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This Old Statehouse: Interview with Scott Allen

posted on April 2, 2001 at 4:50 PM

Scott Allen
RDG Bussard Dikis Inc.

JACK SHEPARD INTERVIEWS SCOTT ALLEN FOR STORY ON IOWA STATE CAPITOL RENOVATION.

Interviewed February 14, 2000

JACK SHEPARD: What are the most difficult parts of your job in the restoration of the Capitol?

SCOTT ALLEN: It's the unusual things. I think I know what the day's going to be like and a few phone calls later, I'm up on some scaffolding looking at stone. It's really what makes this project interesting. What makes architecture real interesting is that you don't have the same thing day to day. I'm not in the office on a day to day basis. I spend a lot of time on site.

JACK SHEPARD: So you're on the site a lot. And you're up on the scaffolding. You're with the painters; you're with the plumbers?

SCOTT ALLEN: We like to be on site because it's always a learning process for us. We think we know what the building is constructed of through the existing drawings and our research, but until they open up that wall, until they open up that section of floor, we're never a hundred percent sure. So we have very close communication with the contractors.

JACK SHEPARD: Can you remember a particular surprise you can tell me about?

SCOTT ALLEN: We were trying to determine how to get from one side of the Capitol to the other side of the Capitol. We were in the crawl space underneath the Senate with some piping. We needed to be south of that, so we needed to bring piping from underneath the Senate floor to the corner pavilion in the Senate. We had a little bit of a void in between. Our drawings showed that there potentially could be a space there. We weren't sure if it was solid because the floor lines just didn't quite match up. So we took a little trip with the contractor underneath the floor of the Senate. We broke through one of the walls and found a room that you could actually stand up in. And it was fully painted. Evidently they lowered the ceiling at one point in time, but it provided a great route for the sprinkler piping to go right on through that space. We sealed it up after we were through.

JACK SHEPARD: So you found a room nobody knew about? So you came back to the office to get the eraser out?

SCOTT ALLEN: That's right. You come back and make those changes and move right along, so it's kind of fun.

JACK SHEPARD: That room has to have electrical wiring going to outlets and plumbing and probably all kinds of things that you didn't know.

SCOTT ALLEN: It wasn't a room that was ever used. It never had any real access. So it didn't have any electrical, but it did have painted walls.

JACK SHEPARD: How about particular problems working on a building that was built so long ago?

SCOTT ALLEN: There's an incredible amount of drawings of this building. The historical building has been a great source for those drawings. We take those drawings and compare that to what we actually have today, before our construction, before our renovation and in most cases is entirely different. Walls are not necessarily there. Rooms have changed. If you think about the process that they used in the 1880s, a lot of those drawings were destroyed by the time the building was done. They used those drawings on a day-to-day basis. They just wore 'em out. So the drawings that were saved were schemes or options that were never completed.

A good example would be when we first started one of the phases. We thought we had maybe six different ways the structure could be orientated. We really didn't know which one we were going to choose. So we made some test openings in the ceilings, and we were able to determine that there was actually a seventh scheme. But it gave us enough insight to check those areas in advance before the contractor would be there.

A large amount of drawings did exist of the building, but it takes some investigation to find which one we should really be using and which one is accurate. And we measure each space before construction starts so that we have an accurate drawing. With computing, you can change that as you find out more information.

JACK SHEPARD: A lot of drawings that you've made you've done from photographs. You have your own drawings, and you based those on some actual photographs?

SCOTT ALLEN: Yeah, a lot of the exterior work is done using a photographic process that aligns the film of the camera parallel to the building itself, so that both those surfaces are parallel, which gives you the opportunity to scale that. What that means is you can clearly at some point on that façade, take a scale and mark out the number of feet that wall would be in length.

JACK SHEPARD: Every building really is one of a kind, but maybe this one is more one of a kind.

SCOTT ALLEN: Yeah, we think we know the building sometimes. Then as we move on to the next portion or the next phase, we find another floor system or another way that they've done the same type of detail. So it's constant checking and verification of the existing conditions as you uncover them. From one side of the building, things will look very closely the same; structurally they were done two different ways.

JACK SHEPARD: Maybe they were learning better methods, or was it just a different crew?

SCOTT ALLEN: There was some talk about two different crews being on site. I don't really have a verification of that. But I think when you have that scale of a project, you have different people working on it. They maybe found a better way to do it and achieve the same goal in the end.

JACK SHEPARD: How about the special steps you're taking to make sure that what you're doing is consistent with what's already there? I know there are lots of steps involved in that.

