This massive three-story brick structure with dimensions of 146 by 85 feet, was built in 1890, with the original cost being estimated at $50,000. The need for a chemistry laboratory had been stated at various times by President Schaeffer, and in response to his annual report (1888), it was decided to locate the new building in the City Park area – a controversial idea indeed! Once opened in 1892, the building was used by the Chemistry Department and the College of Pharmacy, but began showing signs of faulty construction almost immediately. In 1922, it was remodeled into a library – East Hall Annex – and in 1930, the Electrical Engineering Department made it its headquarters until its demise in 1973. And even in its passing, there was more controversy!
Location: The Hall of Pharmacy & Chemistry was located two blocks east of Old Capitol, about halfway between University Square and the Mechanics Academy. Situated on the northeast corner of Dubuque Street and Iowa Avenue, this three-story red-brick building was built on Iowa City’s original City Park – land gifted to the University in 1890 by the city to be used for educational purposes only. The main entrance (see above) was on the northwest side of the building with the stairway exiting on the north side and turning west to exit onto the Dubuque Street sidewalk.
By far, the most controversial building constructed on the SUI Red Brick campus – the Hall of Pharmacy & Chemistry was a much-needed addition to the growing University. When SUI President Charles A. Schaeffer (1887-1898) suggested that the Board of Regents adopt a long-range facility plan, part of that strategy was to construct a new building for the use of the Chemistry and Pharmacy Departments. Soon after appropriations were secured, plans were under way for the new facility, and Professor Charles D. Jameson was chosen to design the building and assist with the negotiations. It was at this point when the decision was made to locate the building on the southwest corner of City Park, a plot of land recently donated to SUI by the city council (see maps above).
You see, from day one in 1846 – when state legislators met in the state capitol building in Iowa City – there was an on-going argument on where Iowa’s long-term activities should be located. In 1857, the state’s revised constitution effectively ended the controversy, stating that the capital be relocated to Des Moines – while the university would be centered in Iowa City – read more about all that here. But apparently, that declaration still didn’t stop the on-going debate that SUI needed to be more centrally located. So, in response to those on-going fears, the purpose behind the Iowa City City Council donating City Park to the University in 1890 was that of enticement – one more practical reason for SUI to remain in our fair city.
So, while the city fathers rejoiced at the University’s plan to build a new building on the city’s donated land, right away other controversies began to pop up. First, there were the students who complained, petitioning the Building Committee to locate the new building nearer the main campus – University Square. I guess it’s fair to note that two city blocks seemed longer than it does today!
Then, if that wasn’t enough, there were the genteel ladies of the community who took it upon themselves to save City Park from being overtaken by the University’s expansion and greed! Irving Weber explains…
This hub-bub about the loss of City Park resulted in the city beginning to explore a new location to replace the original park. One option that eventually came to fruition – in 1906 – was on the west side of the Iowa River, just north of town – located across from the old Terrell’s Mill and Dam. Read more here.
So, despite all the controversy and the loss of Iowa City’s first City Park, Harry C. Smith of Iowa City was awarded a contract to begin construction in the amount of $41,983 on August 20, 1890. Bids had been opened in July, but the plan had to be altered to decrease the cost, due to the fact that all of the bids which had previously been received exceeded the state’s $50,000 allotment. This $50K fact is important to remember, so hold onto it!
Opening in 1892, the building was used by the Chemistry Department and the College of Pharmacy until 1922 when it was remodeled into a library. Again, here’s some of Irving Weber’s recollections…
In 1897, Mechanics Academy (above left)- located just east of the Hall of Pharmacy & Chemistry – was torn down, and over the next decade, was replaced with the wings of the new University Hospital – East Hall (above right). In the early 1920’s, as the building became host to the SUI medical library, it took on a new name – East Hall Annex.
In 1930, after the SUI Hospitals moved to the west side of the Iowa River, the Electrical Engineering Department moved in to make the building its new home – requiring yet another remodeling program and name change.
One amazing fact about the building when it was the Electrical Engineering Building – the world’s very first educational television station was broadcast from here (1932-1939).
