South Hall – SUI’s Ten-Chimneyed One.

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 – 1861-1901 – 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.

From 1855 through 1857 – before Old Capitol was given over to the University – the entirety of SUI was contained in the small, rented building, Mechanics Academy, located two blocks from Capitol Square. 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 things stood, most of the SUI students were from Johnson County and until provision was made for young men and women from around the state to obtain a quality education at a moderate expense, the state university was serving merely as a local institution.

In 1857, 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 in Iowa City. As a result, the first appropriation to the University was approved on March 11, 1858, granting $7,000 for renovations to Old Capitol – retooling it for university use, and a mere $10,000 for the construction of South Hall.

South Hall and Central Hall (Old Capitol) on University Square.

Despite the state’s low-funding effort, the ground-breaking ceremony for South Hall occurred Monday morning, June 7, 1858, at 7:00 A.M., attracting a large crowd to University Square 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.

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, the building 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 state legislators finally approve another $10,000 to complete South Hall.

Finally, in 1861, just as the nation was entering into a civil war, South Hall opened its doors to SUI 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 Iowa City, 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 – 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 to classroom space and offices – used by several of the University’s growing educational departments.

Another major remodeling effort of South Hall came in the summer of 1869, when $3,000 was appropriated to make alterations so the new College of Medicine could open classes on Sept. 20, 1870. The remodel included a 100-seat amphitheater on the first floor, and a dissecting room in the basement, with 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.

The SUI campus – University Square in the 1870’s.
Here’s the new Medical Building (left) built adjacent to South Hall in 1882.

When the medical school moved into the new Medical Building (1882), the Engineering Department inherited the first floor and basement of South Hall – this included opening up a new Engineering Library with over 500 volumes available to students.

During the second half of the 19th century, the social life of SUI students centered around the many literary societies on campus. Without a doubt, South Hall was the place to be for Friday evening literary programs – all designed to bring students and faculty together for debates, parties, socials, oyster suppers, and dramatic productions – sponsored by the literary societies of the day.

1890 – Hall of Zetagathian Literary Society.

To provide a permanent home for these organizations, the Board voted, in 1863, to spend $1,500 for finishing the third floor of South Hall, and in 1865, $500 was granted to both the Zetagathian Society and the Irving Institute for offices there. In 1870, the Erodelphian Society for women moved in as well. As you can see from the picture above, much rivalry abounded among these literary clubs as each endeavored to decorate its hall in a fashion considered most elegant for the times.

A hail storm does major window damage in 1890.

Over the years, SUI students maintained a large interest in the on-going welfare of South Hall, with the student newspaper, The University Reporter, often containing updates regarding its condition. In 1870, for example, comment was made on the need of a new roof – an improvement which came two years later.

1871 University Square. In the 1870’s, gas lights replaced kerosene lamps and candles, and by 1882, steam radiators made the multiple stoves and fireplaces unnecessary.

In another article, it was reported that 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.” Yet, despite the many improvements, many students over the years labeled South Hall a fire hazard!

At the turn of the century, South Hall was truly showing its age, as can be seen from this October 25, 1900 letter (above left) 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 Sims ever got his floor paint, but the point became moot on March 10, 1901.

Sadly, tragedy fell upon 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.

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.
Windows in the neighboring Liberal Arts Building still under construction – were damaged to the extent of $500.

A good portion of both the medical library and engineering library was lost in the fire. According to the General Librarian’s report, only 57 of over 1,700 books were saved. The literary societies, with quarters on the third floor of South Hall, had been able to rescue a good share of their belongings, 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.

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. 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.

Click here to read more about the major changes that resulted because of this 1901 fire.

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 (see pics above) 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 and appeared on campus maps through 1909.
1910 – President MacLean oversees the cornerstone ceremonies for the new Physics Building – today’s MacLean Hall – on the southwest corner of University Square. Note the Sheep Shed directly behind the ceremony – which came down as Physics Building went up.

When workers were excavating the area where South Hall and the Medical Building had been (see pic above), they came upon the discovery of human bones, which immediately halted construction. For a while, University and city officials wondered if they had come across an old crime scene, but alas, after further investigation, it was determined that the bones were simply refuse from South Hall’s anatomical lab. President MacLean ordered them quietly disposed of so construction could resume. Case solved!
Here’s a present day view of where South Hall once stood – This Fred Kent photo from the 1960’s is taken from the south end of the Pentacrest looking north. That’s Schaeffer Hall on the right with Macbride Hall in the distance.

Here’s to South Hall – 1861 to 1901 – SUI’s Ten-Chimneyed One . . . long 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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