SCOTT ALLEN: Some of the steps we take for consistency in the building starts at our research. We try to document through pictures what was in a particular room at a given moment in time. So that starts us thinking of design dates. We have an 1884 design date and a 1904 design date. The second one is because of the fire that occurred in 1904. The spaces were affected by that. So we use those photographs and onsite investigation to find those details -- for instance the stencil color. We wouldn't know what those colors were through the black and white photograph. We would only find those on site. But we'd see a pattern that would match up to the photographs and that would be our clue that we had the correct date.

JACK SHEPARD: So the photographs have been clues to a lot of different things?

SCOTT ALLEN: Yes, we were actually able to read some of the calendars on the wall in some of the photographs to determine the month and year the photograph was taken. We used those for the light fixtures in documenting what was there in 1884. We used the contracts that were associated with those light fixtures to document what was there and the style and if it was equal to another room in the building. We have a complete contract on the light fixtures that were purchased in 1884. So if we know what the light fixture type in one room was, and have a photograph of that, we've got a real good idea that that type was then consistent throughout the building. In some of those cases where we don't have any photographs, it gives us a real good insight on what that light fixture would have been. We do that for draperies too. We know there are roller shades that were originally in the building on the first floor. It gives us a good idea of what that looked like, so we were able to reproduce that.

JACK SHEPARD: How about patterns of carpeting?

SCOTT ALLEN: That's a great one. And that's a good story because we have patterns of carpet showing up on the photographs. But it's hard to tell exactly what those colors were because it's a black and white photograph. We actually uncovered a piece of 1884 carpet underneath a cabinet. So we took that carpet and sent it to a laboratory and had them check the color of the yarn. They're now making that color of carpet to match what the design and border was. So that was really a unique find. We typically don't find that because the carpet's been removed and thrown away many years ago. But through the photographic process, we knew that there was a carpet there, and we knew the date because on the back of the carpet it had the date. The fabricator was only in business for so many years and so it was really unique to find a 2 by 7-foot piece of carpet.

JACK SHEPARD: So sometimes it's almost guess work?

SCOTT ALLEN: It is when you get to the carpet for instance because the photographs are all black and white. We know that we're in the 1880s, and we know what typical carpets were available at that time. Through a pattern book, we're able to make a better determination on what that color would have been. Most of the carpets in that time period really didn't have a lot of different colors like we see now. A carpet was typically one color, maybe two.

JACK SHEPARD: How does having an understanding of history help you?

SCOTT ALLEN: I took a lot of classes in history when I was in college. I took about every history class I could take. It's been really fun to learn about history. I think you continue to learn about history. I started thinking about some of the photographs that we're finding on site. For instance, the sheet metal workers had some family photographs of people on the site. I came back and asked my family if we had any photographs. They weren't sure when. And we don't know who exactly, but later we found my great grandmother right next to the building in a photograph around 1905. That's how we find photographs. We find post cards and old photographs of a family.

JACK SHEPARD: A lot of things have to happen to keep this a functional building while all this is going on, don't they?

SCOTT ALLEN: Yeah. A lot of people ask, "Why don't you just do the whole building all at once?" Well, it's more than a museum. It is a functioning building in that it functions as the Governor's office, Secretary of State's office, and so on. They need to have an office, and they need to operate on a daily basis. So, we relocate people and find a temporary home for them while the construction is going on.

JACK SHEPARD: It's a lot of planning.

SCOTT ALLEN: We start with how many dollars are associated with the project. We then see how far that'll take us in the building. We help determine how much funding would be necessary for the next piece of work; then the legislative branch reacts to that. We then build the project around that dollar amount, taking into account the relocation of those people involved in that area. They need a temporary work surface and work stations.

JACK SHEPARD: Some people might say there's got to be easier, quicker and cheaper ways of getting this done.

SCOTT ALLEN: I think we've been pretty good. We first started this project thinking that it would be a fire protection project, installing a sprinkler system in the building. We then started doing a little bit more research in what we needed to do for the building long term. We determined that it'd be more efficient and better use of tax dollars if we opened up a wall once, closed it back in, and put everything in there that we could think of that needed to go in that space. So, we try to do all that project at one time. And we think we're pretty efficient in doing that type of project.

JACK SHEPARD: The way the project was brought to your company in the beginning was, "The Capitol needs some restoration. Can you guys take a look at it and see what you think needs to be done?" Basically, it wasn't "we need fire protection" and then everything mushroomed on top of that?

