House Chamber: From Legislation, to Law, to Learning
State legislators gather to make laws in a space call the House.
The house chamber is celebrated as one of the most important rooms in Old Capitol. Iowa
became the US 29th state here in 1846. The 26 members of Iowa's House of Representatives
gathered here to establish the Code of Iowa (the state's laws), and to inaugurate Iowa's
first three governors.
After the government moved to Des Moines, the University used this room as a chapel for
daily services. In 1880, the space was divided into three rooms-a classroom, a library,
and an office-for the law department. After Old Capitol's 1920s rehabilitation, the
house chamber was designed to mirror the senate chamber and used as a lecture hall.
In the 1970s, the room returned to its original design. For Iowa's 150th anniversary
in 1996, legislators returned to Old Capitol dressed in traditional 1840s costume
and reenacted a Legislative Assembly.
Iowa's first constitution was written here in 1846 and revised in 1857. Most US
states revised their constitutions several times before meeting the needs of their
citizens. Iowa's original constitution, however, is still in use today. It was
designed to accommodate change, allowing future legislators to make amendments
when necessary. Only 17 amendments have been made since it was first written.
When Iowa became a state, federal law mandated that every slave state brought into the
Union must be accompanied by a free state. Territories admitted in pairs were called
"sister states." Texas, the 28th and a slave state, was Iowa's sister state.
House Chamber: The State Objects of Iowa
Many of the room's accessories and architectural features are important to the way the
Legislative Assembly functioned.
All window coverings were of heavy red wool, except for those behind the speaker of the
house, which were green damask. Both the different color of the drapery and the elevated
height of the speaker's desk indicated his importance. The speaker acted much like the
referee of a ball game, having the final say on issues presented.
The wool carpet is an English reproduction of an 1840s-1850s Brussels design, with
classic details and colors typical of the period. Running across the floor and the
speaker's platform, it outlined where legislative action took place.
The upstairs balcony, the one thing that researchers were unsure was part of the original
plans, was rebuilt in the 1970s, when postholes found under layers of plaster helped prove
it once existed. Male spectators traditionally sat downstairs while watching the legislative
assembly. Women, however, were asked to sit upstairs, from where they could see only the
speaker of the house. Representatives did not want women to see how individuals voted,
fearing that they would gossip about it in public.
The 29-star flag represents the total number of states when Iowa entered the Union in 1846.
The large star in the center represents Iowa, a typical arrangement for a US state at the
time. In 1913, President Taft officially authorized a federal flag containing only same-sized
stars and encouraged each state to adopt a state flag of its own design. Iowa adopted its
current state flag in 1921.