Mechanics Academy – The Cradle of SUI.

Mechanics Academy – Circa 1873.

The Mechanics Academy is all about firsts. Not only did this little building host the first University of Iowa 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). This Georgian-styled two-story brick building had a high degree of symmetry, prominent end chimneys built into the brick walls, and a central cupola of wood rising above the roof over the second story. Just think of it. All this history found in one small footprint that measured only 54.5 x 26.5 feet!

Location: Mechanics Academy 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 Street. The building’s entrance faced west and was replaced with the southwest section of East Hall/Seashore Hall in 1898.

The Academy was built by the Mechanics of Iowa City to house the school of the Mechanics’ Mutual Aid Association, which was organized on January 6, 1841. A mechanic was any tradesman, craftsman, or technician, and included carpenters, masons, and stone workers. Like other mutual aid associations, this one served as a form of insurance. The funds raised by members served to take care of sick members and paid for funerals. In addition, the association founded a school and library, among the first in the state and said to be among the best built. The building also served as a space for meetings for functions as varied as religious services, temperance meetings, and the organization of the corporation for the Mill located upstream from Iowa City, at the present location of Iowa River Power Company in Coralville. A great many trades and craftsmen had come to Iowa City to build the new capitol building, which was underway at the time the association was organized. The original members were James N. Ball, A.H. Haskell, A.G. Adams, L.S. Swafford, E. Lanning, Thomas Combe, Thomas Record, Francis Thompson, and Abraham Burkholder. Within one year, membership had increased to sixty men.

In the summer of 1841, the Mechanics’ Association applied for a grant from the Territorial Legislature for land to construct a school building on the city block known as the “School Reserve east of City Park” (see map above) On January 4, 1842, at the first Iowa Territorial Legislative Assembly held in Iowa City – Butler’s Capitol – the temporary capitol building – a grant was given for the free use of the south half of the west half of block 60 with the one condition of donation being that the property be used for educational and literary purposes only. The remaining part of the “School Reserve” – north half of the west half of block 60 – was donated to the Association two years later – in 1844.

Plans for construction began immediately, with the cornerstone being laid on June 14, 1842, with Rev. Michael Hummer serving as the chaplain, and Rev. John Libby, a Protestant Methodist minister, giving the address at the ceremony. Historian H.W. Lathrop tells us more…

Sketch by George H. Yewell in 1854.

Labor and materials for the Academy were largely donated by members of the Association with an actual cash expenditure of only $50!

Sylvanus Johnson – Mr. Red Brick of Iowa City. Click here to read more…

Sylvanus Johnson, Iowa City’s first brickmaker, along with Charles E. Sangster and Thomas B. Anthony, served as brick masons, while Francis Thompson was the stone cutter. Lumber was obtained from Henry Felkner’s mill at Rapid Creek, three miles north of Iowa City. Carpenter work was done by A. H. Haskell, L. A. Swafford, Thomas Combe, Thomas M. Banbury, Robert Hutchinson, Seth Williams, S. M. Wadley, H. P. Sexton, Hugh V. Gildee, J. B. Hollingsworth and George Bowman. Plastering was done by James M. Hawkins and Asa Beckwith, while E. J. Lork and C. Cartrett did the inside painting. In return for their labor, all the men received shares in the ownership of the property, with the completed building valued at $1,000.

1868 map shows Mechanics Academy on “School Reserve east of City Park.”

When completed in October 1842, the Mechanics Academy was the finest school building in all the Territory. With both a male and female department led by three top-quality teachers brought in from the east, the school was in full operation, boasting an enrollment of 120 pupils. In a published announcement in June 1843, the following description of the school was printed in an Iowa City newspaper…

“The Academy edifice is beautifully situated on the East side of the park, in the centre of the city. It is entirely new, and the superiority of its size and style of architecture never fails to attract the favorable notice of strangers. Surrounded by prairie scenery too splendid for description, and favored by a pure and salubrious atmosphere, this Institution enjoys advantages seldom combined . . . Scholars can be accommodated with board on the most reasonable terms, and the Trustees assure the public that every exertion will be made by the Mechanics’ Mutual Aid Association, to make their Academy one of the best Literary Institutions in the Valley of the Mississippi.”

Read more about the influence of private schools like Mechanics Academy in Iowa City.

Even though finances were tight – one important missing piece at the Academy was a school bell. So, on April 4, 1845, the very first bell to chime in Iowa City was purchased from a local Presbyterian congregation for $76.45 (see pics above) and hung in the Academy’s belfry – at the cost of $9! See the full Iowa City Press Citizen story here. Today this same little bell – which faithfully rang out over Iowa City from 1845 to 1897 – is displayed in Old Capitol Museum.

Read more about the Mechanics Academy bell and other bells of Iowa City here.

