Our Iowa Heritage: Old Capitol’s Stairway To Heaven.

One of the first things that most visitors to Old Capitol in Iowa City notice when they walk through the front door is the absolutely stunning reverse-spiral staircase that welcomes you into the building.

Here’s the Old Capitol spiral staircase as viewed from the backside of the first floor.

Did you realize that the idea of a spiral staircase dates as far back as 3,000 years ago? In the ancient Hebrew writings (1st Chronicles – Chapter 28), we find King David, before he dies, leaving explicit building plans with his son Solomon. Verse 11, for example, says…

Then David gave his son Solomon the plans for the portico of the temple, its buildings, its storerooms, its upper parts, its inner rooms and the place of atonement.

Other Hebrew writings indicate that there may have been two spiral staircases built in Solomon’s temple (below left), both used for holy purposes (i.e. a place of atonement).

Actually, many world religions portray heaven as a holy place above us, a place where God dwells, and is accessed by the use of an upward-winding staircase or ladder. In the ancient writings of Moses, for example (see Genesis 28: 10–19), Jacob has a dream where he sees angels ascending to and descending from God’s presence via a staircase. Numerous art depictions of that biblical text depict a spiral staircase (see pic above) or ladder.

Interestingly enough, when it comes to actual staircase remains, the earliest example of a spiral staircase comes from a temple in Sicily (above) that is believed to have been constructed around 480-470 B.C. These stairs, like many other ancient designs, were centered on a central column that was crafted out of stone with stone slabs constructed around to build stairs.

A more common design began to appear around 500 years later. Trajan’s Column in Rome – a monument to victory that was built around 113 A.D. – still stands today (see above) and is widely considered the oldest preserved spiral stair structure in the world. It features a base built of marble with stairs wrapped with reliefs depicting the victories of Trajan’s army in war.

Actually, when the new Capitol Building of Iowa opened in December of 1842, the second floor was not completed. You can read about the details here, but suffice to say that the entire construction project, which began in the spring of 1840, was spread out over at least fifteen years, mainly due to inadequate funding. So as the Territorial Legislature (1842-1846) met on the first floor, construction work on the second floor was still in progress. In 1846, when Iowa became the 29th state in the Union, more funding did arrive, but it wasn’t until 1849 when $3,000 was finally appropriated to complete the spiral stairway to the 2nd floor according to the original plan.

Take a look at those early years when Old Capitol was the New Capitol.

At first, it might be confusing to know the difference between a spiral staircase vs. a reverse-spiral staircase. As a matter of fact, if you’re not careful, as you think about the differences we’re about the explain, you might end up going in circles…

The easiest way to remember the difference is that a regular spiral staircase takes a person up the stairs in a counter-clockwise motion. The reverse-spiral staircase moves you upward in a clockwise motion. So…both types get the job done, but because we live in a “right-handed” world, the most common spiral staircase, by far, is the type that leads you to the right as you step upward. That’s why the opposite (one that leads you to the left) is called a reverse-spiral.

In an unusual twist (literally), the Old Capitol reverse-spiral staircase ascends from the first floor to the left, turns right, and ends with its top step directly above the bottom step. Spiral staircases typically ascend first to the right.

Now, my left-handed wife, has quickly reminded me here, that this “right-handed” world in which we live is completely unfair to left-handers, and, except in the world of baseball (where lefties are highly valued), she’s right.

So, let’s look at it this way. Since Old Capitol has a much-rarer reverse-spiral staircase – one that leads you to the left (clockwise) to get you to the second floor, let’s just say that Old Capitol is a redeeming place for all the forgotten and forlorn left-handers of the world. Gosh – maybe the staircase was actually designed intentionally by a lefty who had an axe to grind against all those other right-handers assigned to this building project.*

In the 1920’s, a major rehabilitation of Old Capitol occurred, and part of that work was to completely replace the original staircase, which was in great need of repair. Note that historians do not call the 1920’s project a restoration, because the primary goal at that time was not to “restore” the building back to its original design, but to re-configure it, making it more useful as the SUI administration building. A full restoration of the entire building did occur in the 1970’s, bringing the building back to its original layout of the 1840’s-50’s, but several positive things were done in the 1920 rehabilitation – one of which was the repair and “restoration” of the staircase (see pics below).

On the left (above) is Fred Kent’s photo taken in 1921, prior to the re-building of the staircase. On the right (above) is Kent’s picture taken in the early 1930’s after the re-build.

