Entertainment Tonight – Iowa City – The First 50 Years.

In the early 1840’s, Iowa City was growing quickly. Established as a brand new community on May 4, 1839 – by 1840, as the new Territorial Capitol Building was going up on Capitol Square, young men, women and families were flooding into town. And, as it was in the expanding West, newcomers – as they settled in – wanted things they had come to expect when they lived back East – things like stores, roads, schools, churches, taverns, and, of course, entertainment. Which brings us to a word that I’m imagining you might not be familiar with…

A Lyceum is a term used in the 19th century that referred to a school of learning, or a secondary school where young men (and later, young women) – who had completed some basic forms of education (i.e. reading, writing & arithmetic) – could attend in order to learn more. Public secondary schools such as high schools or colleges were fairly rare in the 1840’s – even back East – so here in the untamed West, there was the Lyceum Movement (1840’s to 1870’s) that made it a high priority for young pioneers, after a full day of work, to “unwind” by attending a Lyceum meeting where new ideas could be explored, experienced speakers were given an opportunity to share, and lively discussions would follow. Historian Clarence Ray Aurner tells us more…

Early Iowa City newspapers advertised the formation and the on-going gatherings of Lyceum groups. From what early records indicate, the first Lyceum met in the two-story log cabin of Matthew & Salome Ten Eyck in 1842 – located on the southwest corner of Iowa Avenue and Dubuque Street. This was the first log cabin built in Iowa City and it was used for nearly 20 years as a public meeting place, not only for Lyceum meetings, but church gatherings, and other political and social events as well. Read more here.

In later years (1842-1845), Butler’s Capitol (Hall) on Clinton Street (see below) was used for many social gatherings such as Lyceums and lectures, as was the nearby City Hotel and Swan’s Hotel.

In the winter of 1844, the local business community sponsored a series of Literary Institute “lectures” – held in Butler Hall (above) – covering a number of important topics. Thomas Rogers opened the lecture series with a talk on “Character,” followed by H.D. Downey speaking on “Improvement in the Art of Public Speaking.” That lecture was followed by Rev. Michael Hummer, who spoke on “The Importance and Character of a Thorough Mental Training.” An interesting topic seeing how Rev. Hummer’s story developed only four years later. Read more here.

Apparently, the Johnson County Court House (below) – which opened in 1842 – was used for various public gatherings as well…

And well into the 1850’s, North Presbyterian Church (below left) and Mechanics Academy (below right) also hosted Lyceum meetings in Iowa City. In truth, it was the Lyceum Movement of the 1840’s and ’50’s that truly gave our community its first taste at becoming a city that valued continued education.

With the success of the public Lyceum meetings, and the desire of the people for a broader selection of entertainment, Franklin Kimball – in the early 1850’s – built The Franklin Market. Located on the southeast corner of Dubuque Street and Iowa Avenue, this three-story brick building (see pic above) became a bee-hive of activity in downtown Iowa City throughout the 1850’s. With the market on the first floor and The Franklin Market Music Hall on the third, Iowa Citians gathered here both day and night – shopping during morning & afternoon and attending social events and concerts in the evening. Again, historian Clarence R. Aurner tells us more…

Sallie St. Clair was a young ballet dancer that made it big in New York City and soon, found herself traveling throughout the country – doing shows that had mixed reviews. In 1855, one critic for the New York Tribune remarked, “Her voluptuous form is the fittest setting for her diamond soul. Inspiration quivers down her snow white arms, and trembles on her finger ends; passion wrestles in her shivering knees, and shudders through her fainting limbs. Her soul flickers in every accent and looms up in every pantomime.” Another writer said of her national tour – St. Clair was “fascinating the outside barbarians in Boston and other small towns”. During one performance of an equestrian drama called Rookwood, some male audience members seated in the pit became overly excited, and “so far forgot themselves” that they climbed out of their section and into the orchestra seats in search of a better view. According to reports of the evening, the men were quickly removed from the theatre!

Not to be outdone, The Athenaeum opened on Market Street near Clinton (see #1 on map above) in the 1850’s. Located adjacent to North Presbyterian Church, the Athenaeum hosted a variety of entertainment-oriented events. From noted speakers to elegant concerts, Iowa Citians were treated to the finer things in life and it could very well be that the tag line “Iowa City – The Athens of Iowa” originated from this first Athenaeum location.

