Inside Old Capitol – Your Guided Tour.

Try, for a moment, to imagine OId Capitol standing alone on the hill above the Iowa River, surrounded by elderberry and elms, wild plums and witch hazel. Farm animals, including pigs and cattle, grazed where Macbride and Jessup Halls now stand. An outhouse sat at Old Capitol’s south; logs for stoking its wood-burning stoves were chopped and stacked to its west. As the sole building, and one of particular elegance and grace, it caught the eye, the apparent centerpiece of civilization in the newly tamed landscape. Linzee Kull McCray

Welcome, my good friends, to our on-line tour of my favorite building in the world. Today, it’s called Old Capitol, because in 1857, a majority of Iowa politicians decided to trot off to Des Moines, leaving their state house in Iowa City in the competent hands of educators. As one Iowa City newspaper columnist quipped at the time . . .

Let Des Moines have the politicians . . . we’ll take the teachers!

This stately building was once called the Iowa State House – sitting on Capitol Square. In the 1860’s, it became known as Central Hall on University Square. Today, the Old Stone Capitol is located on the University of Iowa’s Pentacrest. Built in 1840-1841, Old Cap is the oldest surviving building in Johnson County, and over the years, has certainly seen its share of ups and downs. The building – which wasn’t completely finished even when it was given to SUI in 1857 – was rehabilitated in the 1920’s, restored in the 1970’s, and after the fire of 2001, was renewed and refreshed, and is now serving Iowans as The Old Capitol Museum. I hope you’ll enjoy this tour of the inside of this beautiful treasure…

We Build Our Capitol – an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934).

On July 4, 1840 – the new capitol’s cornerstone was laid, with Robert Lucas, the first governor of the Territory, officiating. I love the details…so here’s the story – taken from Benjamin F. Shambaugh’s writings…

The stone for Old Capitol was taken from quarries on the banks of the Cedar and Iowa Rivers. The building was erected on a foundation six feet thick and six feet below the surface of the ground. The walls of the basement are four feet thick, and the upper stories three and two feet in thickness. The size of the building is one hundred and twenty feet long by sixty feet wide. The roof was surmounted by a cupola.

Work on the new capitol building was a slow process – continuing throughout both 1840 and 1841 Finally, in December 1842, the building was ready enough – though the second floor wasn’t completed – for the Iowa Territorial Legislature to meet here, beginning with their fifth session.

Isaac A. Wetheby took this first photograph of Old Capitol in 1854. More than fifteen years were consumed in the construction of the building, which was completed – minus the westside columns & porch – in the fall of 1855. In 1842 – four rooms on the first floor and the Representatives’ Hall were partially completed so that the Legislative Assembly and State officers occupied the building. The cost of the structure when completed was about $123,000.

The east entrance has this header above the doorway…

The cornerstone of this edifice was laid on the 4th day of July A.D., 1840, at Meridian by Robert Lucas, Gov. of the Territory of Iowa, under the direction of Chauncey Swan, Acting Commissioner.

While this header was placed above the doorway on the west…

There are three floors to Old Capitol – plus the 40-foot dome…

On the first floor were rooms for the Governor, Secretary of State, Auditor, Treasurer, Supreme Court and Library. The second story was divided into two rooms for the General Assembly, each fifty-four by forty-three feet in size; the Senate Chamber in the north wing and the House of Representatives in the south.
Old Capitol’s reverse-spiral staircase is one of the building’s most memorable features. In an unusual twist (literally), the staircase ascends from the first floor to the left, turns right, and ends with its top step directly above the bottom step. Spiral staircases typically ascend first to the right.
The amazing reverse spiral staircase. Click here to read much more about the history of Old Capitol reverse spiral staircase…
The President of the University used this office from 1860 to 1969.
A collection of SUI artifacts (below) are kept on the President’s desk: including a fragment of the Marion Meteorite that fell on February 25, 1847, the day SUI began. An oil painting of University Square (1882) by Frank Bond is displayed in the President’s Office as well.
The first three Iowa governors – Ansel Griggs (1846-1850), Stephan B. Hempstead (1850-1854), and James W. Grimes (1854-1858) worked in this room, as did Iowa Territorial Governors John Chambers (1841-1845) and James Clarke (1845-1846). Only Robert Lucas (Iowa’s first Territorial Governor) missed the opportunity since the State House didn’t open until after he left office in 1841. In the bottom row of pictures, you’ll see a spit-toon, which was a much-needed accessory in the 19th-century.

(P-0343) The state auditor was charged with collecting taxes, writing financial reports, developing working budgets, analyzing state accounts, and signing warrants.

