The Old Stone Capitol stands at the heart of the central campus, overlooking the Iowa River which divides the campus of the University of Iowa. Dr. Benjamin F. Shambaugh, in his classic book The Old Stone Capitol Remembers (1939), pays the following tribute…
Today Old Capitol is the most significant monument of the early history of Iowa. The story of its erection, its financial history, the legislative, judicial and educational memories that cluster around its walls, lend it a reverential distinction unparalleled by any other public building ever erected in the State.
Location: Old Capitol sits at the center of what was originally called Capitol Square in the new territorial capital of Iowa City. The building was built to have two stately entrances, with the east side entrance being constructed first, and the west side entrance and lawn finally completed in the 1920’s. Old Capitol remains today as the iconic symbol of The University of Iowa, proudly standing at the center of The Pentacrest.
For those who don’t know the story, Iowa became a U.S. Territory on July 4, 1838. Dubuque and Burlington, bustling Mississippi River communities located to the far north and the far south, had served as territorial hubs in the past, but as Iowa, now a U.S. territory, expanded in population, its citizens insisted upon a more-centralized location for its new capital city.
On January 21, 1839, Territorial Governor Robert Lucas issued the following decree:
An Act to locate the Seat of Government of the Territory of Iowa … so soon as the place shall be selected, and the consent of the United States obtained, the commissioners shall proceed to lay out a town to be called “Iowa City.”
By early May, those commissioners, Chauncey Swan, John Ronalds and Robert Ralston, were surveying Johnson County along the Iowa River in search of the perfect location. Their search ended on a rolling hillside just about 2 miles north of the little community of Napoleon, overlooking the Iowa River. On May 4, 1839, a small ceremony was held with a dedication stake being driven into the ground. It’s this spot where the new capitol building of Iowa Territory will be built. On the first map of Iowa City – July 4, 1839 – this location is now called Capitol Square.
Legend attributes the original design of the capitol building to Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, a Dominican missionary priest, who designed churches in the Territories of Iowa and Wisconsin. Although no verification has ever been made of this claim, the following passage appears in his Memoirs, dated in 1843, describing Old Capitol:
. . . a structure whose dimensions are 120 feet long by 60 feet wide, with three stories, the whole built of stone. This building situated upon a beautiful eminence on one side looks down upon the Iowa River, and from the other commands a view of the Capital City; it rises from the center of a great square; it towers above the ancient oaks surrounding it.
To set the record straight, it’s the name of John F. Rague that has been correctly recorded on the cornerstone as the supervising architect of the new capitol building. A contract for the design and construction of the building was let to Rague and his business partners on November 12, 1839 and the construction plans began immediately, with plans to lay the cornerstone on July 4, 1840.
Fast forward with me to July 4, 1840. Iowa City is now a community under construction. To celebrate both Independence Day and Iowa’s second birthday as a U.S. Territory, Johnson County pioneers gather on Capitol Square – which is still just an empty 10-acres of cleared land – for a special ceremony. Territorial Governor Robert Lucas has come from Burlington to dedicate the cornerstone of the new capitol building. A few Native Americans who have remained in the vicinity attend the festivities as well.
Following the cornerstone ceremony, a community picnic is held featuring speeches by some of the city’s leading citizens. Reports indicate a barrel of Cincinnati whiskey, with a tin cup attached, serves as the podium for the speakers. Read more details here.
Historian Margaret N. Keyes, who was the coordinator for the major restoration done on Old Capitol in the 1970’s, tells us more about the earliest days of the construction process…
Most of the Devonian limestone used in the construction of Old Capitol comes from the banks of the Iowa River. The first stone was taken from the site on which the President’s Home is now located, while the remainder of the four-ton blocks was quarried from bluffs near North Liberty, floated on barges to Iowa City, and then hauled by oxen to the construction site. Original floor joists, roof trusses and other supporting beams were hand-hewn from native oak.
Old Capitol, one-hundred and twenty feet north and south by sixty feet east and west, has foundation walls six feet in thickness and basement walls with a uniform width of four feet. The greater portion of the first and second floor outer wall is three feet thick. Doric columns adorn the portico entrance to Old Capitol, and Corinthian columns sustain the dome. Each portico is supported by four massive pillars. Stone pilasters nearly four feet wide ornament the east and west fronts. Inside the building, the swinging chandeliers with scores of crystal glass pendants are imposing to the visitor. An unusual reverse spiral staircase dominated the central hallways, and the building’s dome was first sheathed in copper.
By 1842, four rooms on the first floor of the new capitol were completed, and the Iowa Territorial Legislative Assembly used the building for the first time in December of that year. In 1846, when Iowa became the 29th state in the Union, the building was still not fully completed, but was used as our functioning state capitol for the next 11 years. It wasn’t until after the state government left Iowa City for Des Moines (1857) when $4,000 was appropriated to finally complete the construction of the building! Read more details here.
In October of 1857, the move of the state capital from Iowa City to Des Moines began in earnest, prompting one disgruntled Iowa City newspaper reporter to quip…
Let Des Moines have the politicians, we’ll take the professors!
It was at this time when state legislators decided to bequeath the former Iowa Statehouse to the struggling State University of Iowa. So, between 1857 and the early 1880’s, with the state government now gone, most SUI functions took place in one of three key SUI buildings – all located on, what was then renamed, University Square – Central Hall (Old Capitol), South Hall (below left-built in 1861), and North Hall (below right-built in 1865).
So, between 1857 and the end of the 19th century – the golden age of SUI – the Old Stone Capitol became the functioning “home” for the growing state university. Sitting in the center of the 10-acre University Square, the building was used for all types of university-related functions and it was even rented out to other civic organizations for a multitude of purposes. All the while, being the oldest – and, certainly, the largest building in Johnson County – Old Capitol slowly became the beloved, focal point for an entire community.
In closing, we again turn to historian Margaret N. Keyes to give us an overview of this iconic building…
There it stands the Old Stone Capitol – a work of art, radiating the spiritual values of simplicity and dignity, proportion and harmony, poise and tranquility. Benjamin F. Shambaugh
Of this venerable building, Benjamin Shambaugh wrote…
With the passing of years the Old Stone Capitol has come to be looked upon as something more than a building, something more than stone and mortar moulded into forms that are pleasing to the eye. Somehow through the alchemy of time it seems to have acquired a kind of spiritual personality that speaks to us of memories – memories of bygone days – days when our Common wealth was young and our people were pioneers . . . All this and much more the Old Stone Capitol remembers.
In his book, Iowa – Through the Years, published in 1940 by the State Historical Society, Cyremus Cole wrote. . .
The most historic and, in many ways, the most beautiful building in the state.
Here’s a tip of the old hat to The Old Stone Capitol . . . may she endure forever!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
University Square painting-1882, Frank Bond, Facing East and Facing West – Iowa’s Old Capitol Museum, Linzie Kull McCray & Thomas Langdon (2007) University of Iowa Press, p viii