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This Old Statehouse: Interview with Carl Crees

posted on April 2, 2001 at 5:01 PM

Carl Crees
Forest & Associate Inc.

JACK SHEPARD INTERVIEWS CARL CREES STONEMASON WITH FOREST AND ASSOCIATES FOR STORY ON RENOVATION OF IOWA STATE CAPITOL

Interviewed March 20, 2000

JACK SHEPARD: Carl, tell me a little bit about your career as a stonemason.

CARL CREES: Well, I started out as a bricklayer apprentice in February of 1960. I've been doing brick, block and stone work for over 40 years now. We've done a lot of miscellaneous stone work around town. We've worked on the synagogue over on Grand Avenue, the old Younkers, KVI, and the Historical Building. The Capitol has been one of the biggest stone jobs I think in the state of Iowa. And our restoration work on it started in '83 with some exploratory, and actually started doing demo and replacement stone in '84. We retired two other stonemasons from here. I took over in '89 and been here ever since. It's one of the best projects I've been on. And I've really enjoyed it.

JACK SHEPARD: What parts of the Capitol are you working on?

CARL CREES: We have mostly done the west and the east and the north sides. We had a competitor get the south side away from us. My biggest challenge was the west side--the west gable, where the statues are. That was probably the biggest challenge, and when we finished it up, the most gratifying of all was the west.

JACK SHEPARD: Why was the west side the most challenging?

CARL CREES: The figurines up there have to be placed back. It was something when we took them off, looking at them from the ground--you really don't realize how big they are. The liberty statue in the center is 14 feet tall and weighs something like nine tons. It was just unbelievable to get up there, take them out, and go to Indiana and watch the carving. It was quite an interesting project to be involved in.

JACK SHEPARD: How big is that piece and what are the procedures for putting up that large stone?

CARL CREES: The lintel that went over between the caps up here on the front on the north side weighed approximately four tons. We had it brought in from Oklahoma. We staged it here on the ground, drilled our Lewis pin holes in it, and used a set of two and an eighth-inch sets of pins on it. We set it in place with a seventy ton crane that we had here. We used a porta power to tweak it in to more or less get it in place, and tuckpoint the joints and strike it off. It sets on two caps and spans a foot bearing on each end.

JACK SHEPARD: What are your concerns when you're moving a heavy piece of rock? I imagine you've got to be careful every step of the way.

CARL CREES: We have a Lewis pin system, which is two steel pins that are about an inch and an eighth and nine inches long. They go in at an angle and work against each other. You've got a point here that works against the top on the inside and the bottom on the outside. They pull against each other, and we have two sets on each end. As it picks it up, the pins pull against each other and lift the stone. You have to know the angles of the holes that you're putting them in, and know the weight of what the pins will lift. Everyone here is very experienced now with the Lewis pin system. We use the cables or chokers or right now we're using nylon belts. And it's all rigged to be able to pick the four ton stone up and set it in place.

JACK SHEPARD: You've got to have a pretty good relationship with your crane driver, don't you?

CARL CREES: Yes you do. Everything here is worked with radios. We have two way radios and we've worked with these operators quite a bit. Generally, if you don't have a true signal, the operators have worked with us so much that if you have your hands full, you can usually turn around and give 'em a nod. They know pretty much what you want. They know approximately what you're wanting to do, and we do it with a lot of gestures and nods, but most of them are done with regular hand signals.

JACK SHEPARD: What are the concerns for the safety of the people that are up there working?

CARL CREES: The main thing is your person on the ground for rigging. We have different sized pins for different weights. And if a rigging's done right, we generally don't have any problem with picking the stone. All of them here are professional stone setters, or in masonry work. We get it up there, make sure nobody gets underneath, get it in place to where we can get our hands on each end, and then work it in place. I've been here since '83 and we haven't had an accident.

JACK SHEPARD: How much weight have you moved?

CARL CREES: I wouldn't even have an idea. Two stones up on the very top of the gabled end are 14 tons--they're 7 tons a piece. The statues on the west are 5, 6, 7, 9 tons. I forget what the number of tonnage was in that gable end. But overall, it's unbelievable what this building weighs.

JACK SHEPARD: When you're doing this, do you ever think about the guys that did this the first time?

