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Old Cap Fire Kindles Memories Of Campus Centerpiece

By Linzee Kull McCray

(Editor's note: This article first appeared in the Winter 2002 issue of Spectator. It is reprinted with permission.)

The Old Capitol.

Its outline is on nearly every piece of mail sent by the University. Its steps were the site of memorial services for Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and John F. Kennedy in 1963. They served as the springboard for numerous campus riots in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In its 1994 April Fools Day issue, The Daily Iowan claimed that carrot peeler-wielding thieves had stripped the gold leaf from the dome. Approximately 30,000 people visit the Old Capitol each year–8,000 of those are schoolchildren. The city of Iowa City recently renovated Iowa Avenue, in part to enhance the view to Old Cap's dome.

And now that dome is gone.

At around 8:45 a.m. on Nov. 20, word spread that the dome was ablaze.

Six construction employees who were on the scaffolding that surrounded the dome scrambled down. The five employees working inside were alerted, and Mary New, special assistant to the president, called 911. Tadd Wiseman, the Old Capitol custodian, grabbed a fire hose from the second floor and ran it up inside the dome, in an attempt to contain the blaze. He was joined by Joe Stockman, area maintenance mechanic, who was just returning from the west side of the river. Stockman noticed what looked like dust surrounding the dome.

"I thought maybe the construction workers were sanding," Stockman says. "But it was smoke."

Up in the dome, Wiseman and Stockman turned on the hose and worked to contain the fire from the interior.

"You could see that the inside of the door leading to the outside was red hot," Stockman says.

The two men stayed in the dome until Iowa City firefighters arrived and began spraying water on the burning structure.

"I think anyone in the same situation would have done what we did," Wiseman says. "We were just working on instinct."

People in other buildings on the Pentacrest were evacuated and watched from the sidewalks on Clinton, Washington, and Jefferson streets as Iowa City firefighters battled the blaze that quickly consumed the familiar shape. The flagpole fell onto the scaffolding that encircled the dome and rested on its side, an unrecognizable flag flapping in the smoke, flames, and water. Quickly, only timbers outlined the shape of the dome, and just as quickly, those fell too. The fire was largely extinguished within an hour, leaving charred scaffolding and melted plastic weather protection.

By Tuesday evening, interior damage was already being assessed. Thanks to a concrete cap between the dome and roof, added as part of the Old Capitol's 1920s-era restoration, there was no fire damage to Old Cap's interior. Water damage to the structure is significant, however, and Gov. Tom Vilsack arrived in Iowa City the next day to survey the soggy interior columns and water-spotted ceilings. Quick action on the part of the Iowa City fire department, including moving heavy, antique furniture and covering it with tarps, minimized the water damage.

The fire made national news. President George W. Bush sent a letter of condolence to President Coleman. Letters and e-mail flowed from around the country to local and regional papers, as readers shared their memories of Old Capitol. The Chicago Tribune included a Nov. 26 editorial, "The power of a dome."

President Coleman left no doubt that the Old Capitol would be rebuilt. Within an hour of the start of the blaze, $100 had been donated for rebuilding. President Coleman and her husband, Kenneth Coleman, pledged $5,000, and at press time the Old Capitol Rebuilding Fund had grown to more than $27,000. Its 150 donors hail from 18 states and three foreign countries. (More information on how the fund will be used is available on-line at www.uifoundation.org/news/2001/nov08.shtml.) In January, UI Student Government will kick off a button campaign "Dollars for the Dome" to support current and future Old Cap restoration efforts. Preliminary damage estimates of $5.2 to $5.65 million include restoration costs for interior and exterior building repairs and initial emergency activities such as safety and protective measures, building stabilization, and relocation costs. Coverage by insurance carriers is still being determined.

The Iowa City fire marshal said the fire was caused accidently by workers for Enviro Safe Air of Omaha, Neb., who were using torches and heat guns to remove a paint coating containing asbestos. Damage continues to be assessed–as the interior slowly dries, the condition of the plaster, paint, and wood changes. Outside, as scorched sections of the dome are removed, measurements and the location of each piece are recorded.

A surprising number of faculty, staff, and students not only saw Old Cap burn, but are faced with the daily reminder of the loss. From offices, lobbies, and walkways all over campus Old Capitol looks, in the words of one University staff member, "decapitated."

That so many campus locations offered views of the gold dome is not by chance. The Old Capitol is visible from as far away as University Hospitals, the International Center, and the Boyd Law Building, and maintaining that connection to our historical beginnings remains an important part of the decision in siting new campus construction.

"The Old Capitol was the first building on campus, and it is both our symbolic beginning and physical focus," says Larry Wilson, campus planner. "The University campus started at the Old Capitol and radiated out from there."

And as tragic as the fire was, the response to its destruction has shown the UI community that what the dome symbolized radiates beyond Iowa City, to people across the country and the world.

Photos (from top to bottom):

  • Firefighters try to bring the Old Capitol fire under control Nov. 20, 2001.
  • The old wood that made up the dome is quickly destroyed by the intense blaze, as is the gold leaf that covered the structure.
  • The 36-inch bronze bell that resided in the dome was damaged beyond repair. Cast in 1864 by Meneelys at West Troy, N.Y., the bell cost $504.90. Since 1950, the 1,000-pound bell was rung automatically between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. to signal the beginning and end of classes. Since the fire, Ann Smothers, director of Old Capitol Museum, has had 10 offers for replacement bells of varying sizes and conditions, and an offer to recast the bell using the old bronze. At press time, no decision on a replacement had been made.
  • A temporary roof has been placed over the top of Old Capitol to protect the building from the elements until a new dome can be built.
  • More photos of the fire and its aftermath can be seen at http://news-releases.uiowa.edu/2001/fire.html.