Iowa City is one unique place. On one hand, we’re a bustling Midwestern community – the home to one of the most highly-respected universities in the United States. A modern, vibrant city located in America’s heartland – yet, on the other hand, our Iowa City Downtown Historic District has just been listed on the National Register of Historic Places (May 2021). Go figure?
The truth is, in 1839 when Iowa City was first envisioned as Iowa’s new capital city, Johnson County was only a beautiful green valley surrounding the Iowa River.
One of our earliest residents, Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, wrote this about our fair community…
As many of you know, the first significant structure that rose above the Johnson County prairie is the same building we all know and love today…
Old Capitol, known in the early 1840’s as the Iowa Territorial Capitol Building, stood center stage on Capitol Square as drawn up by mapmaker L. Judson in 1839.
Over the last 180+ years, there have been many more “skyscrapers” built in Iowa City. Sadly, only one of the very earliest has survived (Old Capitol), but on the positive side, we do have sketches and photographs of many of those now lost. Here on this page, allow me to introduce you to twenty-one of the very biggest and best – spires, steeples, towers, and domes that have made our city’s skyline unique.
An editorial note: Maybe the word “skyscrapers” doesn’t come to mind when you think of Iowa City, but in 19th century Iowa, just about any three or four-story building that extended into the heavens might be considered as such.
Between 1840 and 1855, there were five Iowa City “skyscrapers” that caught the first rays of morning sunlight. Iowa City’s own artist, George H. Yewell, sketched them for us, with his artwork appearing prominently in a promotional map of Iowa City prepared by J. Millar in 1854. Note (on the map below) that Yewell sketched both buildings as they currently appeared (Old Capitol, for example) and some as they were proposed to look like (Mechanics Academy and others). Click here for more early maps of Iowa City.
Old Capitol – Iowa City’s oldest “skyscraper.” We won’t add much here since our website has already devoted many pages to the subject. You can read more about Iowa’s most iconic building with these links…
First Presbyterian or North Presbyterian. Under the leadership of Rev. Michael Hummer, construction on this building (above left) began in 1843. It took seven years to complete (1850), but sadly burned to the ground six years later (1856). It’s replacement, built in 1856 and today known as Old Brick (above right), is one of the few surviving pre-Civil War structures in Iowa City. The steeple (top right) was demolished in an 1877 wind storm and was rebuilt with a crenellated belfry (bottom right), giving Old Brick its distinctive appearance. Last used as a church in 1975, Old Brick was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 as North Presbyterian Church. The first building is the infamous sight of one of Iowa City’s most entertaining belfry stories – Hummer’s Bell – Click here for the full bell-ringing story.
First Constitutional Presbyterian Church of Iowa City (Old Stone Church) was located on the south side of Burlington Street, a half-block west of Clinton Street. Millar’s 1854 map actually mis-labeled this building since it was built by a group of Presbyterians who separated from the main church in the early 1840’s. Interestingly enough, the spire of this Presbyterian church was the home of Iowa City’s first church bell. Click here to read more about The Bells of Iowa City. When this contentious Presbyterian group dissolved in 1865, the Old Stone Church was sold in 1866, and for a time it housed the State Historical Society of Iowa. Records show that the building was razed sometime around 1905.
First Baptist Church of Iowa City. As the tide of emigration flowed into Iowa territory, Baptists were well represented. Long Creek Church in Danville was the first Baptist church in the Territory with Elder John Logan preaching in a log cabin the evening of Oct. 19, 1834. In 1838, a second Baptist church was organized, about six miles southwest of Burlington – called “The Baptist Church of Christ, Friend to Humanity, at Rock Spring, Iowa.” Soon after Iowa City was formed in 1839, Baptist men and women arrived, starting the congregation here that eventually built the building pictured above.
Mechanics Academy is often called The Cradle of the University. This schoolhouse was built two blocks east of Old Capitol, in the middle of the block directly east of City Park (off Linn Street – between Iowa Avenue and Jefferson St). Not only did this little building host the first State University of Iowa (SUI) classes (mathematics and languages in the spring of 1855), but it also served as the first home for both University Hospitals and Mercy Hospital (1873 – 1897), the first location of the University of Iowa Library (1855 – 1859), and the first office of the State of Iowa Historical Society (1862 -1865). The building’s entrance faced west and was replaced with the southwest section of East Hall/Seashore Hall in 1898. Click here to read more.