SCOTT ALLEN: No it was a two-pronged approach. The first one in '82, asked for a study on what could be done on the exterior stone. That generated additional studies and reports, which then evolved into the exterior restoration. On the interior project, in 1992, the Fire Marshal requested that the General Services take a look at the Capitol building from a life safety standpoint. So a task force was put together, which then arrived at a set of goals for what needed to be done in the building. That was the beginning of the interior rehabilitation.

JACK SHEPARD: Could you tell me about the interior gutter and the channeling system?

SCOTT ALLEN: When we first came into the Capitol building in '81 and '82 in the attic spaces, there was quite a bit of water coming into the building. There were existing gutters, like a residential gutter you'd see on the side of a house. They were used as an attempt to channel the water away from the wall surface. So that means water was coming through a wall about three feet thick or coming in at the very top of the wall, or at the copper as it interfaced with the stone. But it was coming into the building, and they were trying to have some mechanism to get it to a drain. There was plaster deterioration. Masonry was deteriorated because of the water. That's why we did some of the backup brick replacement.

JACK SHEPARD: I imagine you realized that there was a more serious water problem than maybe anybody had known?

SCOTT ALLEN: When we first started tearing off the copper we realized very quickly that there was water involved. And we took measures to correct that through a little different detailing of the copper.

JACK SHEPARD: Do you feel any different working on this building because it is the Capitol of your home state?

SCOTT ALLEN: You've got to feel special working on this building because it's so unique. You probably won't get another building like this in anyone's lifetime. I really feel proud to be part of the restoration team and to be able to work on this building. I think that really transfers down to everybody that works on the building in our office. We have a real love for the project, a real passion for the restoration of the building. And we're always trying to think about what is the best thing for the building.

JACK SHEPARD: We've seen a number of places where people have signed their work. Are you going to do anything like that?

SCOTT ALLEN: My name's on a lot of that paperwork, so I don't think anybody will forget who worked on the building in the late part of the 20th century. Everybody knows who the original architect was and so this should be intertwined in the history. We have a large amount of files that are archived for this building. We've got an incredibly large amount of paperwork that surrounds this building. It all has the company name somewhere on it, and it typically has the person who was actually working on it. So you sign your name enough during the day doing that type of thing. You feel that you're a real part of the project in the future. If you have a typical day, you come in, you think you're going to do work on some drawings of an area of the building, and you get a couple phone calls and the next thing you know you're climbing on scaffolding or looking at the basement of the building or the attic. And you never envision getting being there that day when you got up, but it's where the job takes you.

JACK SHEPARD: What's a typical day for you?

SCOTT ALLEN: We typically deal with everything. It can be just a metal casting that's missing on a door or hinge to talking about how much money we'll eventually need in the future for the next phase. That's why I don't have a typical day. For me during construction there's a lot of work on Saturdays. I would turn my phone on at six o'clock in the morning. I usually expect a call about six thirty before I leave the office. That will tell me that I need to stop at the Capitol before I go into the office. So, I'll stop there for about an hour or an hour and a half, working through a detail that's really important for that day. I stop in the office and do my phone calls and answer messages. Typically around three o'clock is when the contractors are finished with their day. I'll get a call around three so I'll stop up there and probably walk the job a little bit after everybody's gone. Then I come back to the office, and I get home at seven o'clock at night. That's very typical during the construction time.

JACK SHEPARD: Can you compare this to other projects?

SCOTT ALLEN: I think you can. There are a lot of components in this project that have been in other projects that I've done. Some of the stone issues are the same for whatever building you're working on that has a stone veneer of a foot to a foot and a half thick. It was almost fate that led me to the Capitol. It's kind of strange to think about the projects that I worked on and how they prepared me to deal with the day-to-day occurrences at the Capitol.

JACK SHEPARD: In what way do you think this will shape your future career? Do you look toward doing more historical restoration projects?

SCOTT ALLEN: We really do wish to do more restoration projects. We're currently doing work in Decorah, Iowa, but we're also doing work out in Virginia. So we hope to do more projects throughout the United States.

JACK SHEPARD: In 25 years when you have grandchildren and you take them to the Capitol, are you going to tell them the story about how you worked on it? How will that feel?

SCOTT ALLEN: It really makes me proud to be part of the state and part of this project. It's amazing to think of. When I come into town, I see the Capitol building because you can see it when you come down the interstate or if you fly in. I always look to see what it looks like at various times during the day. We all have a lot of pride in that building.