Thanks to Ann Smothers, former director of the Old Capitol Museum, for these “tour notes” (above) that address some of the details surrounding the 1920’s re-build of the staircase. Ann also added this…”The attached is one of my favorite photos of the staircase. It was taken in 1921 just prior to the rehabilitation. Please notice when you are looking at the staircase, the newel post (stairway rods) on the right (watercooler is directly behind it) is 10″ shorter than the one on the left. (Also) if you look closely, you can see the rectangular opening of the straight staircase to the ground floor that is descending from North to South.” (see pic below as well)

Prior to the 1920’s project, the stairway to the basement level of Old Capitol was a traditional, straight set of stairs. Today (see picture above), the beautiful reverse-spiral staircase from the first floor now flows gracefully into a curved set of stairs leading to the lower level – a staircase that was added during that 1920’s rehabilitation project.

In the early 2000’s, The University of Iowa began yet another round of renovations (the previous ones were in the 1920’s and 1970’s) to upgrade Old Capitol. Part of the repairs called for asbestos to be removed from the dome/cupola area.

On November 20, 2001, contractors, using open flame torches and heat guns on the cupola that supports the building’s golden dome, accidentally set it on fire. The fire was limited to the cupola, thanks to a concrete slab firewall that had been installed during the 1920’s rehabilitation. Old Capitol’s dome was completely destroyed, and the tens of thousands of gallons of water used to douse the blaze caused major damage inside.

The staircase suffered a great deal of water damage, all of which took months to dry out and repair. In July, 2002, a load test was done on the staircase to ensure its on-going stability. An intricate set of braces was erected with monitors resting on the underside of the staircase. Sand bags were then strategically placed on the stair treads, followed by the monitors being checked to see how the staircase was handling the added weight. In the end, a total of 9,000 pounds of sand was placed on the staircase, and after a 24-hour stress period, our Old Capital staircase was declared stable and good to go!

(P-0265) Whether in color or black & white, the beauty of the Old Capitol staircase still comes through.

Today, as we prepare to celebrate The University of Iowa’s 175th anniversary, we give a tip of the old hat to Old Capitol’s Reverse-Spiral Staircase. From 1849 to today, a stairway to heaven for all Hawkeyes, young and old.


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Genesis 28: The Famous Jacob’s Ladder, commonerjim.wordpress.com, February 20, 2010

First Floor Rotunda, University of Iowa Old Capitol Museum

Reverse spiral staircase – Iowa Old Capitol Building, photograph by Robert L Lease Images, Lumiere De Liesse Ltd., January 6, 2017

Reverse spiral staircase -2 – Iowa Old Capitol Building, photograph by Robert L Lease Images, Lumiere De Liesse Ltd., April 13, 2017

Iowa City Stairs – photograph by Cynthia Vanessa, fivehundredpx, Pinterest

Interior, Central Staircase, Old Stone Capitol Building, Cornell University Library Digital Collections, 1924

Interior, Central Staircase Renovation, Old Stone Capitol Building, Cornell University Library Digital Collections, 1921-1924

Spiral staircase in the Old Capitol, The University of Iowa, 1930s, University of Iowa Digital Library

The Restored Old Capitol, The Wanderers, June 26, 2011

Spiral Stairs in History, SalterSpiralStair.com

*Why Do Spiral Staircases Go Anti-Clockwise?, Leading Britain’s Conversation

*In this interesting little article, the historical reason most spiral staircases go to the right (counter-clockwise) from the bottom stair is explained. In the middle ages, it was quite common for castles to use stone spiral stairways to access the upper portions of a castle. If and when a band of thugs or a foreign army wanted to take your castle, they would have to access your living area by coming up the winding staircase. Now, if I’m at the top of that staircase and I need to work my way down to swing my sword at these bad guys, I’m gonna want to have my strong arm holding my sword while I run down the stairs. Being that most people are right-handed, I’m gonna want to build my staircase so that I can hold onto the outside banister with my left hand while I swing away with my sword in the right hand. Now stay with me here. If I’m at the top of the circle, I’ll need to build my spiral staircase so that the banister is on my left as I come down (meaning it will be on my right when I go up)…so the only way to accomplish that is to make the spiral staircase one that runs counter-clockwise when viewed from the bottom. Whew. Did you get all of that?

A huge thanks to Ann Smothers, former director of The University of Iowa Old Capitol Museum for her assistance.

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