A key state senator is proposing that the state borrow $110 million to renovate two state-owned buildings near the capitol in Des Moines.
Governor Branstad already has given his blessing to a 5-year financing plan to renovate the 29-year-old State Historical Building.
The building sits about two blocks directly west of the capitol. It houses the Department of Cultural Affairs along with what agency director Mary Cownie calls the state’s “flagship museum.”
“We have to have a major renovation at this point to not only improve the infrastructure that ultimately houses the collection and allows us to preserve it according to best practice, but allows us to better
function as a museum,” Cownie says.
The facility dedicated to preserving and telling Iowa’s story has “209 million pieces of history” in the building, according to Cownie, who says it’s time for a “major intervention.” Airplanes that hang in one gallery have been damaged by a leaking roof. Potted plants are positioned to cover damaged floors. Buckets collect water in some areas.
Leo Landis, the museum’s curator, describes what happens when there’s a thunderstorm: “Both in the galleries and in the storage areas we will often get water and we can’t always predict where that water is going to come in. There are some areas where we have already mitigated with archival plastic to protect objects, but if it’s a Saturday night and we’re not here, it’s difficult to predict which collections would be harmed.”
The below-ground storage vaults would be renovated if the plan gets approved by legislators. Chris Kramer, the deputy director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, says employees are struggling to manage what she calls “environmental challenges.”
“If our mission is to preserve the collection, you know paper, archival documents will not be able to withstand normal conditions,” she says. “When we’ve got challenges with controlling our temperature, our humidity and the water in those areas, it just accelerates the degradation of those items.”
Officials considered about 30 different options. Their $80 million plan calls for renovating the Historical Building rather than the more expensive option of replacing it.
“It’s really hard to do the museum before we address the Wallace Building,” says Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines who leads a committee that decides how state gambling taxes are spent.
The Wallace State Office Building sits on the block just northwest of the capitol. The building opened in 1977. It houses the Departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
About 500 state employees work there. The parking garage under the building was closed a decade ago due to chunks of falling concrete. McCoy says there’s a long list of other problems.
“It’s had a mold issue over the years which has been addressed and re-addressed and needs to be addressed again, I’m told,” McCoy says. “They are not making parts for the elevators. They need to be completed removed and new elevator systems installed.”
The building’s entire ventilation system needs to be redone, partly because of lead contamination from the
bullets fired at the building’s now-closed indoor shooting range.
Gold-colored windows on the south side of the facade reflect the image of the capitol. McCoy envisions a plan that would re-use that gold glass in some way, perhaps as a reflecting wall.
McCoy is selling his plan to Governor Branstad by suggesting the building that’s currently named for former Vice President Henry Wallace be renamed for former Governor Robert Ray.
McCoy says both the Wallace Building and the Historical Building are “dilapidated” and need “significant repairs” and he’s begun presenting his plan to his colleagues in the legislature.
McCoy says the plan would be financed over 20 years by using state gambling taxes to repay the bonds.
Legislators voted to completely replace the Wallace Building in 2013, but Governor Branstad vetoed that plan, saying his priority was renovating the Historical Building.