The Art Of Saving The Sheep Barn

Aug 19, 2015

Among other things, the Iowa State Fair is identified with its buildings: from the enormous Grandstand to the dignified Pioneer Hall. Officials have launched a campaign to restore one of the fair's most unlikely architectural treasurers: the Sheep Barn. Iowa Public Radio's Rick Fredericksen has the story.

The brick barn dates back to 1915 and hundreds of thousands of curious fairgoers, if not millions, have walked through the sprawling shelter to gawk, some of them with video cameras rolling.

"We're coming into the sheep barn, where they are bathing them. How cool is this."

This is where sheep shearing is a speed competition, where champions win their ribbons, and where future farmers practically live during the annual celebration of sheep. Something else that distinguishes the barn is the exterior: a gallery of artistic terra cotta that has made this a one-of-a-kind exhibit hall, featuring dozens of ram's heads, floral archways and vibrant murals.

"This is kind of a tour de force of clay. I sometimes call clay sophisticated dirt. We've been using the same basic material for thousands of years."

Cornice damage has obliterated entire rams faces.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

Artist David Dahlquist, with RDG Planning and Design, specializes in clay. He's been admiring the barn for years.   

"So the building is marked by its own subject matter with all these little teeny rams heads. A hundred years later I look at that and I think that is really fun today."

Dahlquist has also been monitoring the barn’s decline; look closely and you'll see widespread damage: hundreds of chips and cracks; entire faces are gone from some of the smaller rams heads. The Blue Ribbon Foundation, which raises money for capital improvements on the fairgrounds, launched a campaign last month specifically to restore the Sheep Barn, and a quick $10,000 was raised. Peter Cownie is Executive Director.

"Everything has a shelf life, we need to restore it, we need to put new pens in there, keep the brick from crumbling. We want to keep it looking good."

The six friezes, or murals, which decorate the main entrance, are in good condition.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

The entire state fairgrounds is on the National Register of Historic Places; the foundation has so far amassed $110-million to conserve the landmarks.

"The fair is a part of Iowa's agriculture history as well as our history. We want to maintain our roots in that and I think it's beautiful the way it is personally and we want to keep it that way."

Some of the necessary maintenance is basic: a good cleaning with soap and water. Elsewhere, a restoration mason might have to pull out a damaged sheep's head, produce a mold and install a recreation. Artist David Dahlquist believes the ornamental clay was fabricated in Chicago, which became a center for terra cotta production after the great fire in 1871. Whoever gets the job will be working with history.

Artist David Dahlquist stands at the historic east entrance.
Credit Rick Fredericksen / Iowa Public Radio

"I sometimes laugh and I call this 'forensics ceramicology,' you look at a building and you start to think, okay, well here's what they did and how long ago did they do that, you are taking what is there and you're stabilizing it, you are going through all the precautionary measures that will hopefully make the building last another 100 years."

Officials say it is possible that preliminary restoration of the Sheep Barn could begin in time for the 2016 Iowa State Fair. I'm Rick Fredericksen, Iowa Public Radio News.