JACK SHEPARD: The restoration painters told us that the highest compliment they received is when somebody comes up to them and says, "Well, where'd you work here? I can't tell."

SCOTT ALLEN: That's great. I love to have people come into the building and say, "Well, they told me they put a fire sprinkler in there. We didn't see it." If they say that, that'd be just great, because we did a lot to try to conceal that so it wouldn't be as visible as it could have been.

JACK SHEPARD: And people say, "Oh big deal, a fire sprinkler system." But you're talking about tearing into walls and doing major damage, aren't you.

SCOTT ALLEN: When we install a fire sprinkler system, it's basically looking at routes from the basement of the building all the way up through the building and planning those routes so the contractor can install piping. It takes a great deal of planning in order to do that and to conceal it. You could put it out in a room and have exposed piping, but that's not what we want to do in this building. We want to try to conceal everything we can. We're obviously going to have a sprinkler head somewhere, but if we use the right type, it'll have very minimal impact on the building. We do channel walls and floors, but we repair that back with material very similar to what was originally there so we're not harming the structural capability of that wall. Then we re-plaster that wall and hopefully it looks as it did in 1884.

JACK SHEPARD: Can you talk about the quality of the original workmanship?

SCOTT ALLEN: It's always amazing to see the detail that exists on the building. I go up there many times during the week. I'll have a few moments, and I'll look up, and it'll be the first time I'll see detail. It's like there's so much to see. It's in such good shape; it's just amazing. It's such a treasure for Iowa to have intact -- and for the future generations to enjoy.

JACK SHEPARD: The contractors that I've gotten to know show me details of how the original workers did something. They can't believe the original workers went to all this extra work to make sure that this was quality. Is that shared among the people who are working now?

SCOTT ALLEN: I think if you look at the materials that they used, they intended this building to be around for generations. And that's the same philosophy we have today -- that we want to do work and have our materials last for generations to come -- so that we will not have to come back in a hundred years again and replace the stone like we're doing right now. We chose material this time that has a proven history and has the ability to withstand many generations.

JACK SHEPARD: What are your impressions of the quality of the construction of this building.

SCOTT ALLEN: We've had just an incredible amount of detail that we find on a daily basis. It's still very well preserved, and we're impressed with the quality. It's just incredible to work on up here on a daily basis and see the detail in the plaster and the detail in the marble. The carvings are just as well preserved from almost the day that they were put in.

JACK SHEPARD: Every effort is being made to restore that to its original quality, isn't it?

SCOTT ALLEN: Yes, I think it's important to make every effort to restore it to its original quality, but we also try to keep as much existing as we can. So we don't change just for the sake of change. We keep the original fabric intact, and we only repair where we really need to.

JACK SHEPARD: How many more years do you think you'll be working on it?

SCOTT ALLEN: That's a hard one to predict.

JACK SHEPARD: What are your impressions after you've been working up here for ten to eleven years.

SCOTT ALLEN: I've been working here on and off since about 1989. I'm just surprised on a daily basis of the quality materials that were used during the original construction. When we see the original plaster right up close, when we're on top of the scaffolding, it's just amazing to see the detail that was put into this building in the 1880s. Also, the detail in the amount of marble and the detail impresses me every day. I see something new every time I come up here.

JACK SHEPARD: Well, it's a tough job even with modern cranes and modern equipment. It must have been a lot tougher back in the late 1880s.

SCOTT ALLEN: Everything is pretty much the same as it was in the 1880s. We do use modern equipment up here. The contractors use cranes, of course. But if you look back in the photographs, in the1880s, there were cranes of sorts that they used to lift the stone in place. So some things have changed; but for the most part, the stone was stored in the 1880s in about the same location that it is today. I always like to look at that because you look back at the historic photographs, and you see the stone laying on the ground, and you go outside today, and you got the stone laying on the ground in almost the same locations. That's kind of a fun photograph to reflect back to.

JACK SHEPARD: This is the monument that every Iowan identifies with. It's common to every Iowan. How does that make you feel that you're working on this project to restore its beauty?

SCOTT ALLEN: I'm really thrilled to be able to work on this building. It's just marvelous to be working in it. It's hard to put into words. You come up here every day, but there's something different every time you come. Every trip is a little different, and you find a new fact -- or a new room even. This project has been a large part of my life. Everybody up here takes a lot of pride in what they do, and you see it in the craftsmanship on a daily basis. We want to try to get it right. It has been a large part of my career, and it will continue to be. But it's an important project for everyone from Iowa.

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