Terrace Hill fence approved last summer; governor's role unclear

Officials in the Iowa Department of Public Safety and the governor’s office decided during the summer of 2020 to install a permanent fence around the Terrace Hill mansion in Des Moines, records obtained by Bleeding Heartland show.

The documents don’t reveal, nor did state officials clarify, whether Governor Kim Reynolds or her staff pushed for added security around the governor’s official residence. The records also don’t explain the timing of the decision to move forward with a plan that had been floated years earlier, according to the agency responsible for protecting the governor.

PLANS APPROVED WELL BEFORE MICHIGAN PLOT REVEALED

An April 23 news release from the public safety department (enclosed in full below) said, “The State of Iowa is continually reviewing infrastructure security protocols and technology upgrades across the Capitol Complex and the Governor’s residence. These reviews have included considerations of the need for security enhancements, such as perimeter fencing at Terrace Hill, since at least 2017.”

The release said a kidnapping plot against Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer “only reinforced our longstanding concerns.” But the Terrace Hill project was underway months before October 2020, when law enforcement arrested the Michigan men who allegedly hatched that terrorist plot.

The governor’s office has not complied with Iowa’s open records law since the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. So when I heard about a possible wall or fence being planned for Terrace Hill, I requested relevant correspondence from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. One part of that agency is the State Historic Preservation Office, which reviews proposed changes to properties on the National Register of Historic Places as well as Iowa’s 27 national historic landmarks. Terrace Hill, constructed in the 1860s and donated to the state in 1971, is one of those landmarks.

The emails provided don’t reveal when the Department of Public Safety began seriously discussing the fencing project. Department of Cultural Affairs Director Chris Kramer seems to have first heard about the proposal around August 11, when she asked several people in the State Historic Preservation Office, “Has anyone been approached about improvements or a fence at Terrace Hill?” No one had been.

Mike Plummer, State Historic Sites Manager for the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, checked in with Terrace Hill’s administrator on August 21 to see whether the structure had suffered any damage from the recent derecho. He added,

When Chris [Kramer] asked me to reach out to you, she mentioned a new fence that may be going up to address security concerns. If that’s the case, to comply with the Save America’s Treasures preservation easement the project will need to be reviewed by SHPO. Any information you can share about the project, including the scope, design, parties involved, etc., I can pass along to SHPO and get the conversation started.

By late August, the planning was advanced enough for security personnel to give state historic preservation officials more details. Lieutenant Steve Lawrence, commander of the Iowa State Patrol’s Executive Protection Unit, mentioned in an August 24 email that he was “excited” the fencing project “is moving forward.”

Jim Wittenwyler, director of the public safety department’s Administrative Services Division, provided some “initial thoughts regarding specifications” in an August 25 email to Plummer.

  • 2,300 Linear Feet (Approximately)
  • Height: 7 Feet
  • 3” or 4” Picket Airspace
  • 3-Rail Black Ornamental Steel Fence
  • Two (2) – 12 Foot Double Gates
  • One (1) – 10 Foot Double Gate / Half Being 4 Foot Pedestrian-Wide Gate
  • One (1) – 20 Foot Double Swing Gate with Electric Actuator Arms

Wittenwyler attached the following “picture of a posible example” to that email.

State architectural historian Sara André emailed Geoffrey Burt of the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Partnerships division on August 28 to let him know, “the Iowa State Patrol and the Governor’s office want to install a 6-ft fence around Terrace Hill. They are setting up a call to discuss.”

Burt replied on September 2,

In general I think the example of the fence they’ve provided is a reasonable style and color in this situation. It appears to be relatively unobtrusive with a semblance of formality and dignity. I think as a new feature it would generally be compatible with and would not substantially detract from the historic character of the site. There’s no question a new fence surrounding the property will introduce a feature that will visually alter the overall historic character of the site in terms of views, but it boils down to compatibility and a landscape-scale, holistic consideration.

If they had proposed a fence that was composed of solid panels where you wouldn’t be able to see through it, or one with excessive massing or scale, or a chain link fence, or an inappropriate color, I probably would have pushed back. But I think if a fence has to be installed, the example they’ve proposed is probably a good option.

The federal government didn’t need to do a more comprehensive Section 106 review of the fencing project, because the Iowa Department of Public Safety wasn’t planning to use any federal funds.

Plummer and André did a walk around Terrace Hill to scout the fence location on September 15 and informed Burt soon after that the Iowa State Patrol “don’t have specifics on style, but what they, and we, do know is it will be between 6-7 feet in height, metal, with spikes…essentially it will be like the examples they sent us.”

A 95 percent construction cost estimate submitted to the state this year had most details about the specifications redacted but envisioned fences of 1,820 and 193 linear feet. That document envisioned total costs of $228,223. Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson reported on April 28 that the Iowa Department of Public Safety will use $400,000 from its current budget for the fencing project. I’m seeking clarification on what accounts for the extra expenses and will update if I hear back from department staff. UPDATE: I’m told that the “95% CD Cost Estimate was based on design estimates. The project’s updated total cost of approximately $400,000 takes into account agreements from contractors, including the price of materials at the time of construction.”

GOVERNOR’S ROLE IN REQUEST UNCLEAR

The Department of Public Safety’s news release implied the agency was driving the train on the project and noted that most states already have permanent fencing around the governor’s residence. It also asserted that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security “recommended, among other measures, the need for perimeter security fencing at Terrace Hill on more than one occasion, with the latest assessment taking place in January of 2020.”

