The conservation and restoration of the Iowa Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument

John Griswold, Jonathan Taggart, and Stefanie Griswold


The Iowa Soldiers’ and Sailor’s Monument at the State Capitol Complex in Des Moines, Iowa is a grand Civil War memorial comprised of a massive granite column with an elaborate architectural base. Included are eleven major bronze sculptures, and over forty bronze relief plaques. The monument stands almost 140 feet tall, surmounted by a twenty six-foot figure of Victory holding two palm fronds. This paper summarizes the conservation effort led by Griswold Conservation Associates, LLC, in collaboration with Taggart Objects Conservation.

The monument, designed by Harriet Ketcham for a state-wide competition, was erected after her death with sculptures by Karl Rohl Smith in 1892-96. After more than a century, it had suffered deterioration and damage caused both by the harsh Midwest elements, and by vandals. The granite exhibited extensive spalling in uniformly thick sheets on most of the broad flat surfaces. Active disintegration and blind cleavage with associated planar deformation was found in many areas. Carved features such as pedimental relief ‘s and column capitals had suffered losses as well. Painted and drawn graffiti was found in several areas, and algae had established a firm foothold on much of the surface. The bronze sculptures were missing various accoutrements such as saber blades, scabbards, horse reins, spurs, belt straps, and other unique sculptural elements. The surfaces of the bronze sculptures and relieves were generally corroded from exposure to atmospheric pollution.

A clear record of the missing bronze elements has survived in a set of historic photographs, included in a guidebook published on the occasion of the erection of the monument. This afforded the conservators a rare opportunity to reconstruct the missing elements, and to restore the conceptual and aesthetic integrity of the monument. This course of action was made all the more feasible by the fact that many of the missing components were recognizable government issue civil war accoutrements and weapons, which the artist had faithfully represented in accurate detail.

The treatment of the granite presented an opportunity for field trials of several proprietary “restoration mortars”, a course of treatment which seemed appropriate given the dearth of case studies or field research in the treatment of monumental granite found in the conservation and preservation literature. The ethical and practical considerations attending the chosen course of treatment of the bronze and granite are explored in this paper. The practical aspects of large-scale project design and management, with particular emphasis on fulfillment of OSHA regulations, are also discussed.