Over the next fifteen years (1855-1870), another five “skyscrapers” were added to Iowa City’s skyline. A beautiful map published in 1868 by Albert Rugar (below) shows us the details…
(P-0294) First United Methodist Church. Beginning in 1839, Methodist circuit rider, Joseph Kirkpatrick, held services in a two-story log cabin near the site of the present church building (northeast corner of Dubuque and Jefferson Streets). In the decades that followed, four different buildings have served those who became Methodists. By 1863, the original church was enlarged, adding a steeple and colored glass windows (above left). Twenty one years later (1884), following a fire, the church was remodeled with a blunter steeple and steeper roof (above middle). Another fire in April, 1906 burned the church to the ground, and the present facility (above right) was dedicated in 1908, at the cost of $75,000.00. (P-0366)
Congregational Church of Iowa City – located on the southeast corner of Clinton and Jefferson Streets, the original church charter was established and signed by seventeen individuals in 1856. In 1868, the cornerstone to their new building on Clinton Street was laid and on December 9, 1869, the church was dedicated. It’s narrow spire has long been a local landmark in downtown Iowa City. Click here to read more about Clinton Street – Iowa City’s Center of Commerce.
(P-0290) St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The first Mass in Iowa City was celebrated by a frontier missionary, the Rev. Samuel Charles Mazzuchelli on December 20, 1840. It was attended by 28 people in a building that doubled as a private home and a hotel owned by Ferdinand Haberstroh. St. Mary’s parish was established by Mazzuchelli in 1841, named St. Mary of the Assumption, and a small building was largely completed by 1842. Above (upper left) is a rare look (circa 1865) at the “second” St. Mary’s Catholic Church and the famous church bell. Read more about the bell of St. Mary’s here. The current 1869 church (lower left) was built around the existing one, which then was demolished from the inside and carried out piece by piece. The beautiful 140-foot steeple on the new facility was added in 1874. Read more about Rev. Samuel Charles Mazzuchelli, Ferdinand Haberstroh and the early St. Mary parishioners here.
Trinity Episcopal Church. The first known Episcopal service in Iowa City was when Missionary Bishop Jackson Kemper visited here on July 10, 1841. There were periodic visits by the Bishop and Missionary Priests until Trinity Parish was organized on August 7, 1853. The Reverend Willis H. Barris was appointed the first official Rector of Trinity on October 15, 1855. The congregation met in various locations until 1862 when the parish acquired the former Athenaeum building (northwest corner of College and Gilbert Streets) and used it as a church until the completion of the present building, which was first used for services on October 1, 1871. Trinity Church was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on December 31, 1974.
In 1857, a new Johnson County Court House (above left), replacing its burned-down predecessor, opened on South Clinton Street – the same location where the current Court House stands today. By 1897, cracks were detected on the south wall, endangering the structure and the records it housed, so construction on a new courthouse began in 1899 (above right). Click here to read more about the rich history behind Johnson County courthouses.
Between 1870 and 1900, another five “skyscrapers” were added to Iowa City’s downtown skyline. On the 1875 Andreas Atlas Company‘s map of Iowa City (above), we’ve noted the location of those buildings. Click here for more early maps of Iowa City.
The Universalist & Unitarian Church was built in 1870 to replace the Universalist Church that burned to the ground in 1866. It stood directly across the street from University Square, on the northeast corner of Clinton Street and Iowa Avenue, and was also known as Unity Hall or Old Unity. The State University of Iowa rented this unique red-brick facility for student activities from the late 1880’s until 1906, when it purchased the building for multiple uses, including a home for the Department of Public Speaking. With a major renovation in 1911, Unity Hall became the home for Iowa’s first Student Union, providing meeting places for student clubs, extracurricular activities and dining in the basement. Outgrowing the space in 1913, the Union went through two more locations in three years, only to return to Unity Hall in 1916, sharing it with the School of Music until the new Memorial Union opened after World War I in 1925. Sadly, when the Music Department moved out in 1932, Unity Hall was razed soon after (1933), only to be replaced after World War II with six temporary Quonset-type classrooms designed to help the University cope with the huge influx of students taking advantage of the GI veterans bill. These temporary buildings were removed in the early 1960’s and replaced with Phillips Hall in 1965. Click here to read more about Unity Hall.