Agency officials told me the same thing in response to earlier questions about the fence. Communications staff at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not respond to emails and phone messages seeking to confirm the federal agency had given that advice. The Department of Public Safety declined to provide copies of such recommendations, citing an exemption in Iowa’s open records law for information about physical infrastructure or security procedures.

In remarks to reporters on April 28, the governor furthered the impression that she hadn’t asked for increased security. “I respect the Department of Public Safety and their, really, encouragement to get that done and I think it’s probably the right thing to do,” Reynolds said. She emphasized that “nothing will change” in terms of the public’s access to the residence for tours. “But, you know, I’m not going to second guess their recommendation to have it done, and obviously every other state but one or two have made that same decision.”

Still, I wondered: if federal security officials had suggested this enhancement for years, what changed during the summer of 2020 to make the project a priority? An email referred to “the Iowa State Patrol and the Governor’s office” wanting to install the fence. The governor’s communications director Pat Garrett did not respond to any of Bleeding Heartland’s inquiries about who had proposed or approved the project.

OFFICIALS DENY CONNECTION TO BLACK LIVES MATTER PROTESTS

After learning the fence project got the green light last summer, I also wondered about a possible connection to racial justice protests. Activists staged many demonstrations in Des Moines, some passing close to the governor’s residence. Initially inspired by George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, those protests highlighted other kinds of inequity and systemic racism as well. Speeches and chants regularly included calls for Reynolds to restore voting rights to Iowans with felony convictions.

I reached out to the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement. They didn’t have any master list of summer 2020 protests in central Iowa but recalled five times when activists were in the vicinity of Terrace Hill.

On June 2, activists marched from the downtown sculpture park to Terrace Hill. This was not an “official” Des Moines BLM event; that group organized its first march the following day.

During an “Occupy Terrace Hill” event on June 13, activists marched from the sculpture park to the governor’s residence and temporarily blocked traffic on Grand Avenue.

A car procession from Des Moines Roosevelt High School to East High School on July 11 passed by Terrace Hill but didn’t stop there. At a rally outside East High School, speakers including politicians and BLM organizers called on the governor to quickly sign an executive order on voting rights.

During a July 28 event highlighting the voting rights issue, activists marched from Central Academy near downtown to Terrace Hill.

Des Moines BLM didn’t stage an event on August 4, but on that day (which is Reynolds’ birthday) some supporters stopped by Terrace Hill to drop off posters advocating for a voting rights executive order. Reynolds signed an order on August 5 restoring voting rights to most Iowans with felony convictions.

Des Moines BLM organizers could not recall any clashes with police near Terrace Hill. Sgt. Paul Parizek of the Des Moines Police Department confirmed this month that there were no arrests and police used no forced crowd dispersal methods (such as tear gas or pepper spray) in connection to any racial justice protests near the governor’s residence.

Responding to my inquiries in February about what prompted the fencing project, Department of Public Safety staff used language similar to what eventually appeared in the April 23 news release. I sought to clarify: “Are you saying that the summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests played no role in pushing the Iowa Department of Public Safety toward this decision?” The department’s top communications staffer Debbie McClung replied, “As stated in our response, this security measure was in play far in advance of 2020.”

Speaking to the Des Moines Register’s Andrea May Sahouri on April 23, Iowa State Patrol spokesperson Sgt. Alex Dinkla “said his department has seen an increase in death threats and threats of violence against Gov. Kim Reynolds over the last year or so.” Dinkla didn’t cite specific threats but mentioned a man who allegedly left a threatening voicemail in January 2021 calling Reynolds a “treasonous dictator” who should be “put in front a firing squad.” The man was arrested in March on first-degree harassment charges.


Appendix: April 23 news release from the Iowa Department of Public Safety

IOWA DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY ENHANCES SECURITY AT TERRACE HILL

DES MOINES, Iowa – The Department of Public Safety and the Iowa State Patrol’s Executive Protection Unit have been providing a safe and secure environment for Iowa’s Governors and their families since 1970, starting with Governor Robert Ray. The State of Iowa is continually reviewing infrastructure security protocols and technology upgrades across the Capitol Complex and the Governor’s residence. These reviews have included considerations of the need for security enhancements, such as perimeter fencing at Terrace Hill, since at least 2017. 

Additionally, the United States Department of Homeland Security Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency recommended, among other measures, the need for perimeter security fencing at Terrace Hill on more than one occasion, with the latest assessment taking place in January of 2020.

“Security enhancements to Terrace Hill benefit all future governors,” said Iowa Department of Public Safety Commissioner Stephan Bayens. “Terrace Hill serves as the family home for our Governors and their families, and we need to provide the safest environment possible for them. These enhancements are part of an overall state initiative to improve the security footprint at our state facilities.”

Repeated threats against our elected officials, to include Governor Reynolds, have been widespread and alarming, and Iowa is one of only a few states in the nation that do not have perimeter security fencing around the Governor’s residence. The foiled attempt to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has only reinforced our longstanding concerns. The State of Michigan recently installed a perimeter fence at Governor Whitmer’s residence as part of a recent security upgrade.

Terrace Hill is “Iowa’s Home” and tours are available to the public Tuesday through Saturday at 10:30 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. Tour reservations must be made 48 hours in advance and can be made by calling 515-242-5841. Terrace Hill also offers public events including an Easter egg hunt and Christmas at Terrace Hill. Please visit the following website for more information: https://terracehill.iowa.gov/visit

Top image: Photo of Terrace Hill by Joseph Sohm, available via Shutterstock.

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