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December 7, 2001
Volume 39, No. 8


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Skyline Interrupted

Coleman vows familiar landmark will be rebuilt

  The dome of the Old Capitol, sheathed in scaffolding and plastic while it underwent restoration, was engulfed in flames on the morning of Nov. 20. Photo by Tim Schoon.

The Old Capitol.

Its outline is on nearly every piece of mail sent by the University. Its steps were the site of memorial services for Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and John F. Kennedy in 1963. They served as the springboard for numerous campus riots in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In its 1994 April Fools Day issue, The Daily Iowan claimed that carrot peeler-wielding thieves had stripped the gold leaf from the dome. Approximately 30,000 people visit the Old Capitol each year—8,000 of those are schoolchildren. The City of Iowa City recently renovated Iowa Avenue, in part to enhance the view to Old Cap’s dome.

And now that dome is gone.

At around 8:45 a.m. on Nov. 20, word spread that the dome was ablaze.

Six construction employees who were on the scaffolding that surrounded the dome scrambled down. The five employees working inside were alerted, and Mary New, special assistant to the president, called 911. Tadd Wiseman, the Old Capitol custodian, grabbed a fire hose from the second floor and ran it up inside the dome, in an attempt to contain the blaze. He was joined by Joe Stockman, area maintenance mechanic, who was just returning from the west side of the river. Stockman noticed what looked like dust surrounding the dome.

“I thought maybe the construction workers were sanding,” Stockman says. “But it was smoke.”

Up in the dome, Wiseman and Stockman turned on the hose and worked to contain the fire from the interior.

On the scene before Iowa City firefighters arrived, Tadd Wiseman (left) and Joe Stockman helped fight the fire from the dome’s interior. Photo by Tim Schoon.

“You could see that the inside of the door leading to the outside was red hot,” Stockman says.

The two men stayed in the dome until Iowa City fire- fighters arrived and began spraying water on the burning structure.

“I think anyone in the same situation would have done what we did,” Wiseman says. “We were just working on instinct.”

People in other buildings on the Pentacrest were evacuated and watched from the sidewalks on Clinton, Washington, and Jefferson streets as Iowa City firefighters battled the blaze that quickly consumed the familiar shape. The flagpole fell onto the scaffolding that encircled the dome and rested on its side, an unrecognizable flag flapping in the smoke, flames, and water. Quickly, only timbers outlined the shape of the dome, and just as quickly, those fell too. The fire was largely extinguished within an hour, leaving charred scaffolding and melted plastic.

By Tuesday evening, interior damage was already being assessed. Thanks to a concrete cap between the dome and roof, added as part of the Old Capitol’s 1920s-era restoration, there was no fire damage to Old Cap’s interior. Water damage to the structure is significant, however, and Gov. Tom Vilsack arrived in Iowa City the next day to survey the soggy interior columns and water-spotted ceilings. Quick action on the part of the Iowa City fire department, including moving heavy, antique furniture and covering it with tarps, minimized the water damage.

Iowa City firefighters continued to monitor the dome and the roof of the Old Capitol throughout the day of the fire. Photo by Tim Schoon.


The fire made national news. President George W. Bush sent a letter of condolence to President Coleman. Letters and e-mail flowed from around the country to local and regional papers, as readers shared their memories of Old Capitol. The Chicago Tribune included a Nov. 26 editorial, “The power of a dome.”

President Coleman left no doubt that the Old Capitol would be rebuilt. Within an hour of the start of the blaze, $100 had been donated for rebuilding. President Coleman and her husband, Kenneth Coleman, pledged $5,000, and at press time the Old Capitol Rebuilding Fund had grown to $17,340. Its 103 donors hail from 18 states and three foreign countries.

“It will take some time to work with insurance carriers to determine what needs to be done and how much it will cost,” President Coleman said, in a statement issued on Nov. 26. “…donations made for Old Capitol restoration will be put to work promptly as part of the university’s long-term commitment to maintain and preserve Old Capitol as a museum for all Iowans—and others—to enjoy.”

At press time, responsibility for the fire, believed to have been caused by a torch or heat gun used to remove asbestos paint on the dome, is still under investigation. Damage also is continuing to be assessed—as the interior slowly dries, the condition of the plaster, paint, and wood changes. Preliminary damage estimates of $5.2 to $5.65 million include restoration costs for interior and exterior building repairs and initial emergency activities such as safety and protective measures, building stabilization, and relocation costs. Outside, as scorched sections of the dome are removed, measurements and the location of each piece are recorded, according to Bill Bulger, engineering technician with Design and Construction Services.

“We’re in the process of inventorying what’s been saved,” Bulger says.

As part of the on-going restoration project, some pieces of the dome and cupola, including column capitols and bases and molding, were being constructed off-site, and thus were preserved. (For more information on the restoration project, see the Oct. 5 fyi story at

Many who observed the fire wondered about Old Capitol’s magnificent staircase, which spirals directly below the dome. Although it received water damage, it was not harmed by fire. Photo by Tim Schoon.

There is something both poignant and horrifying about seeing a building that is so much a part of day-to-day life disappear. Although Iowa City’s loss is much smaller and, thankfully, involved no injuries or loss of life, many people have commented on the even greater sense of empathy they have for New Yorkers who also lost a familiar, man-made icon on their horizon. And in Iowa City, just like New York, a surprising number of faculty and staff not only saw the fire but are faced with the daily reminder of the loss. From offices, lobbies, and walkways all over campus Old Capitol looks, in the words of one University staff member, “decapitated.”

That so many campus buildings offered views of the gold dome is not by chance. The Old Capitol is visible from as far away as University Hospitals, the International Center, and the Boyd Law Building, and maintaining that connection to our historical beginnings remains an important part of the decision in siting new campus construction.

“The Old Capitol was the first building on campus, and it is both our symbolic beginning and physical focus,” says Larry Wilson, campus planner. “The University campus started at the Old Capitol and radiated out from there. Even the city of Iowa City was laid out to focus on the Old Capitol.”

In a time when the University is beleaguered by financial difficulties, restoring that symbol seems all the more important. And the fire has shown the UI community just how much that symbol means to people across the country.

Ann Smothers, the director of the Old Capitol museum, has been associated with the landmark since 1986. She was out of town on Nov. 20.

“I was just so relieved that no one was hurt,” Smothers says.

She credits her assistant, Shalla Wilson, for coping admirably with the swarm of activity that followed the fire, including visits from fire investigators and members of the media. Smothers returned to chaos as Old Capitol was filled with the sound of fans and dehumidifiers drying out the structure, and swarming with historic preservationists and contractors, determining the best way to deal with peeling paint and concerns about falling plaster.

“All this activity—it’s overwhelming,” Smothers says. “And I had 85 e-mail messages and 35 phone messages when I got back. But you know what? It was wonderful too. They were all from people letting me know how much Old Capitol means to them, and offering to help. And that means so much.”

Article by Linzee Kull McCray

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