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…
Labor and materials for the Academy were largely donated by members of the Association with an actual cash expenditure of only $50!
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here’s to Mechanics Academy . . . gone, but never forgotten!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.