The name “Athens of Iowa” was first used in a 1861 newspaper article appearing in The State Democratic Press (below left), and over the next 60+ years, it became Iowa City’s most commonly-used nickname. Below right we see a newspaper ad from 1892 using the Athens of Iowa theme in its July 4th promotion.

In 1860, Charles H. Berryhill – who owned The Athenaeum – moved it to a larger building on the northwest corner of Burlington and Dubuque Streets (#2-on map above), and according to city records, the original building on Market Street transitioned into The Germania Hall (see ad below). Sadly, we can’t find how successful either venues were, short term, in their new locations, but we do know that the Athenaeum’s days were numbered, because by June of 1862, the building was rented out to Trinity Episcopal Church (see below right). Records also show the Burlington Street building later became a saloon after the Episcopalians moved on, and then, in 1868, was rented to the Universalist Church, followed by the folks of St. Patrick’s, before finally becoming an office for the Hawkeye Lumber Yard!

It appears from city records that The Franklin Market Building – which housed the Franklin Market Music Hall – and other retail shops along South Dubuque Street experienced a devastating fire on September 5, 1868.

Two of the buildings that were destroyed that Saturday night belonged to Daniel Ham – a gunsmith and a butter-and-eggs retailer on Dubuque Street.

But rather than fold, Ham and his eggs (sorry, I couldn’t resist!) rebuilt in 1868 – a two-story brick building (see pic below) across the street – covering three addresses – 6, 8, & 10 South Dubuque Street. And, sure nuff, Daniel Ham added on his second floor – Ham’s Hall – a place where Iowa Citians could meet for concerts, lectures, and other social gatherings. Again, historian C.R. Aurner tells us more…

Local newspapers from the 1870’s right through to 1905 indicate that Ham’s Hall was indeed a fine establishment for entertainment in Iowa City for over thirty years.

While Ham’s Hall on South Dubuque was deemed fire-safe and drew good crowds in the 1870’s through to the turn-of-the-century, it was no match for the elegant Metropolitan Hall.

Located on the southwest corner of Washington & Dubuque Streets (the present home to The Jefferson Hotel), this three-story brick building was quite impressive. Built by Iowa City pioneer Robert Hutchinson in the late 1850’s – prior to the start of the Civil War – the first floor featured the Drug Store of Dr. D.J. Morseman (on Washington) and the Shephard & Darlington Hardware, Iron & Steel Store (on Dubuque).

Above – (JP-004) Here’s a rare cover from 1861 featuring the Shephard & Darlington logo!

As far as entertainment goes, the entire third floor of this massive brick structure – twelve windows wide – was Metropolitan Hall with large seating options for musical revues, drama or lectures. Over its 30+ years of existence, the Metropolitan hosted some of America’s best-known celebrities.

The British soprano – Anna Bishop (left), American newspaper editor and publisher – Horace Greeley (left-center), American abolitionist – Frederick Douglass (right-center), American orator and lecturer and advocate for women’s rights – Anna Dickinson (right), and many others all appeared at The Metro Hall in Iowa City during the 1860’s and 1870’s.

And yes, even the American humorist – Samuel Clemens – aka Mark Twain – came to town in January 1869. More on that controversial visit here.

When the Civil War broke out in the spring of 1861, Iowa City came alive in its support for the Union cause. As you can see from the two articles above, The Metropolitan Hall hosted large gatherings – first, in May 1861, supporting the many Iowa Citians who were enlisting, and secondly, in 1865, celebrating the return of the “Boys in Blue” at the war’s end.

Known during most of its era as The Coldren, the Opera House occupied the 2nd and 3rd floors of Ezekiel Clark & Thomas Hill’s Iowa City Bank Company and was one of the finest theaters in Iowa from its opening day in November 1877 until its demise in 1912.

Designed by the Des Moines architect – Robert S. Finkbine – the three-story brick facility was built on the southeast corner of Clinton & College Streets – replacing the popular Clinton House which burned to the ground in 1872. Originally called The Grand Opera House, the Coldren name comes from its second owner, John N. Coldren – a widely respected Johnson County sheriff from 1877 to 1882 who also joined Clark and Hill in banking near the end of his career. Both The Daily Press and The Daily Republican offered massive articles on the eve of The Grand Opera House’s opening night in November 1877…

Above are excerpts from large articles from The Daily Press and The Daily Republican – written prior to the big grand opening.

Opening nights – November 6 & 7, 1877 – became a city-wide event, and quickly, the Coldren Opera House became a huge hit with Iowa Citians. Again, historian Clarence R. Aurner tells us more…

During its heyday, the Coldren featured top performers of the era and housed such stellar local events as the formal inaugurations of SUI presidents, city celebrations, as well as commencements and class plays.

