Our Iowa Heritage: Chemistry Laboratory.

Chemistry Laboratory & Pharmacy Building (East Hall Annex): The University’s Controversial Park Place. (Circa 1895 – note the Homeopathic Building on the left, the Mechanics Academy on the right.)

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!

The Red Brick Campus: Building #7 – 1890 – 1973.

Location: The Chemistry Building was located two blocks east of Old Capitol, about halfway between University Square and the Mechanics Academy. Situated on the southwest corner of the city block bordering on Dubuque, Jefferson, Linn Street and Iowa Avenue, this three-story 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.

1890: Let the Controversy Begin…

By far, the most controversial building constructed on the Red Brick campus, the Chemistry Laboratory/Pharmacy Building, was a much-needed addition to the growing University. When SUI President Charles A. Schaeffer (1887-1898) suggested 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 laboratory. Professor Charles D. Jameson was chosen to design the building and assist with the negotiations, and it was decided to locate the building on the southwest corner of City Park, a plot of land recently donated to the University by the city council.

1839 Iowa City Plan with City Park located two blocks from Capitol Square.

Iowa City historian, Irving Weber, recalls the controversy…

Irving Weber’s recollections.

You see, from day one when state legislators met in Old Capitol (1846) there was an on-going argument on where this fast-growing state’s primary activities should be located. In 1857, the state’s revised constitution effectively ended the controversy, stating that the capitol 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 the state’s primary public institution needed to be more centrally located. So, in retrospect, in response to the fears, the purpose behind the Iowa City city council deciding to donate City Park to the University in 1890 was that of enticement; one more practical reason for the school 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 laboratory nearer the main campus (University Square). I guess it’s fair to note that two city blocks seemed longer than it does today!

In 1890, when students complained about the new Chemistry Lab’s proposed location, University Square contained all State University of Iowa classes. Science Hall, built in 1884, is not shown in this early 1880’s etching, while the other existing Red Brick building, Mechanics Academy, served as only a dorm from 1866-1873.

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…

Interestingly, 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 late-1960’s about the old Chemistry Lab and its very deteriorating condition. The rumor my dad had heard at the time was that if the University tore the old lady down, the land would 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. Let me continue…

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!

(P-0233) Click here to view the postcard story of the Wieneke family.
(P-0191) Rare colorized Iowa City Business Section Birds Eye View Postcard w/ Chemical Lab/Pharmacy Building (left), Close Hall (center), St. James Hotel (across Iowa Ave), Hall of Liberal Arts (far right)
Circa 1910’s – The Chemistry Department’s float in the Homecoming Parade.

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…

Here’s the College of Pharmacy Senior Class of 1893-94 – with its professor – Emil L Boerner.
Click here to read more about Boerner and his family.

When Mechanics Academy (just east of the Chemistry Lab) was torn down in 1897 and replaced with the wings of the new University Hospital (East Hall), the Chemistry Lab/Pharmacy Building began to take on the name of East Hall Annex.

In 1930, the Electrical Engineering Department moved in to make the building its headquarters, requiring yet another remodeling program and name change.

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? I’m just sayin’? 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.

So. . . What Stands on this Spot Today?

from Irving Weber’s book (1989)

In the early 1970’s, the University moved to resolve all the long-standing rumors and controversy, replacing our old lady, the Chemistry Laboratory/Pharmacy Building in 1973 with a beautiful green space.

Hmm. Maybe that rumor my dad heard about the University losing the land if they tore down East Hall Annex had some validity to it? Who knows? Maybe the city council at the time promised to lawyer-up if the University went ahead and built a new building in its place?

Regardless, as part of the 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.

Four Module Piece was moved to Terrell Mill Park in 1997, where it remained until 2019. Today, the sculpture is placed in an elevated position at the entrance to Riverfront Crossings Park.

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 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 Red Brick building . . . Close Hall.

Here’s to the Chemistry/Pharmacy/East Hall Annex/Electrical Engineering Building . . . while a controversial facility from beginning to end, you’re gone but not forgotten!

DYK-February 2, 2022

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

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

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