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Beloved Iowa State Capitol tour guide announces retirement after 47 years

For nearly five decades, Joni Arnett has greeted visitors inside the Iowa Capitol, sharing her knowledge and love of the building.

DES MOINES, Iowa — For nearly five decades, Joni Arnett has greeted visitors inside the Iowa Capitol, sharing her knowledge and love of the building.

After 47 years, most people may get tired of their office, but not Arnett.

"As I'm walking in, I always look up to the building," she said. "And I never lose sight of the privilege it is to work here and that is the truth and I hope everybody that works here feels that way." 

A privilege that Arnett said came to her as dumb luck after high school: a friend of hers was a tour guide, so the director offered Arnett a job, too. 

"I thought 'Oh, I'll do that' because it was part time," Arnett said. "I thought I'd do that until I figure out what I want to do. I never left." 

Over the years, her career has evolved. For the last 25 years, Arnett has served as tour guide supervisor.

In that time, she has seen the building go through a metamorphosis of sorts: once bland and dirty, as she calls it, to the masterpiece it is today. 

"When I first came to the Capitol building, every single wall in this building was painted white. All of our beautiful designs that you see today had been painted over," Arnett said. "They were painted over as WPA projects, painted over again in the 50s and 60s. Our restoration painters had been working for more than 40 years to restore all these beautiful designs." 

After almost 50 years, Arnett can easily point out small details that may go unnoticed to the untrained eye. She sees each day in her role as a new chance to get lost in the history and beauty under the golden dome. 

"Some days I really love to talk about the glass floor. Some days I love to talk about the history," Arnett said. "Some days I love to show the Law Library. Well, actually, every day I love to show the law library. It's absolutely stunning. But some days, I want to talk about how government works, or some days we're in the Secretary of State's office talking about the Constitution." 

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Arnett's love of her role is well-documented: In 2014, Arnett took C-Span on a tour of the nation's only five-domed capitol — you can watch her here.

Her favorite part of the job, though, is sharing this beloved symbol of Iowa with the rest of the world. 

"We get visitors from all over the world," Arnett said. "We get visitors from many European countries where you would think that the architecture  would not rival anything that they have in those countries. But it really does. People always say the same thing about our building: that it just really is a beautiful, beautiful building." 

There's no telling how many faces Arnett has greeted, but an estimated 3 million visitors come through the Capitol's Visitor Center each year, with thousands visiting each day during peak season.

But as many times as Arnett has seen the Capitol, the beauty and the story of the building has never been lost on her. 

While Arnett will no longer be working at the Iowa Capitol, there's still plenty to see. 

Tours are available from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. All tours are free, and you can schedule one by calling (515) 281-559. For more information, click here

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