North Hall was constructed in 1865, to be used, in part, as a University Chapel. The original recommendation, made by Governor Samuel Kirkwood, requested funds for a chemistry laboratory, chapel and astronomical observatory, and over the years, North Hall, the two-and-a-half-story, red-brick classic, certainly became a multi-use facility. Until it was demolished during the summer of 1949, its greatest distinction was that of being the oldest existing structure actually built for the University’s use – grandfathered into on-going campus purposes from its glory days to 1949. During its lifetime, North Hall was also called Chapel Hall and Library Hall.
Location: North Hall, as the name describes, was located directly north of Old Capitol – called Central Hall at the time – on what was, by this time (1865), re-named University Square. Unlike Old Capitol and South Hall, North Hall’s main entrance faced south, but it did have an east side entrance as well, accessing the first-floor and basement levels where the Physical Science Department was located.
By 1864, the University was in successful operation, using Old Capitol – Central Hall – and Mechanics Academy for all University functions, and the newly built South Hall as a dormitory. But Governor Samuel Kirkwood, looking forward, stressed the need for more room, asking for a large assembly hall, a laboratory for chemistry and philosophy, and an observatory – with all of these located in one building. Kirkwood devoted a major portion of his Second Biennial Address to the needs of the University, stating:
There are no suitable rooms for the Chemical Laboratory. This, to our agricultural State, is, perhaps the most important department of our University. Chemistry is becoming daily a more liberal contributor to agricultural knowledge and success; and the advancement of chemical science in our State, through the State University, should be especially encouraged. Our University will not be complete until it shall have an Astronomical Observatory connected with it. This has already become a prominent feature of the University of Michigan, and the demands of our more western location will soon require it of us. A building may be erected to answer all these purposes at much less cost than to provide for them separately.
The Legislature appointed a committee, made up of B. F. Hildreth and R. Sears from the House and I. B. Young from the Senate, to investigate the need for a new building at SUI. It was agreed that the request for a chapel and a chemistry laboratory was reasonable, but that the astronomical observatory was too pricey. So, on March 24, 1864, a sum of $20,000 was appropriated from the Tenth General Assembly for the new building in Iowa City.
According to the original specifications, North Hall measured sixty-one feet east and west by ninety feet north and south, the first story being fifteen feet high and the second story twenty-seven feet from floor to ceiling. The basement walls were to be of limestone with the upper walls made of red brick. The main entrance to the building – south side – had a vestibule thirteen feet wide. The chapel on the second floor measured fifty-eight feet by seventy-four feet, with a gallery twelve feet wide across one end.
The cornerstone for North Hall was laid on July 4, 1865, and just as it was with the construction of South Hall, once the work began, it became very obvious that the original grant of $20,000 would be totally insufficient. Fortunately, Governor Stone agreed to an additional $13,000 to finish the work, but even then, individual donations of land and materials amounting to $7,000 were required to complete the project.
The building project not only ran into budget problems, but it also had to endure some pretty tough editorial reviews from the local press.
On December 6, 1865, The State Press in Iowa City commented:
The new building at the University erected, we believe for a chapel and laboratory, is enclosed. It is the most barn-like public structure we ever saw; it looks like a cross between a dog kennel and a country church.
Again, on May 6, 1866, The State Press continued:
The workmen are engaged in finishing the mill in the University grounds which is to be used for a chapel. We have seen logboards and clapboard school houses, but never yet was it our fortune to see such an abortion in the shape of a public building as this.
Fortunately, The Iowa City Republican had a much nicer opinion:
We understand the means in the hands of the building committee will entirely enclose the building, putting in the stained glass windows, and making the outside complete. The north and south circular windows are to be highly ornamental. The south window will be ornamented with the great Seal of Iowa. The north one will have various devices, illustrative of the arts and sciences. This building, when complete, will be an honor to the State and will do great credit to those who had charge of its erection.
On October 6, 1866, at 2:30 P.M., the dedication program was held, with Rev. Hebard of the Congregational Church officiating. The next day, The State Press finally decided to go positive – commenting:
The new chapel is one of the most complete in the State; the ornamentation is elegant, and the acoustic arrangement is perfect. We visited the chemical laboratory which has been arranged under the supervision of Prof. Hinrichs, and is most complete in all its appointments.
