South Hall – SUI’s Ten-Chimneyed One.

3-1900southall 2
South Hall – Circa 1900.

South Hall will be remembered as the three-story, ten-chimneyed, red-brick building which stood directly south of Old Capitol. It served the University for forty years, first as a dormitory/boarding hall and later, as a classroom building, providing a meeting place for students and faculty alike. Measuring one hundred and eight feet north and south by forty-five feet east and west, South Hall lacked uniformity in style, for the scarcity of funds necessitated the modification of plans at several intervals during the process of construction. Described by Johnson County historian, C.R. Aurner, “South Hall was the most used and perhaps the most abused structure among University buildings.”

Location: South Hall, as the name describes, was located directly south of Old Capitol – called Central Hall at the time – on what was by this time (1861), re-named University Square. Like Old Capitol, South Hall faced east, but sadly, tragedy fell on March 10, 1901, when along with the adjoining Medical Building (1882), the building was completely destroyed by fire.

South Hall – A Home for SUI Students.

From 1855 through 1857 – when Old Capitol was finally given over to the University – the entirety of the University was contained in the small, rented building, Mechanics Academy. The first mention of need for additional campus buildings came from Governor James W. Grimes to the General Assembly in 1856. In truth, in order for the University to attract students from communities outside of Iowa City, a boarding hall and dormitory was badly needed.

As an even more important consideration, the faculty emphasized that the University must be made accessible to those people of limited financial means. As things stood, most of the students were from Johnson County. Throughout many parts of the state, this situation gave rise to prejudice, and the University had been derisively described as the “Johnson County High School.” Rates for board and room in private homes were considered prohibitive. Until provisions were made which would allow young men and women throughout the state to obtain a college education at a moderate expense, the institution was serving merely as a local institution and not in its true sense as a State University.

1858 – $10,000 Appropriated – Let Construction Begin …

Samuel Kirkwood, Hugh Downey and H.W. Lathrop, from the SUI Board of Trustees, were appointed as a committee to investigate the possibility of constructing a boarding hall and dormitory. As a result, the first appropriation to the University was approved March 11, 1858, granting $7,000 for making renovations on the Old Capitol building, but only $10,000 to provide for what would be called – South Hall.

1865 South Hall and Central Hall (Old Capitol).

The ground-breaking ceremony for South Hall occurred Monday morning, June 7, 1858, at 7:00 A.M., attracting a large crowd to the University campus in spite of the early hour. The local newspaper, the Iowa Weekly Republican, reported . . .

The designs are very beautiful, and if built in accordance with these, the building, when finished, will not only be an ornament to University Square, but will subserve the higher good of the State University.

1858 – 1861 Major Funding Delays.

By August, however, it became apparent that the original funding of $10,000 was insufficient to allow completion of South Hall. The board voted to borrow $5,000 from the University fund, with the loan to be paid from future appropriations, but by February of 1859, South Hall was still far from completion. Accounts showed that $16,000 had been expended and that another $10,000 would be required to finish the structure. Again, the Board of Trustees appealed to the General Assembly for a more money, but only after a year of bickering and accusations of mismanagement, did the state legislators finally approve another $10,000 to complete South Hall.

1861 – South Hall Officially Opens…

Finally, in 1861, South Hall opened its doors to students. Rooms in the boarding hall were available for occupancy for up to one-hundred male students, at the rate of $3.00 per term for single rooms and $6.00 per term for doubles. This housing option brought many new students to SUI, as it finally allowed the school to be a true educational resource for those from outside Johnson County.

Over the next five years – from 1861 to 1866 – South Hall served primarily as a dormitory for SUI – with students attending classes at Central Hall (Old Capitol) and/or Mechanics Academy. In 1865, when North Hall was added to University Square, South Hall was remodeled – transitioning it from a dormitory over to classroom space and offices – used by several of the University educational departments.

The College of Medicine 1870 – 1882.

Another major remodeling came in the summer of 1869, when $5,000 was appropriated to make room for the new College of Medicine opened for its first class on Sept. 20, 1870, meeting in South Hall, for which an appropriation of $3000 was m alterations to meet the needs of the new department. The remodeled building included an amphitheater seating over 100 and a basement dissecting room, as well as cabinets and storage facilities for medical supplies and equipment.

1870 -1882 South Hall floor plans. First floor and basement were devoted to the College of Medicine. West two-thirds of the Basement was used for the Dissection Room. The east one-third was used for materials.

When the new Medical Building opened next door in 1882, the basement and first floor were given over to the College of Engineering, while the first classes in dentistry were held here as well. Over the years, the second floor housed the departments of English, languages, history and public speaking.

South Hall – The Meeting Place for Students.

In the 1860’s and 1870’s, the chief source of social life for the University students was centered in the activities of the literary societies. South Hall was the scene of the Friday evening literary programs, which brought students and faculty together to hear debates, orations, essays, and see dramatic productions sponsored by these groups. To promote social life in the early days of the University, parties, socials, oyster suppers, and other festivities were frequently on the entertainment schedule.

1890 – Hall of Zetagathian Literary Society.

To provide a permanent home for these organizations, in 1863, the Board voted to spend $1200 for finishing the third floor of South Hall. This amount was later increased to $1500, and in 1865, $500 was granted to the Zetagathian Society to furnish their room, with a like amount given to the Irving Institute for the same purpose. In 1870, the Erodelphian Society for women moved into the north room on the third floor of South Hall to share quarters with the Irving Institute. Much rivalry abounded among the literary clubs as each endeavored to decorate its hall in a fashion considered elegant for the times.

1871 Central Campus.

South Hall – The Ultimate Fixer-Upper.