The SUI Electrical Engineering Department demonstrated ‘television’ with an exhibit at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on August 28, 1931. At the conclusion of the fair, the television experiment was set up in the communications laboratory of the Electrical Engineering Building. By 1933, SUI received an FCC license for an experimental TV station W9XK, later W9XUI, providing twice a week video programming, with WSUI-AM providing the audio channel. A marker has been placed near the entrance of the Biology East Building celebrating this historical event.
Katherine Bates, author of an insightful look at the earliest facilities of the University, writes in 1949 about the, then, aging red-brick icon built upon Iowa City’s City Park…
The Electrical Engineering Laboratory has stood on the corner of Iowa Avenue and Dubuque Street and served the University for fifty-five years. It is one of the few old buildings remaining on the campus today. A few years after its occupancy in 1892, some anxiety was expressed over the fact that the floors had fallen several inches. This was reported due to faulty workmanship, according to W. N. Chalfant, who was appointed to examine the structure. It was believed that this condition might prove hazardous.
Let me insert here, our reminder that the University Building Committee, in 1890, rejected all bids over their $50,000 budget, taking the lowest bid at $42K. Hmm. Maybe an extra eight grand here might have secured a stronger set of floors? Bates continues…
Nevertheless, with its floors still sagging, the building endures. It has weathered the strain of thousands of footsteps since its construction in 1890. Building plans of the University show that its future may be short-lived and that it is apt to be retired from active duty in a few years to give way to bigger and better buildings in the University of the future.
On a personal note – just as Irving Weber remembers all the hub-bub surrounding the possibility of Iowa City losing the University when he was a kid (1910), I recall my dad and I having conversations in the early 1970’s about the old Electrical Engineering Building – as it was known then – and its very deteriorating condition. The rumor my dad had heard over the years was that if the University ever tore the old eye-sore down, the land – which originally was marked for green space in 1839 – would have to go back into the city’s hands! I never really looked into the matter at the time, but now, after a good look at the history of it all, I see where a rumor like that might have had some validity.
So, in the early 1970’s, as the old lady was celebrating her 80th birthday, the University moved to resolve all the long-standing rumors and controversy, replacing the aging building – in 1973 – with a beautiful green space. As part of the “park restoration” plan, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts was secured and along with additional fundraising efforts spearheaded by area arts activists, the sculpture Four Module Piece by world-renowned artist Kenneth Duane Snelson was secured and placed on the southwest corner of Iowa City’s original City Park (see pic above).
According to documents provided by the city, a dedication for the Snelson sculpture was held on October 13, 1975. The ceremony featured a keynote address from then-Gov. Robert Ray and short speeches from the artist and other city officials. A sculpture ‘Walk and Sale’ took place on Washington Street as well, featuring 60 sculptures from University of Iowa students. Even construction workers working on Washington Street got in on the activities, creating a sculpture of their own out of barrels. Now please, I’m not an art critic, but I wonder if the construction workers’ barrels might have had more curb appeal than this “interesting” pile of aluminum poles!
But, by the late 1990’s, most Iowa City folks had pretty much forgotten about old City Park, and with land this close to the UI central campus now at a premium, the University eliminated the green space, moved the art sculpture, and built Biology Building East – 210 East Iowa Avenue – in 2000.
And, just to pacify any art critics, a walkway that resembles the old covered bridges of Iowa was built bridging Biology East with Biology West. Which brings us now to our next SUI Red Brick Campus building . . . Close Hall.
Here’s to the Hall of Pharmacy & Chemistry . . . while a controversial facility from beginning to end, you’re gone but never forgotten!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
History of the State University of Iowa: Aspects of the Physical Structure, Katherine V. Bates, MA (Master of Arts) thesis, State University of Iowa, 1949, pp 128-130
University of Iowa Libraries: Iowa Digital Library website
Electrical Engineering Building, HMdb.org
Irving Weber’s Iowa City Volume 5, Irving Weber, Iowa City Lion’s Club, 1989, pp 205-208
On Iowa, Irving Weber, University of Iowa Press, 1996, pp 61-63
Long-standing sculpture in Iowa City will get new life at Riverfront Crossings, Cedar Rapids Gazette, May 28, 2019
Bridge For Iowa, University of Iowa Facility Management
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