St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. Located at 228 East Court Street – near downtown Iowa City – St. Pat’s was the second parish founded in Iowa City after St. Mary’s. The Rev. M. V. Rice celebrated the first Mass on March 23, 1873, and the cornerstone was laid on June 13, 1878. The first Mass in the new church was celebrated on February 2, 1879. On April 13, 2006, the Iowa City area was hit by an F2 tornado. During the course of the storm, St. Patrick’s Church was heavily damaged, with most of the roof and the 80-foot steeple destroyed. The parish has now moved to the far-east side of Iowa City and St. Pat’s steeple is once more towering over the area. Read more here.
(P-0367) City Hall. In 1881, Iowa City built a new City Hall Building at the corner of Linn and Washington streets. The Fire Department headquarters was moved to this building. Ironically, the building nearly burned to the ground that year when a gas hose dryer was left on in the fire department, starting a fire that caused about $17,000 in damage. The cost of rebuilding the hall was $9,925. The fire department managed to prevent any more fires in their new quarters and remained in that building until 1962, when the building was demolished. Click here for more details.
City Hall stands tall above Washington Street – looking east (above left).
(P-0245) First Christian Church. The first meeting of what was to become First Christian Church of Iowa City was held soon after Jesse Higbee, a farmer and lay minister from Pennsylvania, came to Johnson County in 1855. The congregation began meeting in a rural schoolhouse but by 1863, relocated to 217 Iowa Avenue in Iowa City, buying a building the Methodists had built in 1851 on the “Church Preserve” given to the city by Chauncey Swan. The 1855 building was replaced in 1886, adding the beautiful steeple at that time.
(P-0129a) Close Hall (Y.M.C.A & Y.W.C.A Building) was located on the northwest corner of Iowa Avenue and Dubuque Street. Made of red brick, construction of the building was completed in 1891. The cost of construction was supplemented through a contribution of $10,000 by Mrs. Helen S. Close in order for the YMCA and YWCA (Young Men & Women Christian Association) to have a ministry home near campus. The three-story building contained offices and recitation rooms on the first floor while the second floor housed literary societies as well as additional offices. The basement of the building housed a gymnasium as well as an industrial chemistry lab. (Did you know that Close Hall was the site of the first five-on-five college basketball game ever played in the United States?) In 1924, Close Hall became the home of the School of Journalism and The Daily Iowan press room. A fire destroyed the second floor in 1940, but the building was saved and utilized until its demise in 1968. Click here to read more about Close Hall.
At the turn of the century, Iowa City and SUI (State University of Iowa) were both growing and expanding at an amazing rate. Read more about the 1895 Red Brick Campus. Yet, despite the rapid growth, there was really no long-term plan for expansion. So in 1900, the new University president, George MacLean proposed a dramatic “New University” blueprint, eliminating all of the existing buildings surrounding Old Capitol (there were ten at the time!), replacing them with four stately educational buildings (today’s Pentacrest). In a letter to the president of the University of Oklahoma, MacLean wrote:
The overwhelming majority of universities have hodge podge buildings which are dropped here and there like ostrich eggs in the sand . . . at great cost, we are rescuing this university from these defects.
This “New University” expansion plan set in place not only today’s Pentacrest, but it also opened the door for both SUI and Iowa City officials to begin talking about building projects on the west side of the Iowa River. Which now brings us to our final set of “skyscrapers.”
(P-0113) (P-0201) University Hospital Tower. When the move to the west side of the Iowa River was finally completed in 1928, the SUI University Hospital with its beautiful Gothic tower became the foundation of the modern University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics. City planners placed the tower on a straight line west of Old Capitol with the mindset that the tower, like its counterpart on the east side, would be the center of the SUI west campus. Today, the Hospital Tower has been dwarfed by other larger medical buildings, but from the west steps of Old Capitol it can still be clearly viewed. Click here to read more about SUI Hospitals.
In the original 1839 city plan (see map above) Centre Market was set aside for city use. Records indicate that Iowa City had its first public education as far back as 1858, when M.B. Beals was hired as principal. Beals’ records show that in 1860 there were 35 boys and 35 girls attending, but there is no indication where classes were held.
