Iowa Public Television


Iowa State Capitol, Des Moines, Iowa

There are more than 40 monuments on the state capitol grounds, including soldiers on horseback, a miniature Liberty Bell to ring and a gravesite.  Learn where these statues are and what they mean to Iowa's history with Dan Kaercher, as he takes a guided tour of the capitol grounds.

Hosted by Dan Kaercher, Iowa's Simple Pleasures features Iowa travel destinations, restaurants, events, parks, recreation and more. Produced by Iowa Public Television, the series highlights fun things for Iowans to do, see and taste, right here at home.


Kaercher: Hey, I have a capitol idea. When in Des Moines, a must-see is a historic gem of which all Iowans should be proud. If you grew up in Iowa, there's a good chance that as a child you took a school field trip to visit the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. I've been here several times with my children and my grandchildren. Built between 1871 and 1886, this majestic building is 330,000 square feet, so it would take a long time to see everything there is to see here. Plus, there's plenty outdoors on the capitol grounds. In my short visit, I’d like to take in some of the highlights indoors and out. With me is long-time tour guide Steve Person. Steve, we're here in the House of Representatives. Tell me something about this chamber.

Person: Well, this chamber is now restored the way it looked in 1905 when they rebuilt it after the fire of 1904. What most people see when they walk in, of course, are the beautiful chandeliers that we have here now from 1905. These weigh about 800 pounds each, and each one has over 5,600 crystals in it.

Kaercher: There are so many fascinating details in the Iowa Capitol. What is one of the things that impresses people immediately when they walk?

Person: Well, when they walk in, of course, they always look up into the rotunda and see the beautiful Grand Army of the Republic insignia and then, of course, the House of Representatives, the Senate Chamber, the Law Library. Upstairs on the third floor, there are wonderful mosaics that were put together in Italy. The young man in the panel, which is the defense panel, is symbolic of a young Iowa farmer about to leave the plow behind and pick up the sword and go off and defend his country, but he is an optical illusion in that he will march in any direction we want him to go. So when we walk past him, if you keep your eyes on his feet, they'll march this way, this way, or this way.

Kaercher: Oh, my gosh. That is unbelievable.

Person: Isn't that fun!

Kaercher: On the floor below the mosaic, is a mural titled "Westward." It was painted in the early 1900s by New York artist Edwin Blashfield.

Person: The woman who is seated on the wagon looking out at you was the supermodel of her day. Her name was Jessica Penn, and she posed for Mr. Blashfield and other artists of the time. You'll find her in public buildings all over the place. If you went to the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, she'd look at you there. If you went to the main reading room at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., she's looking at you there.

Kaercher: How many rooms are there in the capitol?

Person: There are 109 rooms in the Iowa Capitol. Each one has its own stencil designed. None of the stencil designs are repeated. The woodwork in the building is all Iowa wood. There are 12 kinds of wood in the capitol with two exceptions. The beautiful hand-carved bench in the old Supreme Court Chamber is mahogany and the benches in the Senate Chamber where the senators sit are also mahogany. There are 29 kinds of marble in the Iowa Capitol, including an Iowa marble down in the governor's office. It's called coral marble.

Kaercher: Steve, I know there's a lot more to see inside, but I’m anxious to get outside where there's just as much history on the capitol grounds as there is under the dome.

Person: You're correct. We have 47 monuments outside, ranging from the cornerstone of 1873 to the monuments of the 1890s and up to the present day.

Kaercher: Whoa, nice warm day outside here, and it's only the morning. What a splendid view of downtown.

Person: It is, especially the new capitol terrace. Here on the west side of the capitol, this is the only monument of Abraham Lincoln that celebrates him as a father rather than as president. The Lincoln Memorial was made here in Des Moines. Fred and Mabel Torrey were the sculptors. The monument, which cost $25,000, most of which was paid for with pennies collected from Iowa schoolchildren. The first real monument would have been the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which was started in 1893. It was designed by Harriet Ketchum of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Unfortunately Mrs. Ketchum never lived to see it finished. It wasn't finished until 1897, and she died in 1894. Probably one of the most commonly asked questions is why does Mother Iowa not wear a top? But that was just the artistic design of the time. I'm standing in front of the William Boyd Allison Monument, which is just south of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. William Allison was a United States Senator and a Congressman from Iowa for forty-three years, and he worked with every president from Abraham Lincoln up to Theodore Roosevelt. After his death, his friends and supporters decided to place this fountain here on the capitol grounds. When this monument was designed back in 1917, it was a beautiful fountain.

Kaercher: I’ve seen the actual original Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, but I didn't know we had a replica here in Iowa.

Person: Yes, we do. It was a gift from the Federal Department of the Treasury in 1950 to thank the people of Iowa for their war bond contributions over the previous ten years. It is interactive. You're welcome to ring it, if you'd like.

Kaercher: Oh, you bet. Here we go. 

Person: We have a number of cannons on the grounds. This particular cannon, which is referred to as a mortar, was used during the Civil War onboard a gun boat in the Mississippi, and it was used during the battle of Vicksburg and given to the state of Iowa after the war to remind people of the Civil War.

Kaercher: This is certainly an impressive contemporary monument. Tell me the story here.

Person: This is one of our newer monuments on the capitol grounds. It's called Shattering Silence and it is here to commemorate many of the ground-breaking court rulings in the Iowa Supreme Court. This is the only gravesite on the capitol grounds. It is the gravesite of Wilson Alexander Scott. Mr. Scott donated the land for the old brick capitol that stood on the site of what is now the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. He died on his way out west in search for gold, and his body was brought back here and buried at his request on this bluff.

Kaercher: Steve, thank you so much for this tour of the capitol inside and out. I've really learned a lot. Now, if any of our viewers want to do what I did today, how do they get in touch?

Person: Well, the capitol is open Monday through Saturday. It's closed on Sundays and holidays. If you want information about tours, just give the capitol tour desk a call, and they will get you set up.

Kaercher: You also can schedule a tour using your cell phone. Dial 515-802-3004 and follow the prompts.


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Tags: capitol Des Moines Iowa IowasSimplePleasures memorials Polk County sculpture tourism travel


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