Speaking of Professor Gustavus Hinrichs and his chemical laboratory – apparently the wise, old professor had a motto for all of his students – meeting in the basement of North Hall:
Be Quiet. Be Careful. Be Certain.
In its glory days -1866-1900 – North Hall also was known as Chapel Hall and Library Hall.
Cinder walks and locust trees adorned the campus surrounding North Hall in those early days of the University. Commencement exercises were held in North Hall beginning in 1867. The Baconian Club, one of the early faculty organizations, held its meetings there, the faculty members taking turns attending the wood burning stoves. Rhetoricals were frequently held in the chapel room, as well as Friday evening “sociables” with promenading by the students and faculty. These ‘Walk Arounds‘ – as they were termed – were one of the popular activities on the student schedule.
Writing on the social worth of these Walk Arounds, one student editor commented –
Our sociable seems to be an indispensable part of our exercises. Students are apt to, and indeed do neglect, to a great extent the cultivation of their social natures, from which they must derive the real enjoyments of life. During the school days, we meet only in the capacity of teachers and pupils in the classroom, and necessarily, know but little of each other. It is indeed pleasant to have the floor of our beautiful and spacious Chapel cleared of the settees and spend the Saturday evening on once or oftener, each month. The old organ sounds no less reverently at our Chapel exercises, for having furnished an accompaniment for some gleeful quartette or a schottische or quick step for the promenades. Come out teachers with your families, and students with your friends, on Saturday evening, February 20, and let us have another pleasant time together.
In the early morning hours – 4:00 am – of Saturday, June 19, 1897, an almost fatal blow was dealt North Hall when the chimney on the southwest corner of the building was struck by lightning. The second floor, where the University Library was located, was completely destroyed by the resulting fire, while the Physical Science Department on the first floor, suffered heavy losses to equipment – with great damage being done by water and by the hurried removal of fragile instruments.
In all, approximately 25,000 books and 15,000 pamphlets were destroyed, along with the shelf list and catalog cards. Also destroyed were the Tallant and German libraries, and part of the Talbot collection. The 4,500 salvaged books were taken to the basement of the Unitarian Church – Unity Hall – and by October, when repairs had been completed, the library moved back into North Hall, remaining there until moving into the new Hall of Liberal Arts – Schaeffer Hall – in 1902.
Repairs began immediately after the fire, but North Hall never looked the same after the 1897 fire. The original gable roof with chimneys was replaced with a flat slate roof (see pic above), and within a few months, the building was back on-line, serving the University without missing a beat. In 1912, the Home Economics Department established their headquarters in North Hall after the Physical Science laboratory moved to the new Physics Building – MacLean Hall.
Later, the School of Music and the Department of Speech made their offices in North Hall until the building was vacated and given over to storage purposes in 1942.
No longer did students gather there for daily chapel services. No more did it serve for classes, lectures, or experimental plays. North Hall had lost all the glory of its pioneer days. Historian Katherine Bates, writing in 1949, said this of North Hall:
Over eighty years of service to the University have seen changes in North Hall. The latter day observer noticed missing window panes and fallen plaster. In the former chapel room on the second floor stood a high-backed chair, its leather upholstery worn and ripped; it was, perhaps, used by the presiding officer at those early chapel services. Surplus material from World War II occupied the main floor: mattresses, filing cabinets, desks, textbooks, even a washing machine. The west door had been boarded up, leaving only the east door accessible. North Hall has had a varied and colorful history. Few other University of Iowa buildings have housed as many departments or could boast of as many activities as North Hall witnessed. Until it was demolished and removed during the summer of 1949 its greatest distinction was that of being the oldest existing structure actually built for the University’s use. Few students recognized the description written in 1866…
“The finest audience room in Iowa. Few superior in the Northwest. Its spacious dimensions, frescoed walls, stained glass windows, with emblematic representations, make up a hall that is a credit to the great State that has erected it.”
Here’s to SUI’s Grandfather – North Hall . . . gone, but never forgotten.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.