(P-0321) Iowa City High School #1 – 1893. In 1893, Iowa City’s first high school (above left) was built on the southwest corner of the Centre Market block.
(P-0291) (P-0322) Iowa City High School #2 – 1903. Ten years later (1903) a new high school (above right & below) was built on the northeast corner of the same block, with the older building becoming the Grammar School (grades 6-8). A gymnasium (including a swimming pool) in the northwest corner of the block was built in 1911.
Iowa City High School #3. Originally dubbed “Opstad’s Folly,” City High was built at a cost of $398,000 to the Iowa City community combined with a $326,000 federal grant as part of the Public Works Projects started by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. City High was the first major building project to push the city boundaries to the east, built on farmland that had long been used as the site for the Johnson County Fair. The location was quite controversial and school superintendent Iver A. Opstad and the Board of Education received much criticism because of it. A lawsuit against the Iowa City School Board was initiated to block the building of the new school, but after nearly a 10-year battle, the decision was eventually made in favor of the current Morningside Drive location.
(L-0113) In 1939, City High opened with its elevated dome beckoning the city to grow eastward, just as SUI was expanding to the west. Principal W.E. Beck welcomed 162 seniors that year and your humble author graduated as a proud Little Hawk thirty years later (1969). More details about all that here.
The University of Iowa Water Tower. Did you ever notice that Iowa City, with its 75,000 residents, doesn’t have a water tower? That’s because in 1972, the city moved away from elevated water tanks (which in Midwestern climates are very expensive to maintain), moving to an underground water storage system featuring two one-million-gallon tanks that are fully automated and computer-controlled. Fortunately, for Iowa City skyline watchers, the University still has its famous 70-foot water tower. Adjacent to Kinnick Stadium, this big white tower has been attending Hawkeye football games since the late 1960’s, and in 2018, the University finally gave way to the countless requests for a Tiger Hawk logo to be painted on the tower’s southwest side.
The Stead Family Children’s Hospital is one of the newest additions to the ever-expanding University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics campus. SUI Children’s Hospital was the first department of the hospital to move to the west side of the Iowa River (1919). Today, The Stead Family Children’s Hospital has become the focus of The Wave, when 70,000 fans in Kinnick Stadium turn toward the west windows of Stead (at the end of the first quarter), waving to the kids, their families, and the team of dedicated UI doctors and nurses. Click here to read more about SUI Hospitals.
The Chauncey Tower. Opening in 2019, the Chauncey Tower is a fifteen-story building that truly transforms the downtown skyline of Iowa City. Named for Iowa City’s founding pioneer, Chauncey Swan, this $57 million-dollar facility is located on the corner of College and Gilbert Streets and houses a 51-room hotel, luxury apartments, a bowling center, and much more.
Tower Place & Parking – located on the corner of Iowa Avenue and Linn Street, Tower Place and Parking opened in 2001 and offers much needed parking spaces (550, in fact) in downtown Iowa City, besides housing numerous city businesses. One of many newer beautiful buildings in Iowa City, but…
The real reason we listed Tower Place here?
The Clock Tower.
If you look closely (below) the clock tower on Tower Place (left) offers “a tip of the old hat” to the original Iowa City – City Hall clock tower (right) built in 1881. And when we researched a bit more, we found that the “new” clock tower actually contains the original 1881 pendulum and clock works which were restored and donated to the city by Iowa City historian Herb Gartzke in 1989. You can read more about Iowa City’s Bell Keeper here.
So, there you have it. Twenty-one Iowa City “skyscrapers.” None would ever be called such in Chicago, Minneapolis, or St. Louis, but for those of us who call Iowa City home, all of them are unique buildings that reflect our city’s character – from 1840 right up to today.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
The inspiration for our Iowa City Skyscrapers page came from Marybeth Slonneger’s amazing book of Iowa City history: Finials – A View of Downtown Iowa City, Marybeth Slonneger, Hand Press, 2015 – pages 186-187 – which features (left to right above) the spires and towers of First United Methodist, Close Hall, First Christian Church, City Hall, First Congregational, First Presbyterian, Unity Hall, and St. Mary’s.