The treasurer’s job was to manage money, and tools of his trade can be seen in this office. Income came to the treasurer’s office from three main sources: taxes, files, and the sale of public land. The treasurer, who was also responsible for advertising and selling public land, reported to the Legislative Assembly and the auditor.
(C-0025) October 30, 1849 – An official government letter from Jonas Wescoatt, Clerk of the District Court of Monroe County to Josiah H. Bonney – Iowa Secretary of State. Here’s a letter received in the Capitol Building in 1849. This letter is requesting $18.59 from the State Treasurer’s office in Iowa City. Read more here.
Creating a library was a top priority for early Iowans. In 1839, Territorial Governor Robert Lucas sent Theodore S. Parvin, later appointed Iowa’s first territorial librarian, to Cincinnati to bring back a collection of 238 books on a variety of subjects, including medicine, poetry, history, science, religion, travel, and education. When the capital moved from Burlington to Iowa City (1841), the library moved as well. Today, Old Capitol has 1,000 of the more than 1,500 books that were once housed here. They are arranged according to Parvin’s original cataloguing system. Click here to read more about T.S. Parvin.
This room served as a courtroom for both the Iowa Supreme Court and, beginning in 1849, the western region of the United States District Court. When the state court moved to Des Moines in 1857, SUI brought the Iowa Law School (from Des Moines) to Iowa City. The school moved into the second floor of Old Capitol, becoming the SUI School of Law in 1868. Below are pictures of the Law Library – housed in the 2nd floor Senate Chamber, at the turn of the century. Read about Charles B. Elliott, law student at SUI, who managed the law library in 1880.
Circa 1976 – original brick entry-way exposed over west door of Supreme Court Chamber.
The Senate Chamber as it appeared in 1924.
Lawmakers gathered here on January 2, 1847 for the First General Assembly of the new State of Iowa. It was also here, on February 25, 1847, when that same Assembly passed a bill authorizing a single state university to be developed in Iowa City, and SUI was born. Click here to read more about that special day.
The Senate Chamber has been used for a variety of gatherings over the decades: lectures, faculty meetings, dissertation defenses, recitals (above), even church gatherings like the one pictured (below) in 1925.
(P-0360) The chandelier (below) was made in Kansas City and was part of the 1920’s rehabilitation. It weighs about 650 pounds and supports 1,000 crystal pendants and balls, including 750 prisms. The 1878 Steinway piano weighs 1,500 pounds and was hoisted by a crane through a window on the northeast side of the Chamber in October 2006. She is nicknamed “Rose.” Click here to read more about the history of Rose – The 1876 Steinway Grand Piano.
Since 2007, Piano Sundays at the Old Capitol has been an opportunity to gather with others in the beautiful Senate Chamber to hear University of Iowa School of Music students and faculty offer a variety of piano recitals on the historic (1878) rebuilt Steinway grand piano “Rose.”
In September 1846, Iowa’s constitution was written in this room, and in December of that year, Iowa became the 29th State in the Union. In 1857, a convention met here to revise the constitution to better serve the needs of the growing state. This constitution is the one still in use today. In its early University years, the House Chamber served as a chapel. In 1880, it was divided into three rooms for the Law Department: a classroom, library, and office.

Below – the stairway to the House balcony – where spectators could watch the legislature at work.

This replica of the original, handwritten 1857 Constitution of the State of Iowa (left) rests on an original desk in the House Chamber. A beautiful 29-star US flag (right) is displayed in the chamber as well. Iowa, as you know, was the 29th state to enter the Union (1846).

The 29-Star Flag became the official United States Flag on July 4th, 1847. A star was added for the admission of Iowa – December 28th, 1846 – and was to last for only one year. The only President to serve under this flag was James Polk (1845-1849).
Take a look at those early years when Old Capitol was the New Capitol.

As you are touring Old Capitol, you’ll find the original bell (1844) that rang out for SUI students between 1855-1857. It hung in Mechanics’ Academy, where the first University classes were held beginning in 1855. Read more about the many bells of Iowa City here, including the three bells of Old Capitol.

And now, if you look upward on the second floor of Old Capitol, you’ll see a beautiful chandelier hanging from a domed ceiling. Many assume they are looking at the bottom portion of the golden dome of Old Capitol. But in truth, this is just the floor covering for the section of the Old Stone Capitol that very few people ever see. Read more here.

A huge thanks to The University of Iowa Pentacrest Museums for this montage of pics from the Old Capitol Museum. Be sure to click here to visit their fabulous website.

(BH-111) Many of the photos on this webpage come from Facing East and Facing West – Iowa’s Old Capitol Museum, Linzie Kull McCray & Thomas Langdon (2007) University of Iowa Press.

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

Old Stone Capitol Building, Interior, Central Staircase Renovation, Cornell University Library, circa 1920-1924

The Old Stone Capitol Remembers, Benjamin F. Shambaugh, 1939, State Historical Society of Iowa

History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century – Volume 1, Chapter XVII, Benjamin F. Gue, Wikisource

“The Gallery Will Be Reserved for Ladies”, Margaret N. Keyes, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 42 – Number 1 – Summer 1973, pp 1-16

Interior, Senate Chamber, Old Stone Capitol Building, Cornell University Library Digital Collections, 1924

Old Stone Capitol Marker #1, HMdb.org

Old Capitol, Frederick Kohli, FineArtAmerica

Old Capitol – The Jewel in Iowa’s Crown, IAGenWeb, August 30, 2010

Old Capitol Timeline, Old Capitol Museum

Facts, Names & Faces -Old Capitol Restoration 1974-1976, IAGenWeb


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