to being the administrative center of the University, at various times it was also the home of the law school, the library, a museum, a dormitory, and even a gymnasium. The story of Old Capitol intersects with some of the most defining moments in the nation’s history. Abraham Lincoln was eulogized on its steps on April 19, 1865. A hundred years later, another moment of turmoil—the protests over the Vietnam War— engulfed Old Capitol. It is the heart of the University, its pivot, and the image conjured up when remembering the high bluffs and city above the Iowa River.
Despite Old Capitol’s popularity, it has had its detractors. In 1939, the rabidly anticlassicist Frank Lloyd Wright famously called the building his least favorite on campus, adding, “all of your buildings are very bad . . . and they are destructive of me and my work.” He advised the University to “forget your sentimentality for Old Capitol else you are doomed to destruction.” Wright was advocating for contemporary design. Yet Old Capitol remains the focus of collective memory and the point of departure for architecture on campus, having inspired the Beaux-Arts Classicism of the Pentacrest buildings, the dome of Boyd Law Building, and the axes along which the various campuses are organized. Old Capitol itself has also been refined and redefined over the years, with a near total rehabilitation from 1921 to 1924 that added the west portico, an element included in the original design but never built. Owing to a lack of space, and after 110 years and fifteen University presidents, the Office of the President was moved in 1970 from its location in the southeast corner of the first floor to Jessup Hall. Old Capitol was rededicated as part of the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations, this time restored to its original character as territorial seat and home of state government. The 2006 renovation, made more extensive than originally planned by a November 20, 2001, fire that destroyed the lantern (cupola) and dome, has even more fully revived the building’s nineteenth-century character.
A late example of Greek Revival architecture, Old Capitol reiterates on a more modest scale the state capitol in Springfield, Illinois (also designed by Rague) and a distinguished succession of state capitols (Ohio, Tennessee) going all the way back to Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia state capitol at Richmond (1799). The walls of Old Capitol are composed of porous Iowa limestone, giving the building a rough- hewn quality. The portico columns, pediment, bell housing, lantern (cupola), and dome are all wood painted to imitate stone. Owing to its prominent porticoes, Old Capitol is a Doric building. This choice was both symbolic and aesthetic—the fluted Greek Doric order, and its associations with the Parthenon and Athenian democracy, conveys efficiency, modesty, and good government. The façade walls are articulated with the even sparer Doric pilasters. Frugality and moral rectitude are the order here, relieved only by the Corinthian capitals of the lantern columns, modeled on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, a fourth-century BCE work in Athens. The dome, recently regilded in gold leaf, captures the sun to become the focal point of the building and the entire campus.
The results of the 2006 project are also visible in the detailed work done to restore Old Capitol with greater historical accuracy. Because no drawings existed from the building’s construction, architectural historians pieced plans together from fragments. Some changes were made—the original wood-shingled roof, which had been replaced first with slate, then with asphalt shingles, was restored with standing- seam metal cladding—but Old Capitol today is as close to its original design as it has been since the nineteenth century. Inside, the inversely rotated stairway has been retained, and the building’s bell—destroyed in the fire—has been replaced by one from the same period. The new interior color scheme, more in keeping with the mid-nineteenth century, has also been introduced; in place of sober white walls from the 1970s, Old Capitol is warmed by lavender, rose, and azure walls. Burnished and reopened in May 2006, it again greets visitors and looks westward across Iowa, as it has since 1842. As a “nationally important example of Greek Revival architecture,” Old Capitol has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
Old Capitol is accessible to people with disabilities.