Click here to read more about Mechanics Academy and its place in Iowa City “skyscraper” history…

Sadly, despite the good press and nice bell, the Academy’s success was short-lived. With other private and public schools opening at the same time, the Association struggled to keep the school financially solvent, especially since tuition was paid not in cash, but in goods or labor of the families of the students. In 1845, with finances very tight, the upper floor was leased to the Masonic Lodge of Iowa City, and they, in turn, subleased it to the Odd Fellows the following year. All of this sub-leasing put the property in danger since the Territorial Legislature had originally given the land to the Association under the condition that it only be used for educational and literary purposes.

Fortunately, on May 8, 1855, a longer-term solution to the Academy’s financial crunch was found when the State University of Iowa (SUI) – who desperately needed classroom space – signed a five-year contract at $25 per month. In turn, the Academy agreed to host the SUI Normal Department – teaching high school graduates to be teachers. Later that spring (1855), the very first SUI classes – in mathematics and languages – began and the Mechanics’ Association was finally off the financial hook!

As the University moved in, the effort to build a new school library also began. Records show that on May 7, 1855, a short letter from the SUI Office of Public Instruction to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC asked for a small donation… 

Our university is but in its infancy, the present being the first Session of the University proper.  We are wishing to collect a Library as fast as possible, and as this is the only one of your Const (?) which we have, can you not furnish us with the previous 5 volumes?  If so please direct to Iowa City. 

It is unknown if any volumes were ever sent from Washington, but in November of 1855, approximately 50 books were received from the new School President Amos Dean in New York. Those books were put on display in the Academy in a small side room, and with that, the SUI Library began!

As the University grew, classes at the Academy moved into the newly-built South Hall and North Hall, and the recently renovated Capitol Building – now called Central Hall (see pic above). In 1866, after eleven years of renting, SUI purchased the Academy, converting it into dormitory use, with preference given to members of the Syntrapazone Club, one of the bachelor clubs on campus. Thus as a dorm, the building acquired the intriguing nickname of “The Old Sin (Syn) Trap!

Mechanics Academy continued to be used as a dormitory until March of 1873 when the newly formed Medical School was authorized to take over the building for a practicing hospital.

1873 – The first teaching hospital west of the Mississippi.

In the late 1860s, a prominent Davenport surgeon named Washington F. Peck initiated efforts to create a medical college in Iowa City. With support from Judge John F. Dillon (a patient of Peck’s and a graduate of the Davenport, IA medical college) and the Honorable John P. Irish (Iowa City newspaper editor, state legislator, and a member of the university Board of Trustees), the Iowa City medical department gained approval as the official University medical college in 1870. Read more about the College of Medicine here.

Read more about Dr. Washington F. Peck – the founding of the SUI College of Medicine.

In 1873, four Sisters of Mercy traveled from Davenport by train, carrying as many furnishings and medical supplies as they could manage. They came at the invitation of Dr. Peck, who wanted the Sisters to establish a hospital in Iowa City. Such a hospital would provide a facility where medical students could gain clinical experience and the Sisters could pursue their mission of caring for the poor and sick. When the Sisters arrived at the Iowa City train station, a kindly local farmer offered to take them to their final destination in his wagon. The Sisters were greeted by Dr. Peck and set to work immediately, cleaning and refurbishing Mechanics Academy. Within three weeks, on September 27, 1873, the new Mercy Hospital admitted its first patient—a gentleman with tuberculosis.

