Marybeth Slonneger – Iowa City’s Artistic Historian.

My wife and I had the joy of meeting Marybeth Slonneger in the summer of 2021, sitting down with her for coffee – actually Sandy and Marybeth had Italian ice – at a local shop, while chatting everything Iowa City. I’d first run across Marybeth’s work as I was gathering material for my article on Iowa City’s ground-breaking photographer, Isaac Wetherby. Since then, I’ve come to truly respect Marybeth’s work here in Iowa City, as she has tirelessly labored for more than three decades, keeping our Iowa heritage, especially the amazing history of Johnson County, alive for future generations.

A very unpretentious person, Marybeth Slonneger is a quiet force in our city, and from my perspective, a voice we all should pay more attention to as Iowa City draws ever closer to the dawn of our third century of existence (1839-2039). As the old saying goes, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” And while some might look at Marybeth’s work as meaningless remembrances of the past, I’d propose that there is much you and I can learn and discern from those earlier generations of Iowa Citians who have gone before us.

Over the years, Marybeth has produced five amazing books on Iowa City history, and in future posts, we’ll offer you overviews of each one. In the meantime, allow me here to unpack what I believe, is her most amazing book. Much of the content below comes from an excellent article written in 2015 by The Iowa City Press Citizen‘s Josh O’Leary.

In 2015, Iowa City historian, Marybeth Slonneger, turned her attention to the repositories of our city’s history, tracing downtown Iowa City’s roots through long-forgotten photographs, early maps and century-old city directories. The result was a 366-page book titled Finials: A View of Downtown Iowa City – with all proceeds going to the Iowa City Friends of Historic Preservation (ICFHP).

(BH-120) Finials: A View of Downtown Iowa City is filled with photographs dating back to 1854, separated chronologically and thematically by seventeen essays written by various Iowa Citians. “Finials” is titled after the architectural feature that adorned the tops of many downtown buildings and time travels from the days when horse-drawn carriages rolled down dirt-lined streets to wrecking balls swinging during the urban renewal work of the 1970s.

“I was hoping for aesthetics, and I found them,” Slonneger said, “I was very surprised by the beauty of downtown. Some of the buildings are just gorgeous but unfortunately are no longer there because of urban renewal. So much has been split up by more recent construction, and it’s hard to piece it together without looking at the old photographs.”

This isn’t the first time Slonneger has found inspiration in local history. She’s also compiled books about Iowa City’s Goosetown district (1999), and Isaac Wetherby (2006), whose 19th century home she had relocated to Governor Street after saving it from demolition near downtown. In 2012, she published a book about Iowa City’s famous Hamburg Inn – titled “The Burg: A Writers’ Diner.”

A Chicago native, Marybeth Slonneger moved to Iowa City in 1982 as a graduate student in art, at the tail end of the urban renewal era that saw blocks of downtown buildings demolished. She said she’s always had a curiosity about what the city looked like before she arrived. Today, she holds degrees in art history, book arts and photography, all of which have greatly influenced the beauty found in each of her four books.

For the latest project, Slonneger mined the State Historical Society’s massive archives for the vast majority of the photographs of downtown’s streetscapes and citizens, many of which have never before been printed. Dozens of other photos came from the University of Iowa’s Special Collections.

In addition to the images, Slonneger uncovered a number of compelling stories of Iowa City’s history, including the sale of a slave at a downtown hotel in the city’s early years, and the time abolitionist John Brown was accosted by a pro-slavery mob at the corner of Clinton and Washington streets. Another anecdote revolves around the time Mark Twain visited Iowa City while on a lecture tour in 1863, staying at one of the town’s earliest hotels. As the story goes, a hotel worker awoke Twain too early for his liking, leading the writer to pen a scathing review of the city. Twain later apologized for being so hard on his hosts!

“There’s always change,” Slonneger concedes, “but there’s also the beauty of retaining something with historic merit…I’ve left the argument open for people to look through and make up their own mind as to whether these things are beautiful enough, important enough and historic enough to hang on to.”

Slonneger hopes that Finials will serve as a reference point for downtown stakeholders for future preservation, planning or renovation efforts. More than anything, she hopes that it promotes a sense of shared ownership of Iowa City’s rich history and the buildings that have contributed to it. From my seat on the bench, Marybeth has succeeded at both goals!

Great work, fellow Iowa City historian…we look forward to more of your artistic work in the months and years ahead!

Watch Marybeth’s presentation on The History of Downtown Iowa City given at the Iowa City Public Library in 2017.

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 – which features these two pages above – the spires and towers of – left to right – First United Methodist, Close Hall, Christian Church, City Hall, First Congregational, First Presbyterian, Unity Hall, and St. Mary’s. Click here to read more.

(BH-140) Announcing Marybeth’s newest book – 30 years in the making. Remembrance Park – A Wildflower Park to Contemplate the Origins of Johnson County, Iowa. Click here to read more.

Read more her-stories – Women of Iowa who truly impacted our community, our state and beyond.

Check out our list of Johnson County Historical Resources and our Iowa Historian Hall of Fame.

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

Looking Back: Marybeth Slonneger’s new book about Iowa City history is half time capsule, half love song, Kent Williams, Little Village, November 18, 2015

Author captures historic beauty of downtown Iowa City, Josh O’Leary, Iowa City Press Citizen, November 18, 2015

Finials – A View of Downtown Iowa City, Marybeth Slonneger, Hand Press, 2015

A Rare Glimpse at Early Iowa City, Mary Bennett, IowaHistory, April 21, 2020

Iowa City Downtown Historic District, Nation Register of Historic Places

Urban Renewal, 1970s-1980s – Collection Guide, Iowa City Public Library

Wetherby’s Gallery of Early Iowa, Marybeth Slonneger, Iowa Heritage Illustrated, University of Iowa Press, Spring 2007

Wetherby’s Gallery – Paintings, Daguerreotypes, & Ambrotypes of an Artist, Marybeth Slonneger, Hand Press, 2006

Here are Marybeth’s other three books on Iowa City history…

(BH-052) Wetherby’s Gallery: Paintings, Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes of an Artist (2012). Click here to read more about Isaac Wetherby.
(BH-137) Small But Ours: Images and Stories from a Nineteenth Century Bohemian Neighborhood (1999) – Iowa City’s Goosetown District.
(BH-141) The Burg: A Writers’ Diner (2011) – Iowa City’s famous Hamburg Inn.Below – your humble author visits The Burg in 2022.

You can order some of Marybeth’s books at Our Iowa Heritage website. Click here.

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Click here for a complete INDEX of Our Iowa Heritage stories…