State Historical Building Renovations Draw Criticism

Mar 10, 2016

In January, the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs unveiled a plan to renovate and modernize the State Historical Building of Iowa, something that people who work in the building will tell you desperately needs to be done. But the $80 million plan has caused quite a stir, as it involves demolishing part of the building, reducing the amount of square feet from 234,000 to 155,000.

Mary Cownie, director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, says there are some essential repairs that need to happen as soon as possible: a failing building envelope, skylights that leak, exposed pipes, a faulty drainage system, unsealed concrete ceilings, failing exterior granite, and a heating and cooling system.

"We know that if we were to build new at our same square footage, it would be roughly 118 million dollars. We know that we have good bones to use in our current infrastructure, and so it is important that it is definitely more cost effective to renovate the square footage that is existing right now."

Many are upset about what they see as a dramatic scaling back of the historical resources in Iowa, but Cownie argues the square footage is a question of efficiency.

"We have a lot of space that isn't used as efficiently and as effectively as it could be. And that goes back to whether employees are spaced throughout the building, adjacencies, [...] the Smithsonian-sized exhibit galleries, some of which have not been able to be changed out for 28 years. So again that all needs to be right-sized to be more sustainable."

Among other concerns is the worry that the state will lose priceless pieces of Iowa history in the process of downsizing.  Susan Kloewer, administrator of the State Historical Society of Iowa, says they'll work with other cultural institutions across the state and country, to ensure artifacts find their proper homes.

"There are things in our collection that have nothing to do with Iowa history. So therefore, we should not have those in our collections since we are the collectors of Iowa's history."

In this Talk of Iowa interview, host Charity Nebbe talks with Kloewer and Cownie about the renovations.