A state employee who has guided millions of visitors through the Iowa Capitol building is retiring.

January 23, 1976 was Joan Arnett’s first day as an Iowa Capitol tour guide. “After I had worked here for about three days I filled out an application and I began my career here,” Arnett told Radio Iowa.

Now, 47 years later, this is Arnett’s last day on the job.

“My children asked me a few days ago — they were here taking a tour, believe it or not — and they said: ‘What are you going to do on your last day, mom?’ And I said, ‘Cry.’ It’s going to be very hard to leave here,” Arnett said. “But I feel like I leave the building in good hands. There are a lot of people that have a lot of passion about this building and hopefully that will carry through into future generations.”

About 75,000 people sign up for tours through the building each year. Many arrive on school buses.

“A lot of our visitors start very young,” Arnett said. “We hope that they come back again and again, so it’s really not so much about learning facts about the building as learning that this is their building, that they’re always welcome here.”

The Iowa Capitol is 137 years old and tour guides lead visitors all the way up to what’s called the whispering gallery. It’s a narrow passageway inside the golden dome that’s 275 feet above the ground. Arnett is also fascinated by areas that aren’t on the public tours — the attics and the space that’s a story below the basement.

“We see the pretty parts all day every day, but we never think about what it takes to support that,” Arnett told Radio Iowa,” and there’s just a lot behind the scenes.”

For the past 25 years, Arnett has been the supervisor of all the guides who lead tours of the building six days a week. For decades, the Capitol tour guides operated from a small desk on the edge of the first floor rotunda, with a narrow, three story closet to store pamphlets about the Capitol and other supplies.

“We eventually added another desk” she said. “Of course we added a computer and eventually we moved down here to the ground floor.”

The ground floor is where visitors enter the building and find the tour guides, as well as souvenirs and a collection of artifacts found over the past 40 years during restoration of the Capitol. Arnett said she often thinks about the four men who were in charge of constructing the Capitol in the 19th century.

“I think the most amazing part is that they had the foresight to think beyond their years and they didn’t just think: ‘We’re going to build a building that people will be proud of today.’ They said: ‘We’re going to build a building that people would be proud of 1000 years from now,'” Arnett said, “and I think they accomplished that.”

Former State Representative Chuck Gipp of Decorah led the Capitol restoration effort during his 18 years in the legislature and he credits Arnett for helping to “make the Capitol a welcoming place for visitors.”

Information about Iowa Capitol Tours here.

Watch Arnett lead C-SPAN cameras through a tour of the Capitol.

Radio Iowa