The University Reporter printed the following description of the University’s first hospital: This hospital is old “Syntrap” recon­structed and much modified. Glancing at the building as we walked down the ’Avenue’ (Iowa Avenue), we were quite favorably impressed. The old, dingy, battered walls of “Syntrap” have been repaired and nicely painted. Good substantial steps, leading to the doors at either end of the main building, have been substituted for the old rickety ones so promiscuously carved by the penknives of ’the boys.’ The rear, or frame part of the building, has been raised to an equal height with the main part, and a broad covered stairway connects the upper story of this to the first floor of the main building. The floor of this entrance is covered with scrupulously clean oil-cloth; a valuable clock hangs upon the nicely tinted wall, while a table with a chair or two complete the furniture of the room. A door at the east of this room opens into the RECEPTION ROOM. This room is, in size, about 14 x 24 feet. The walls are ornamented with pictures. A nice substantial carpet is upon the floor. A table stands at either side of the room, upon one of which rests a Bible and upon the other a visitors’ register. Adjoining this room, at the south, is a small room partially furnished, but not yet assigned in specific use. We pass from this room again into the entrance, and, passing through a door at our right, enter the MALE WARD. This ward, although quite narrow, is very long, and gives abundant space for the six beds it contains. The bedding upon these beds, was laid so smoothly and perfectly, the walls of the room so spotlessly white, the floor so thoroughly scrubbed and clean, and the stove so well blacked and polished, that we concluded that the ladies having it in charge were experienced hands at the business. This ward, at present, has but one patient.
1873 with Lecture Hall addition in rear. From this room a wide door-way at the east side, opens to the stairs which lead to the clinical LECTURE HALL, the which measures about 25 x 40 feet. The walls are sixteen feet high at either side, while the ceiling in the center rises a number of feet higher. This hall, when finished, will be exactly what our medical department has long needed. It is abundantly lighted by several large windows, while on the south side is also a large bay window and an outside entrance for the students. The operating table will be placed directly in front of the bay-window, around which the seats will be arranged in amphitheater style. Dispensary is not yet completely furnished with the conveniences such a room requires, but will be shortly. A stairway from this room leads to the BASEMENT. which is divided into two equal divisions by an east and west hall through its center. One of these divisions is used exclusively as a kitchen. It is furnished with a fine, large cook-stove, cupboards, tables and a large variety of utensils necessary for the full equipment of such a room. The other side of the basement, on the south side of the hall, is again divided into two fine rooms by a partition passing from north to south. One of these rooms is used as a dining-room, the other as a store-room. From the east end of the hall is an entrance to the first floor of the frame building, directly under clinic hall. This floor is divided into several rooms, for the occupancy of the ‘sisters,’ and a small chapel, also for their exclusive use. The female ward has about the same dimensions and accommodations as the male ward. There are also four moderately sized rooms for private patients. Two of these are nicely finished and furnished, and one of them occupied. The floor of the hall from which these rooms open, is covered with heavy matting, thus doing away with the greater part of the noise occasioned by the passing to and fro of physicians, nurses and visitors.
1890’s – An expanded Mechanics Academy (25-beds) now includes a full two-story addition on the east side. View is from the SW side.
1890’s – A view from the NW side.

By the late 1890’s, the College of Medicine had grown to such a degree, the University decided to step away from its agreement with the Sisters of Mercy, expanding into their own state-sponsored 65-bed hospital. On January 20, 1897, the University advertised for the sale and removal of the “Old Medical Hospital” and soon after, Mechanics Academy, the Cradle of SUI, gave way to construction of the first wing of the new University Hospital on Iowa Avenue.

University Hospital – circa 1900. The new University Hospital opened on January 11, 1898 while the Sisters of Mercy went on to form what is now Mercy Hospital of Iowa City, first utilizing the nearby Dostal House for their new home. Read more here.
The two cornerstones from the Mechanics Academy (right) and the Medical Building (left) are used in the east entryway to the Medical Laboratories Building (1927).

While the Mechanics Academy is, sadly, no longer with us, the original cornerstone, which was also used as the cornerstone in the first University Hospital (1898), is now embedded in the wall of the east entrance of the present day Medical Laboratories Building (1927) located in the Hospital complex on the west side of the river.

One report states that canes and gavels were made out of the razed timbers of Mechanics Academy. Canes were sent to members of the State Legislature, while the gavels were distributed to presidents of various Iowa colleges.

For an ever-expanding University, time never stands still. As we’ve discussed here, Mechanics Academy was replaced in 1898 by what became the SW section of the new University Hospital. More additions came in several installments; the southeast wing being completed in 1906, the northwest wing in 1912, and the northeast wing and an addition to the central portion being built in 1914.

When University Hospital moved to the west side of the river (1928), the buildings became known as East Hall, and then in 1981, was renamed Seashore Hall. Serving the University as a longtime multipurpose facility, slowly over the decades, sections of Seashore Hall have been razed, with the final portions of the building going down between 2018 – 2021. In Spring 2020, the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, long overdue for updated facilities, began classes in its new building at the original site of Mechanics Academy.

Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

Appropriately, just a half black south of what would have been the Academy’s front door, stands the bronze statue of Iowa City’s most famed historian, Irving B. Weber.

Irving B. Weber, BA 1922 (1900-1997) Certainly one historical setting for one of Iowa City’s favorite sons. Click here to read more.

Here’s to Mechanics Academy . . . gone, but never forgotten!

DYK-January 10, 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 8, 87-92

Mechanics Academy sketch, George H. Yewell, Digital Library – University of Iowa

Another Old Landmark Gone, H.W. Lanthrop, The Iowa Citizen, Friday, April 2, 1897, p 6

University of Iowa Libraries: History of the Libraries website

Mechanics Academy, Iowa Capitol Reporter, December 30, 1843, p 4

University of Iowa Libraries: The Daily Iowan Archives website

The Iowa City Past website

Mercy Hospital – Iowa City: Mercy’s History webpage

Saturday Postcard – Mechanics Academy, Bob Hibbs, Iowa City Press Citizen, May 31, 2003, p 15

A Pictorial History of the University of Iowa: An Expanded Edition, John C. Gerber, University of Iowa Press, 2005, p 16

The Old Stone Capitol Remembers – When Iowa City Was Young, Benjamin F. Shambaugh, The State Historical Society, 1939. pp 316-319

Click here to go on to Building #3 of The Red Brick Campus: South Hall…

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