The Forgotten Four – SUI’s Little Engines That Could.

In 1895, there were four additional facilities on the SUI Red Brick Campus – all small buildings not shown on most campus maps since they were technically not full-sized facilities. Yet, throughout their life spans, all four buildings played vitally important roles in the day-to-day work of this growing university. From the very beginning – when University Square was the only campus outside of Mechanics Academy – the Water Closet met one of the most primal human needs; the Livery Barn housed all transportation needs of the nineteenth century; the Armory & Power Plant supplied heat to the campus; and all the while, the tiny Weights & Measures Building gave students and faculty a place to grab a smoke between classes!

13a) Armory & Power Plant, 13b) Water Closet, 13c) Livery Barn, 13d) Weights & Measures Building.

Location: Built between the 1860’s and the early 1880’s – all four support buildings were located on the west lawn of University Square (see maps below).

Above left – from 1892 – a Fire Insurance diagram of University Square – north (top) to south (bottom). Note all four of our little “helpers” are present on the west lawn, plus at the far top (north) is Observatory #2. Above right – a campus surveying map from 1893.

Click here to read more about the original Armory/Power Plant and its place in Iowa City “skyscraper” history…

Katherine Bates, author of an insightful look at the earliest facilities of the University, writes in 1949 about the beginnings of the SUI Armory & Power Plant

The campus scene in 1878 did not warrant a hopeful outlook. With Old Capitol and North Hall in need of repair and a heating system which was intolerable, it was obvious that $20,000 couldn’t cover all essentials. Also, the fact that none of the University property carried insurance was a major threat. Not until 1879 were the University buildings equipped with steam heat when the Board met and passed the following resolution offered by Mr. Ross:

“Resolved that in the opinion of this Board the time has come when steps should be taken toward heating the University buildings with steam.”

Located directly south and west of Old Capitol, this two story 30-foot by 40-foot dual-purpose facility served as the first steam power plant for the central campus (1879-1904), plus was the first Armory before being replaced by a larger Armory (1905) located near the Iowa River adjacent to Iowa Field.

In its latter years (1904-1920), after the power plant was replaced with a larger facility closer to the river, the building lost its tall chimneys, becoming the Hall of Electrical Engineering.

(P-0257) Here – our little friend – The Hall of Engineering – shows up on an Old Capitol colorized postcard – see far left bottom corner – circa 1910. Click here to see more photo-bombing penny postcards.

Located south and west of Old Capitol, directly south of the Armory/Power Plant, the SUI Water Closet – built in the 1880’s – replaced earlier “out-houses” that were used from the earliest days when Old Capitol was the Iowa Statehouse (1840-1857). This stylish building served as the restroom facilities for facility and students until “indoor plumbing” was installed in University buildings after the turn of the century.

Photos of this little “throne-room” appear in the background of many Old Capitol postcards and on campus maps until 1908. Obviously, once indoor plumbing was installed, our little SUI John was converted – being called in its latter years – the SUI Carpenter Shop. Click here to see more photo-bombing penny postcards.

Historical records indicate that during those first few years when Old Capitol housed the University’s only classrooms, one of the primary duties of the SUI custodian was to drive all livestock off the campus. Apparently the responsibility was not an easy one, for in 1862, the University president recommended the following resolution:

That hereafter no horses, cattle or other stock shall be allowed upon the university grounds; and that until otherwise ordered the grounds and buildings of the university shall be under the control of the faculty of the university.

Meanwhile, the faculty voted that “the janitor was authorized to purchase a dog at a cost not exceeding the sum of five dollars to assist him in keeping the yard clear of stock.”

So, it’s our guess, that the SUI Livery Barn was added in the 1860’s – located directly west of South Hall – was added, serving as the State University of Iowa’s first “parking lot” – housing horses and carriages for faculty and staff well into the first part of the 20th century.


Located directly outside the northwest corner of North Hall, the SUI Weights & Measures Building appeared on campus maps from 1895 through 1923 before making way for the construction of University Hall (Jessup). Sadly, no individual photos are available of this small facility that – along with the observatory – was located directly west of the Dental Building, providing a home for intricate parts of the science curriculum that was quickly developing at SUI.

Above left from 1899 – Fire Insurance diagram of University Square from north (top) to south (bottom). Note all four of our little “helpers” are still present on the west lawn. If you look closely, both the Armory – west of Old Capitol – and the Weights & Measures building – west of North Hall – have small additions that have been added since 1892. Above rightThis rare photo of the remains of South Hall – March 1901 – also gives us an intriguing look at three of the four SUI utility buildings – lined up to the west and south of Old Capitol. Beginning on the far left, we see the Livery Barn, and in the center of the picture are the Water Closet and the Armory & Power Plant building.

All four of our “helper” facilities were razed between 1907 and 1923, when the west lawn of University Square was finally cleared to make way for the last two buildings of the Pentacrest: the Physics Building (MacLean Hall) and University Hall (Jessup Hall).

Here’s the Pentacrest in the 1960’s. The west lawn was completely cleared and landscaped in the 1920’s as University Hall (bottom left) was completed and Old Capitol was renovated, adding the west portico and stately columns.

The SUI Livery Barn was the first to go in 1907, and the SUI Water Closet – renamed the Carpenter Shop – disappeared from campus maps in 1908. The SUI Armory & Power Plant – known near its end as the Hall of Electrical Engineering – burned sometime after 1920 (see pic below). Who knows? Maybe one of the students left the lights on too long! And finally, the mysterious, rarely-photographed Weights & Measures Building silently disappeared from campus maps in 1923.

Click here if you want to read more about SUI’s Little Four.

(P-0295) After the Armory & Power Plant was replaced with a larger facility closer to the river in 1904 (above left) the building lost its tall chimneys – becoming the Hall of Electrical Engineering. Around 1920 (above right) a devastating fire finished the Old Lady off.

So, here’s to the SUI Red-Brick Campus’ Four Little Engines That Could . . . gone, but never forgotten.

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 27, 30, 35

University of Iowa Libraries: Iowa Digital Library website

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