Restoring the Iowa Capitol

Angie Holland/The HeraldRosa Snyder shows an example of a stencil used during restoration of the Iowa capitol. Snyder's Humanities Iowa presentation was sponsored by Friends of the Oskaloosa Public Library.

OSKALOOSA — Below the gleaming dome of the Iowa State Capitol building, Rosa Snyder and her colleagues wielded paintbrushes instead of pens.

During a Humanities of Iowa program on Tuesday, March 26, sponsored by Friends of the Oskaloosa Public Library, Snyder described restoring the historic walls and ceilings inside and outside of the Capitol.

Oskaloosa was not unfamiliar to Snyder, as she and her family lived in town, her sons attended Grant elementary school and her husband worked for Garden Engineering. She went to Iowa State University and graduated with degrees in child development, art and interior design.

Snyder was the very first woman to be a restoration painter at the Iowa State Capitol. She worked there from 1987 through the 1990s.

"I retired from there because my back went out. I loved my job," she said.

Tools of the trade

The first step in the process, Snyder said, was to find a photograph of the area that needed restoring.

"It was my job to study this to figure out where the designs were," she said. "If you have black and white photos, at least you know where to begin. And if you don't then you have to do a discovery process."

One of the ways the restorers would discover an original design would be popping the paint off the wall. Alternatively, they would take paint remover, apply it to the wall, neutralize it with water, time the process and see how far underneath the paint a design could be found.

"Sometimes there was more than one design," Snyder said. "If we hit plaster, guess what, it was the last design before we hit plaster. So that's how we knew it was the original."

Once a design had been discovered, it would be restored using a stencil or using a pounce pattern. Snyder said two kinds of paint were generally used: oil paints and regular house paint.

Restoring the capitol

Snyder said when she came onboard in 1987, restoration really got underway.

"Prior to that, they just put on postage stamps, fixed things. In the 1970s, they painted over a lot of the design that I re-created. Because it wasn't 'in. It's old-fashioned, let's get rid of it,'" she said. "Plus, there wasn't anyone who knew how to do it. Back when they build the building, there were a lot of artists, there were a lot of companies that did this kind of work, because they not only did it in public buildings, they did it in public homes. And I'm sure there's homes in Oskaloosa that have it still."

When Treasurer of Iowa Michael Fitzgerald's office underwent restoration, Snyder said he saw the design and was leery about what the result would be like.

"We just said trust us, it'll be beautiful," Snyder said. "The original artists knew what they were doing."

Fitzgerald's office, Snyder said, features a painted wall that looks like an intricate tapestry, complete with fringe at the bottom and a rod and rings at the top.

"Now Mr. Fitzgerald loves to have people come and see his beautiful room," she said."

Snyder said most of Iowa's governors have all wanted to leave a legacy.

"When Gov. Branstad was there, he did not want to spend any money. In fact, there was duct tape that he had put on his carpet to keep people from tripping because he didn't want to spend the money to put carpet," she said. "So when he knew he was going to retire, he came full force, let's restore it and let's restore it to the original."

Due to her back problems, Snyder had retired from painting but was hired to do historical research.

"In the governor's office, I found information exactly what the carpet was, the drapes were, everything," she said. "In his room, it's totally historically correct, because that's what he wanted. He wanted people to be able to say when Terry Branstad was here, we did it historically correct instead of just putting shag carpet in there."