Over the years, the University students maintained a large interest in the welfare of South Hall. The newspaper, The University Reporter, contained many notations regarding its condition. In 1870, comment was made on the need of a new roof, an improvement which came two years later.

A hail storm does major window damage in 1890.

The students were pleased with the construction of a new walk between the stone steps of Old Capitol and South Hall, which, they noted, was “much more pleasant than the alternate brickbat heaps and mud holes that were formerly found there.” In the 1870’s, gas lights replaced kerosene lamps and candles, and by 1882, steam radiators made the multiple stoves and fireplaces unnecessary. Yet, despite the many improvements, years before South Hall was destroyed by fire (1901), students labelled it a fire hazard.

The College of Engineering 1882 – 1901.

1896 – College of Engineering Library.

When the medical school moved out (1882), the Engineering Department inherited the first floor and basement of South Hall. With them, they brought the Civil Engineering Library, which by 1901, when a 22-page catalog of the library was published, had grown to over 500 volumes.

At the turn of the century, South Hall was truly showing its age, as can be seen from this October 25, 1900 letter (below) written by Professor Alfred V. Sims, begging the Board of Regents for a new coat of granite paint for the first floor. It is not known if Prof. Sims ever got his floor paint, but the point became moot on March 10, 1901.

Sadly, tragedy fell upon the old South Hall on March 10, 1901, when, along with the adjoining Medical Building, it was completely destroyed by fire. On the night of the disaster, Iowa City was afflicted with a raging storm of ice and sleet. At 2:15 A.M., the fire alarm was sounded, and within fifteen minutes a crowd had gathered at the building, already in flames. Two hours later, South Hall lay in ruins. Out of a medical library of 1200 volumes housed there, only seventeen books were salvaged. The literary societies, with quarters on the third floor, had been able to rescue a good share of their belongings. Damage to the second floor was slight, and some of the engineering equipment in the basement was saved, but in spite of this, destruction by the fire was estimated at $100,000. Windows in the neighboring Liberal Arts Building (now Schaeffer Hall) were damaged to the extent of $500.

Irving H. Hart, who was a student at the time of the fire, described the incident as follows:

My roommate and I were awakened sometime after midnight on the night of the fire by the glare of the flames. When we reached the campus, the Medical Building, which stood south of South Hall at the head of South Capitol Street, was a roaring caldron of flames. South Hall was a three-story brick-veneer building with a wooden cornice, and when we reached the scene of the fire, South Hall was not yet in flames. Soon after, however, the cornice of the south end of South Hall burst into flames.

Dr. W. C. Wilcox, Head of the Department of History at that time and later Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, had his office on the third floor of South Hall. I was one of four or five students who endeavored to remove as many of Dr. Wilcox’s books and possessions as possible from his office before the building was abandoned to the flames. We had just come down from what we considered our last possible trip from the third floor where the smoke was absolutely stifling when we met Dr. Wilcox at the north entrance of the building. He was quite breathless in the haste with which he had come from his home some distance away. (I remember that he told us that he had ridden his bicycle.)

When we told him that we had been able to save a good many of his books, he still insisted that he must himself go up to his office in order to secure his class records, lecture notes, and other personal belongings from his desk. This desk which was a large roll­ top desk we had found too wide to be pushed through the door of the office, so we had left it there. We students dissuaded Dr. Wilcox from attempting to go up to his office and two of us volunteered to make the trip again and get what we could.

In our excitement we did not ask Dr. Wilcox for the keys to his desk. When we reached the third floor, the smoke was so thick that we had to crawl on our hands and knees to get to the office. When we reached the office we realized that we had no keys, but we broke the roll-top, ripped the pigeon holes out of the desk and released the mechanism which automatically unlocked the desk drawers, and each of us took two of the desk drawers in his arms and started back for the lower regions. On the way down the stairway, we met the volunteer fire department coming up with a line of hose with the water in full stream. So we got a thorough drenching. We finally got down, however, and delivered what we had rescued to Dr. Wilcox.

Sadly, the medical library was utterly destroyed, but according to the General Librarian’s report, only 42 of the over 500 engineering books in South Hall were lost. The rest were saved thanks to some (admittedly rather foolhardy) heroics on the part of some Engineering students who were able to rescue much of the contents of the Civic Engineering library before it was engulfed in flames.

Historian Katherine Bates reflects upon the demise of South Hall this way…

It was with regret that all who held the early University in affection watched this historic landmark, old South Hall, pass into memory and history. Those who gathered about the ruins of the two buildings no doubt recalled the fire which had swept North Hall on June 19, 1897, destroying a large part of the University Library. Now rebuilt, North Hall looked trim and serviceable.

The Old Capitol still stood serene and beautiful upon the hill above the Iowa River, looking down upon the ashes of South Hall. Few of the curious onlookers that Sunday morning realized that the old era of buildings had ended, and that both the physical and spiritual University was entering upon a new age.

So. . . What Stands on this Spot Today?

After the 1901 fire, when both South Hall and the Medical Building were destroyed, classroom space was at a premium. This problem proved to be a perfect assignment for the Engineering Department. As soon as the smoke cleared and the debris pulled away, students were at work, building two temporary structures directly over the foundations of the burned out buildings.

Engineering Shops (1901 – 1909). Built on the foundation of South Hall, this temporary facility was affectionately called “The Sheep Shed” by engineering students and appeared on campus maps through 1909.


1908President MacLean at the cornerstone ceremonies for the new Physics Building (MacLean Hall) on the south west corner of The Pentacrest (note The Sheep Shed directly behind the ceremony).

Present day view of where South Hall once stood.

Here’s to South Hall . . . gone, but never forgotten.

DYK-January 17, 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 14-15, 93-103

University of Iowa Libraries: Iowa Digital Library website

Lichtenberger Engineering Library website

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