One well-known celebrity – Oscar Wilde – came to Iowa City in 1882 – causing quite a stir. The Daily Republican featured his April 27th visit on its front page (see above), but the next day, the paper ended up panning the Irish poet and playwright’s performance (see review below). Apparently, Mr. Wilde was a talented writer, but not much when it came to public speaking!

The Coldren interior – considered spectacular in its time – featured an array of chandelier and sconce lighting, and Its stage lighting was considered state-of-the-art during the late 19th century. Originally designed to accommodate nearly 1,000 guests, after the 1897 remodeling, The Coldren seated 845 patrons on three levels – all within the top two floors of the building – 54 steps up from the chamfered-corner entrance on Clinton & College Streets. In truth, during the last two decades of the 19th century, and well into the earliest years of the 20th century, it was hard to find many civic events of Iowa City that weren’t hosted by the popular Coldren Opera House.

So, there you have it. From the early 1840’s, right up until the turn-of-the-century, Iowa Citians always had a spot or two where they could go for entertainment. Some of those places were a bit on the crude side – such as Matthew & Salome Ten Eyck’s log cabin, Walter Butler’s Hall, and The Athenaeum – all of which housed the early Lyceum meetings and other major city gatherings. Then, there were the upper floors of the Franklin Market (The Market Music Hall) and Daniel Ham’s Hall – both located on South Dubuque Street. Finally, we had the two grand halls of the 19th century – The Metropolitan Hall and The Coldren Opera House – both offering Iowa Citians the finest of programming one could hope for – here in The Athens of Iowa – Iowa City!

Now, let’s explore how the entertainment scene transitioned as Iowa City entered into the 20th century…

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

A History Of Iowa Cty Entertainment Venues – Iowa City’s Opera House, The Daily Press, November 2, 1877, p 4

Lyceum Movement – American education, Encyclopedia Britannica

Lyceum Notice, Iowa Capitol Reporter, January 15, 1842, p 3

Lyceum Notice, Iowa Capitol Reporter, November 26, 1842, p 3

Entertainment, Lectures, Libraries, Chapter XXXV, Leading Events in Johnson County, Iowa History, 1913, pp 569-573

Sallie St. Clair, Child Performers, Ambassadors of Empire

Athens of Iowa, State Democratic Press, April 3, 1861, p 3

Athens of Iowa, July 4, 1892, Iowa Citizen, July 1, 1892, p 5

Germania Hall, The Weekly State Reporter, January 19, 1859, p 2

The building formerly known as The Athenaeum, State Democratic Press, June 28, 1862, p 3

The Athenaeum (#2), Leading Events in Johnson County, Iowa History, 1913, p 369

Franklin Market Music Hall, Athenaeum, Ham’s Hall & 1868 Fire, Marybeth Slonneger, Finials – A View of Downtown Iowa City, Marybeth Slonneger, Hand Press, 2015, pp 133-136

Another Desolation, Iowa City Republican, September 9, 1868, p 3

Ham’s Hall, The Daily Press, January 12, 1872, p 4

Ham’s Hall, The Daily Press, May 13, 1872, p 4

Ham’s Hall, Iowa City Daily Republican, January 28, 1883, p 4

UI Press Moves Into New Old Home, Irving Weber, Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 4, 1988, p 22

A Call To Arms – A Fact A Day About Iowa City, Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 3, 1947, p 4

Boys In Blue – A Fact A Day About Iowa City, Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 8, 1952, p 4

Iowa City’s Opera House, The Daily Press, November 2, 1877, p 4

Clark & Hill’s Opera House To Be Opened To-Night, Iowa City Daily Republican, November 6, 1877, p 4

Coldren Opera House, Wikipedia

Saturday Postcard 223 – The Coldren Opera House, Bib Hibbs, December 13, 2003 IAGenWeb.org

Coldren Opera House, Clarence Ray Aurner, Leading Events In Johnson County, Iowa History – Volume 2, 1912, pp 571-572

Oscar Wilde – Iowa City, Iowa – Coldren Opera House – April 27, 1882, Oscar Wilde In America

Oscar Wilde, Iowa City Daily Republican, April 27, 1882, p 1

Oscar Wilde, Iowa City Daily Republican, April 28, 1882, p 4

Coldren Opera House, Marybeth Slonneger, Finials, Hands Press, 2015, pp 101-105

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