As we’ve discussed in earlier posts, when the Iowa Territorial Legislature first met in Burlington (1838), it was decided that a new capital city would be needed. The Territory was growing rapidly, and the new Territorial Governor, Robert Lucas, was certain that as Iowa continued to expand westward, it wouldn’t be too long before the Territory of Iowa would become the State of Iowa.
In preparation for that growth, it was decided that a new capital city should be chosen, since the temporary capital of Burlington was located so far south and east of where that new expansion was happening. So, rather than pick an existing community, a political hot potato indeed, the Legislature decided it best to start a whole new city from scratch, calling it Iowa City long before there ever was one!
Once the location of Iowa City was chosen – Johnson County in 1839 – the work of constructing a new capitol building began. You can read about that process here, but suffice to say, because of a limited budget, a reluctant architect, and difficult building conditions, the construction process was slow, at best. Work on the new capitol building began in the spring of 1840, but even by the fall of 1841, the facility was still not ready for the Territorial Legislature to move in.
Work on the new capitol building continued, and finally, on December 1, 1842, Iowa City had its new capitol building ready enough for the Territorial Legislature to meet here, beginning with their fifth session… but just barely.
Again, because of limited funding, our new Stone Capitol was not really completed until the mid-1850’s, just about the time when everything moved to Des Moines (1857). In fact, because of this low funding issue, most historians agree that it really wasn’t until the rehabilitation project of the 1920’s when Old Capitol was “completed” – on the outside – as originally planned!
So, here, I’d like to briefly take you through those early years of Old Capitol (1841-1857) when the building was truly the new capitol building of Iowa. Thanks to the work of historian Ann Smothers, former director of the Old Capitol Museum, we have some valuable resources to share with you…
While Iowa was a U.S. Territory (1838-1846), we had three different Territorial Governors, all appointed by the U.S. President: Robert Lucas (1838-1841) appointed by Martin Van Buren; John Chambers (1841-1845) appointed by John Tyler; and James Clarke (1845-1846) appointed by James Polk.
Chambers was governor when the Territorial Legislature first started meeting in the new capitol building (December 1842), but apparently, he never did like the idea of moving the capital away from Burlington, so while the Territory moved on to Iowa City, Chambers stayed behind, living in Burlington throughout his entire term. When James Clarke took office, he finally made it all official by living and working in Iowa City.
As we mentioned earlier, because of a severe lack of funding, very little was done to make the new capitol building anything beyond a functioning facility during these territorial years. When the Legislature first met here (1842), the second floor was not completed, meaning all activity occurred out of the basement and first floor.
During the Statehood Years in Iowa City, there were three State Governors elected by the good people of Iowa. Ansel Briggs (1846-1850) Democrat; Stephen P. Hempstead (1850-1854) Democrat; and James W. Grimes (1854-1858) Whig.
Read about Iowa’s first state governor – Ansel Briggs – who began his career in Iowa by being a stagecoach driver!
Sadly, because of the problems that developed with the building’s architect – John R. Rague walked out nine days after the cornerstone ceremony on July 4, 1840 – combined with other inadequate record-keeping, the original building plans for Old Capitol have never been found. There was hope in the 1970’s, when a major restoration of the building took place, that the cornerstone might hold the original documents, but alas, when it was opened, NOTHING was inside! A who-done-it-story for some other post, no doubt!
Keeping the building warm in the winter and cooler in the summer was no easy task. Until the University built a steam power plant on University Square (1879) the building was heated using four wood burning fireplaces and smaller wood-burning stoves. The outside limestone walls (several feet thick) helped keep both the heat and the cold out, but large window shutters (above) were built in to help do the same thing.
(M-0086) July 4, 1976 – Old Capitol Re-dedication Commemorative Key. A special full-size commemorative key (just like the original that was used on the front doors of Old Cap) was produced to celebrate the re-opening. We enjoy placing this key on our Christmas tree each year! Click here to read more…
From the 1840’s to 1857, the grounds around the capitol building were called Capitol Square. The original plan for Iowa City included a widened, one-mile avenue (Iowa Avenue) heading directly east where it would meet with Governor Street. There a Governor’s Mansion would be built, allowing the state’s governor to be “just down the avenue” from the Iowa State House. Obviously, when the capital moved to Des Moines in 1857, the idea of a governor’s mansion went with it. Click here to read more about the move of the state capital from Iowa City to Des Moines.
When the University took over Old Capitol and the surrounding grounds in 1857, the name was changed from Capitol Square to University Square. By the 1920’s, after four stately educational buildings had been constructed around “Central Hall,” SUI students called the grounds, The Five Spot. In December of 1924, The Daily Iowan hosted a contest to choose a better name. The winner? The Pentacrest. Read more here.
Of course, before we close, we should tell you about two additional buildings that were a great necessity to all those using the capitol building from the very beginning…
Click here to read more about these little “support” buildings that once surrounded Old Cap.
In closing – we must never forget that our oldest surviving building in Johnson County is, without a doubt, our most beautiful, and certainly, the most stately capitol building around.
Here’s a tip of the old hat to: The Iowa Territorial Capitol Building – The Iowa State House – Central Hall – The SUI Administration Building – Our Old Stone Capitol.
May you live on forever!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Second Floor Rotunda, The University of Iowa Old Capitol Museum
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