People will often ask me – “Marty, how do you pick the subjects you are going to write about for your website?”
My response usually goes like this: “While I focus on historical people, places, and events of Iowa City, Johnson County, and other eastern Iowa communities, I do find that it’s important to follow any curious questions that might pop into my mind when I’m considering a new subject.”
Take, for example, my favorite theme on this website: Old Capitol in Iowa City.
This penny postcard (above) was printed in the early 1900’s and, as you can see, was postmarked on New Years Eve of 1908. Now, at first glance, this is a typical picture postcard from this era, and the subject is probably the most photographed icon in the state of Iowa – Old Capitol.
But, look again. What do you really see?
If you’re familiar with today’s Pentacrest – the central campus of The University of Iowa – you know that it looks like this (see below):
So, wait, I thought to myself – as I’m gazing at this penny postcard from 1908…
What are those two little buildings behind Old Capitol? What the heck is that?
So, as a history researcher, my first step in answering my curious question was to search on-line, using the growing list of resources I have accumulated. Sadly, I couldn’t find a lot of detail, but I did find more pictures, which took me to my second step. I pulled out my Irving Weber Iowa City books and, sure enough, Irving talks briefly about “assorted buildings, including a water closet” that once stood on the Pentacrest.
Yup, folks, that’s a nice way of saying a restroom – an outhouse – or in French – the can can!
So, today, allow me, after months of deeper research on this little throne room behind Old Capitol, to tell you briefly about – not just one or two little buildings on the Pentacrest – but actually four small utility buildings that once surrounded our beloved capitol building in Iowa City. I like to call them…
Let me begin by giving you a surveyor’s map of the SUI central campus – University Square – from 1893…
Now, let’s start with the most intriguing little building of The Forgotten Four – located just south and west of Old Capitol…
Located south and west of Old Capitol, 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. Obviously, once inside bathrooms were installed, our little SUI John was converted – being called in its latter years – the SUI Carpenter Shop. Read more here.
The SUI Armory & Power Plant – Located directly south and west of Old Capitol – just north of the Water Closet – 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 (1904), the building lost its tall chimneys, becoming the Hall of Electrical Engineering before falling to fire sometime after 1920. Read more here.
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 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 – until its demise in 1907, making way for the construction of the Physics Building (MacLean Hall). Read more here.
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. Read more here.
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). Read more here.
The Livery Barn was the first to go in 1907, and the Water Closet disappeared from campus maps in 1908. The Armory & Power Plant, known near its end as the Hall of Electrical Engineering, burned sometime after 1920. 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.
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! None were ever worthy enough to appear on their own penny postcards, but we do appreciate the times they photo-bombed Old Capitol selfies…
We will never forget you – SUI’s Little Four Engines That Could.
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
University of Iowa Libraries: Iowa Digital Library website
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