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Iowa's Capitol Returning to Its Original Glory

Charles Hillinger's America

July 05, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

DES MOINES — More Iowans, per capita, fought in the Civil War than soldiers from any other state. Thirteen thousand Iowans lost their lives.

So, it's fitting that the Civil War is remembered in a dramatic way in Iowa's massive Capitol, one of the Charles Hillinger's America

largest statehouses in the nation.

Displayed behind glass in a niche on the main floor are 36 Civil War battle flags carried by Iowa regiments. The flags are tattered and faded with age.

"The battle flags have stood that way, undisturbed, deteriorating for decades," explained Capitol guard Frank Gray, 49. "No effort is made to prolong the existence of the flags. Temperatures and humidity are not regulated inside the glass case.

"Those were the expressed wishes of the last surviving Civil War veterans before they died in the 1940s," Gray continued. "They left explicit instructions:

" 'Let the regiment flags stand not bothered by anyone until they rot away and fall into dust. . . . ' "

Suspended across the inside of the Capitol dome is a huge Grand Army of the Republic emblem, an eagle holding a 13-star American flag and a large five-pointed star with the dates 1861-65.

In 1922 the national convention of the Grand Army of the Republic was held in Des Moines. The emblem of the veteran's group was placed in the dome at the time and ordered retained as a permanent decoration by then-Gov. Nathan Kendall.

Jerry Miller's great-grandfather, Darby Friel, an immigrant from County Cork, Ireland, was a stonemason working on the construction of the Iowa Capitol from 1873 to 1886. Miller's father was a painter in the building 40 years.

And, for 38 years Miller, 64, has been the art restoration painter at the Capitol.

When originally erected, Iowa's Capitol was a virtual art treasure, its walls and ceilings prime examples of 19th-Century stenciling and outstanding frescos.

"Some time after the turn of the century, for reasons I'll never understand, it was decided to paint over the decorative artwork on the walls and ceilings. It has been our job to remove the paint and restore the original artwork," Miller explained. Dick Labertew, 37, has been working with Miller on that project since 1971.

Joseph Coleman, 64, Iowa's senior legislator, a state senator the past 31 years and a farmer from Clare (population 279), has visited most of the state capitols.

"What's so amazing about this building out here on the plains is that the Iowa legislature, shortly after the Civil War at a time when money was not plentiful, went ahead and spent $3 million erecting one of the finest capitols in America," observed Coleman.

"Jerry Miller has come along and is returning the interior of the Capitol back to where it was in the beginning, discovering paintings and decorative designs on the walls and ceilings hidden for years."

Miller, like Coleman, has visited many of the state capitols. "This is one of a kind," he insisted. "I'm really fond of this old building."

Iowa's secretary of state, Elaine Baxter, 54, told how, shortly after being sworn in last January, she decided to put a fresh coat of paint in her office and get rid of the "sickly yellow" on the walls.

"While I was out to lunch one day Jerry Miller came in here and scratched the paint off a little square on the wall. He removed 18 layers of paint and on the bottom was this beautiful design, the kind of wall decoration in its heyday when the Capitol was built," Baxter recalled.

Miller restored the room, tracing the original designs, making new patterns for the stencil work and removing dirt and grime from the fresco of two angels on the ceiling painted in 1882-83 by a Danish artist.

"Jerry Miller is considered the outstanding person in the United States doing this kind of preservation work," the secretary of state said. "He may be the only full-time art restorer in a state capitol. The National Trust for Historic Preservation held a seminar conducted by Jerry here in the Iowa Capitol that attracted officials from state capitols all over the nation," she added.

The art restoration painter has been working his way through the Iowa Capitol since 1949, returning it to its original splendor. "I'll never see the end of it in my lifetime," he mused. "I restore everything, don't create anything."

Iowa's Capitol, rectangular with great windows and high ceilings, a modified and refined Renaissance-style structure, has a huge golden dome overlaid with 23-karat gold, and four smaller domes, one at each corner.

On the highest hill in Des Moines, its golden dome lighted every night, the Capitol is seen for miles in all directions.

"It's the biggest tourist attraction in all of Iowa," insisted Sugar Macaulay, longtime head Capitol guide. "When people think of Iowa they think of endless farms, corn and hogs. It comes as a surprise to everyone that Iowa has this great big beautiful Capitol."

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