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A Golden Dome in Iowa’s Capitol

New World history is a rich field that is constantly being analyzed for new material. The complexity of these tales never fails to amaze me.

Iowa's capitol building has the largest gold dome of all state capitols.

Iowa's capitol building has the largest gold dome of all state capitols.

Des Moines, Iowa

Des Moines is a medium-sized Midwestern city with a population of just over 200,000. The metropolitan area spreads across the rolling hills of central Iowa while straddling both sides of the Des Moines River. When one is traveling through the area, perhaps the first things that will come to mind are the varied topography or distinct skyline that punctuate the downtown area.

Another striking feature of Des Moines is that huge edifice with the large, central, gold-covered dome, which is surrounded by four lesser spires, each displaying long lines of thin gold sheathing. The glittering gold that covers and decorates the capitol's roof is the real thing, for it is applied in razor-thin sheets that light up the countryside on a bright, sunny day.

Des Moines skyline viewed from inside the capitol building.

Des Moines skyline viewed from inside the capitol building.

Working With Gold Leaf

Another interesting fact about the Iowa capitol building is that all the gold used as roofing material is made from 23 karat gold. The gold is rolled out into very thin sheets called gold leaf. So thin is this protective gold layer that all the gold necessary to cover the exterior portion of the dome could be rolled up into one lump the size of a softball. However, once applied, the gold will only stand up to the elements for about 20 years at which time the gold is removed and another fresh layer is applied.

Visitors wishing to visit the inside of the capitol dome must do so by means of an interior stairwell.

Visitors wishing to visit the inside of the capitol dome must do so by means of an interior stairwell.

Inside the Capitol Building

If you have a little extra time on your hands, you might want to walk inside this state building and check out the master craftsmanship that went into its construction. There is a lot to see here, and fortunately, the price of admission is free.

What you will encounter is what may well be one of the finest state capitols in the nation. Built between 1871 and 1886, the capitol building sits on a high hill overlooking the city. The interior walls support several large murals, numerous wall stencil designs, intricate hand-carved doorways, and endless stretches of stone tile floors.

Then there is the peak of the dome, which towers 300 feet above the ground level floor. Believe it or not, guided tours are available, where visitors can climb many sets of stone stairs, which lead to a balcony perched close to the apex of the circular ceiling. The interior view from here is extraordinary but definitely not recommended for those with a fear of heights.

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Looking up at the inside of the dome.

Looking up at the inside of the dome.

Restoration

Between 2017 and 2019, the golden dome at the Iowa State Capitol underwent an extensive renovation project. The gold itself was in good shape. However, the underlying support structure had, over the course of years, suffered moisture damage to the brick and mortar masonry that, along with a complex network of iron girders, formed the backbone of the central peak.

The biggest obstacle was creating a safe scaffolding from where workmen could conduct repairs on the 140-year-old structure that sat perched 275 feet above the main floor of the capitol building.

Costing 10 million dollars, the high-profile renovation project was successfully completed by the Shuck-Britson Engineering firm of Central Iowa. During the repairs, special attention was paid to the moisture damage, which had weakened the Capitol city landmark. Today, the dome has been successfully fixed, so water damage will no longer be a problem.

Young Corn done by Grant Wood in 1931 depicts the hilly countryside of Iowa.

Young Corn done by Grant Wood in 1931 depicts the hilly countryside of Iowa.

Other Things to Do in Des Moines

Iowa is not as flat as it's cracked up to be. To verify the hilly terrain of the Hawkeye State, all one has to do is view a few of Grant Wood's paintings, excluding, of course, his most famous, American Gothic, which doesn't show any terrain at all. Unfortunately, if you want to see a few of these pictures in person, Cedar Rapids is the place to be.

However, if you want to experience Iowa's hills firsthand, the capital city has a complex series of bike trails that crisscross the urban area and then head out into the surrounding farmland. For a bike ride with less terrain or just a leisurely stroll, try walking alongside the Des Moines River, which has a really impressive stand of huge cottonwood trees, along with some unusual river bridges.

And finally, for baseball fans, there is the Iowa Cubs, a Triple A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. These games occur regularly during the late spring and summer at Principal Park, which occupies a narrow point of land situated between the Des Moines and the Raccoon Rivers.

The Women of Achievement Bridge is a modernistic, pedestrian only structure that crosses the Des Moines River.

The Women of Achievement Bridge is a modernistic, pedestrian only structure that crosses the Des Moines River.

© 2012 Harry Nielsen

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