CARL CREES: Oh, absolutely, I would like to go back in time see what they did and how they did it. I can't even imagine. We've had a 70-ton crane out here, and there are times when we pick it that we wonder if it's going to get it up there. And well it always has, but it's just so much weight. You can see the boom coming down, and you can see the weight being lifted. And I can't imagine how they did it. They tell me that in the early days, they had dirt ramps where they ramped up to it. They've had gin poles and they had your old steam engine. I still don't know how they got it up, and back into the wall and set. It would be a real treat to be able to go back and see that. It really would. I wish they had some documentation of what they did. We don't seem to be able to find any documentation or see just how they did do it--pictures or anything. I know we could probably learn from them too, because they had to do it the hard way. We do it in one swoop of hooking up to a crane, and you're up there and you're in. I don't think that was quite the way there. They had to do it in stages, and I have an idea it took them a long time to set one stone.

JACK SHEPARD: Can you give me an idea of what you and your workers are doing to insure that you get excellent results?

CARL CREES: The biggest thing is the qualifications we have as stonemasons. Everyone knows that since this was built a hundred years ago, there's nobody here today that worked on this building. So, we were pretty fresh when we started. Now that we have gotten into it and have dug into the stone, we know how they did the setting and how well it's routed and how well it's tuckpointed. We're trying to put it back to its original form, and everything's routed back in solid. I think we've done an amazing job for actually taking a large stone out of a pocket, taking another stone and putting it back in that pocket and securing it to where it's back to its original form. And it's amazing how plumb and level and true they had it. It's a challenge to get it back exactly like they had it, too, it really is.

JACK SHEPARD: Can you tell us the story about how you decorated those statues?

CARL CREES: We've had a little bit of fun with the project, too. We had to take the statues off and send them back to Bloomington, Indiana, to Bivey Stoneworks to do the measurements and take some detail work off of the old statues, in order to make the new. And, you know, there's quite a rivalry between Indiana and Iowa especially the Hoosiers and Iowa Hawkeyes. So the guys that we deal with over there are all Hoosier fans. A couple of them live real close to Bobby Knight. So, in transporting them back, I got a hat and a scarf that had Iowa Hawkeyes on them. And we put them on the statues and sent them back to Indiana. When they got back there, we got a call from Bloomington, and they told us we better send somebody over here to unload this load of stone 'cause they weren't gonna touch 'em with all this Iowa crap on them. So, anyway we had a little fun with them, and then when they sent theirs back to us, the new ones, they had tied Indiana garb all over theirs and sent 'em back to us. So, we've had a little fun with it, too. It hasn't been all work.

JACK SHEPARD: Some pieces of stone are a little more difficult than some of the other ones.

CARL CREES: Yeah, and we have had quite a few of them that are very large stones. We had one that was a cornerstone that we couldn't get over the top because of the profiles, and it wouldn't go down between the scaffold and wall. So we ended up having to go through the scaffold, and it was so large that we ended up having to take the scaffold apart in the middle. It was an all day process. We had the stone hanging, along with taking the scaffold down. It was an all day process for one stone. You can look at it, and you really don't understand what's here unless you come and watch us. When you're taking out one of these big stones, you're pulling the stone out, that may be anywhere from two and half to three or four tons out of a wall. And you're actually putting another back in this pocket. And there's a lot more to it than people understand. We put it on rollers, and we roll it back in the wall. And you've got to be really careful because of how you connect the stone up and that it doesn't fall back out on you. It's a tedious process, and you got to be real careful. It's not just slam bang like people think we construction workers do. There's a lot of finesse to it.

JACK SHEPARD: So it's a little like dental work, isn't it?

CARL CREES: Yes it is. There's a lot of finesse. The stone is real soft and has a tendency to flake off on the edges. If you don't touch it right with the bars, if you don't move it right, you're going to end up with another piece that you're going to have to remove and put another one in again. Sometimes you've got to really play with it and then work with it.

We had an urn that we set on the northeast corner, and at the bottom base, just where the urn sets on, there is a pocket in there. We had one of our fellow workers Gerald Hammond, make us a little copper box, and we all put items in it. We've got the names of everybody that worked on the project. And we had coins and other objects that we've placed in the box as a kind of time capsule so maybe in future years, some day somebody might run across it. I hope it's a long ways away. I hope this lasts for 200 years instead of 100. And so it'll be a long time before anybody finds that, but it's in there.

JACK SHEPARD: If you got a chance to go back in that time machine, what's the one question you would ask of the guys who were working on it back in 1880?

CARL CREES: I think that everybody that I've talked to and myself, included, would ask about the weight and how they put the items up on top. I think that would be probably the biggest question. I know for a fact that on top there are some stones 3 and 4 tons. I think that would be our biggest question-- how did they get them up there and how did they get them on the wall. What type of rigging did they use? I know back then they used a box Lewis. And a box Lewis works on a similar basis as a Lewis pin, but it's a box in the middle and they've got one square piece of metal that works against two wedged pieces. And as it comes up, the wedge pieces on the sides go out, so it works the same. But you don't have, I don't think, the same lifting power, because you're only in one area. And that lifting area there is only as strong as the stone is. I'm using two sets of lifting pins, where they used one. So there are a lot of questions there that I don't know how they picked up the big stone with one pin. And I think that would be a question that a lot of people would like answered.

JACK SHEPARD: There are plenty of 40 and 50-year-old buildings that get torn down and something else replaces them, aren't there?

CARL CREES: Yes, a lot of them. In fact I believe that there are a lot of buildings built that only have a 20-year span anyway. They don't build 'em for longevity. They build them for a 20-year tear down, rebuild, write off. I'm glad the Capitol was built like it is. If the general public could ever get down and see actual granite footings, how this building was put together, it's got to be Iowa's best bomb shelter there ever was. If there ever was a threat, I think this is the place, I'm coming. Some of the walls up here, and I believe the wall up here behind the statue, is somewhere in the neighbor of five feet thick. We've got a hundred thousand brick in behind the statues up there. So it's a well built building. Everything's built on arches, on granite base. I don't think there's a better structure around than the Capitol.

I have four grandchildren and they have all been here. My eight-year-old granddaughter I've had clear up on top. And she would make a whale of a construction worker, didn't scare her a bit. She really liked it, really liked the view.

JACK SHEPARD: There's a whole bunch of people, kids and grandchildren and all kinds of great grandchildren from now until a couple of hundred years down the road are going to be coming out here and admiring this Capitol. How does that make you feel?

CARL CREES: It feels real good. I hope they do more documentation this time and let people know who had the actual work, who was doing the work, and who had something to do with the restoration. We don't have enough documentation in the past and I hope they do, not just my name, there's so many workers here that's involved in it. I've got a couple of bricklayers here that have worked with me all the way through. We've had some good guys, and they're very proud of what they've done here. And they've all done a good job.

JACK SHEPARD: You guys have left your mark inside that little time box.

CARL CREES: Yes, if anybody ever finds that, they'll know exactly who worked here, and, in fact, it's not only us. We put the tinners that worked here with us, side by side on the roof line. We've got carpenters. We tried to include everybody in it.

JACK SHEPARD: In your work, when you're climbing around up there, and you're moving the steeple and stuff like that, have you found names and little things that people have left up there?

CARL CREES: Yes we have. We've found a lot of old coins. I've found Indian Head Pennies and Buffalo Nickels in places. We have one from a tinner, when they put the copper roof on originally. He's got his name, and I think there might be a little bit more information on it, maybe an address or something on there. And I have tried to go through the telephone books, and I've never been able to locate anybody. I'd like to give it to them, because it's a nice piece of memorabilia; it's got to be a hundred years old, this piece of copper. I found a mallet; it had the handle broke, that they'd throwed back in one of the arches, and we took it out, I glued the handle back on and I still got it at home. Plus we found a trowel, a hammer, a few of the things that they've discarded into the cavities there in the walls. Most of it's been the coins, maybe the Indian Head pennies and a few and Buffalo Nickels stuff like that.

JACK SHEPARD: The restoration team found some signatures on top of some moldings.

CARL CREES: Yeah. This area down here in front of us, was all kind of a little shantytown. This is where they lived, and this is where they stayed during this project. They staged the stone down here, did all the carving. So yeah it would have been real interesting to see it. And different workmen, the way I understand it. They had a couple hundred people here all the time, working, if not more, so it'd been very interesting.

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