Our Iowa Heritage: Unity Hall.

Unity Hall: The University’s First & Fourth Student Union.

Originally the Unitarian Church of Iowa City, the University rented this unique red-brick facility for student activities from the late 1880’s until 1906, when it purchased the building for multiple uses, including a home for the Department of Public Speaking. With a major renovation in 1911, Unity Hall, also called Old Unity, became the home for Iowa’s first Student Union, providing meeting places for student clubs, extracurricular activities and dining in the basement. Outgrowing the space in 1913, the Union went through two more locations in three years, only to return to Unity Hall in 1916, sharing it with the School of Music until the new Memorial Union opened after World War I in 1925.

The Red Brick Campus: Building #12 – 1870 – 1932.

Location: Built in 1870, Unity Hall, or Old Unity, as some called it, stood directly across the street from University Square, on the northeast corner of Clinton Street and Iowa Avenue.

A Meeting Place for Students and Faculty.

South Hall, Central Hall, and North Hall.

Throughout the earliest years of the University (1860’s and 1870’s), the chief source of social life for students was centered in the activities of the literary societies. South Hall was the scene of Friday evening literary programs, which brought students and faculty together to hear debates, orations, essays, and view 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 and held on the third floor.

When North Hall opened in 1865, the second floor included the University Chapel, where singing, scripture reading and prayers were conducted on a daily basis. Chapel Hall also provided the largest meeting space for student activities at the time. Rhetoricals were frequently held there, as well as Friday evening “sociables” with promenading by the students and faculty. These “Walk Arounds,” as they were termed, were one of the popular activities on the student schedule.

Unity Hall to the Rescue.

Beginning in 1882, the second floor of North Hall also housed the University Library, but in 1897, when a fire destroyed much of the second floor, the University had to scramble to find an immediate solution for both the library and an adequate place for student activities.

Fortunately, right across Clinton Street sat the Unitarian Church. Built in 1870, this red-brick building served the small Unitarian congregation well, and the good folks there offered their church to be used for those immediate facility needs. The University, always short of extra meeting space, had been renting out rooms there from the late-1880’s. As we discussed in an earlier post, the first Homeopathic Medical Building was located directly north of the church on Clinton Street, and being so close to campus, the Unitarian Church was a convenient place to hold extracurricular activities. Click here to read more about the history of Clinton Street.

1895 – Paving Clinton Street with Red Bricks. The first paving project in Iowa City began here at the corner of Washington and Clinton Streets, across from University Square. Click here to read more about the history of Clinton Street.

But now, with North Hall out of service, the facility needs were urgent, so the University rented the church’s entire basement, using it as both a temporary library space and bringing in a coffee shop where students could gather. After North Hall was restored, the library moved back across the street, but as more and more student activities were scheduled at the church, in 1906, the University decided to purchase the building, at which time it took on the name Unity Hall, or as some called it, Old Unity. In 1907, the building became the home of the Department of Public Speaking.

Iowa City historian, Irving Weber, describes a bit of the church’s rich history and its transition into University hands…

Unity Hall: The University’s First Student Union.

This early photograph by Fred Kent features a parade on Clinton Street and reveals “Iowa Union” sign on Unity Hall in the background.

In 1911, during President Bowman’s administration, Unity Hall was renovated, making it even more suitable for larger student gatherings. As a result, this 1870 red-brick beauty became Iowa’s first Student Union. Here’s Weber’s recollection of that time…

Click here to read more about the history of Clinton Street.
Click here to read about the many bells of Iowa City – one of which was The Victory Bell, hidden away in the belfry of Unity Hall in 1913 by some mischievous Iowa State fans!

Unity Hall – Student Union to Music Hall and Back Again.

But, as the University continued to grow, Unity Hall proved to be inadequate. In December 1913 the Student Union was moved to the rooms above the Brunswick Bowling Parlor at 121-123 Iowa Avenue. In its place, the School of Music moved in, making good use of Unity Hall’s larger open spaces for programming.

Circa 1914 – The annual MECCA parade always went down Clinton Street past Unity Hall. Click here to read more about the history of Clinton Street.

An annual downtown event that was always popular was the Mecca Day Parade, put on by the College of Engineering. The name Mecca derives from the first letters of the names of the engineering departments: mechanical, electrical, civil, chemical, and architectural. Mecca Day events included the parade, and in the evening, a play put on by engineering students in Unity Hall.

Clinton Street with Unity Hall in the distance. Click here to read more about the history of Clinton Street.

In March 1914, the Student Union moved once again, this time to the St. James Hotel across Iowa Avenue from Unity Hall.

Circa 1914 – The St. James Hotel has become “Iowa Union”

But on Good Friday – April 21, 1916, the St. James burned to the ground, leaving the University once again with no option but to return to the basement of Unity Hall.

Click here to read more about the St. James Hotel and some of the retail shops surrounding it.
Click here to read more about the history of Clinton Street.
1927- Unity Hall (on the left) with School of Music sign over the door via the camera of Fred W. Kent.

While this shared arrangement with the School of Music wasn’t perfect, there really wasn’t any other available space for the Student Union until after World War I had ended. Gerald Mansheim’s book, Iowa City: An Illustrated History, fills in some details…

After the war (1919), President Jessup, combining the need for a Union and the desire for a memorial to students who had been killed in action, proposed a Memorial Union, which would be the ‘hearthstone of the whole university.’ On September 29, 1924, contracts were signed for the construction of Unit I, the central part facing south plus the large lounge and ballroom immediately to the north.

Meanwhile, Unity Hall finished up its faithful service to the University hosting the School of Music until 1932.

So. . . What Stands on this Spot Today?

In this 1914 Mecca Parade photo by Fred Kent you can see the “School of Music” signage on Unity Hall. Click here to read more about the history of Clinton Street.

The School of Music’s webpage gives us these details about its time at Unity Hall (1913-1932)…

When P.G. Clapp arrived to head the School of Music in 1919, he was charged with reorganizing the school into a regular department and administering the staff of eight teachers. When (he) arrived, the School of Music was housed in three buildings located on the corner of Clinton Street and Iowa Avenue. As large ensembles were established, other university buildings were used for rehearsals (Unity Hall), and rooms in various houses were used as practice rooms (nearby buildings on Clinton Street). In 1932, the music department moved into new quarters: a refurbished former isolation hospital with a new ajoining rehearsal building.

1946 – Quonset huts replace Unity Hall via the camera of Fred W. Kent.

Sadly, when the Music Department moved out in 1932, Unity Hall was razed soon after (1933), only to be replaced after World War II with six temporary Quonset-type classrooms designed to help the University cope with the huge influx of students taking advantage of the GI veterans bill. These temporary buildings were removed in the early 1960’s and replaced with Phillips Hall in 1965.

Find out what treasure was found in the belfry of Unity Hall in 1933, while it was being razed.

Click here to read more about Unity Hall and its place in Iowa City “skyscraper” history.

With the spire of the Congregational Church in the background, Phillips Hall was constructed in 1965. Click here to read more about the history of Clinton Street.

So, here’s to Unity Hall, or Old Unity, as some called it . . . gone, but never forgotten.

DYK-February 19, 2022

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

University of Iowa Libraries: Iowa Digital Library website

A Pictorial History of the University of Iowa: An Expanded Edition, John C. Gerber, University of Iowa Press, 2005, pp 62, 116, 118

Iowa City: An Illustrated History, Gerald Mansheim, The Downing Company, 1989, pp 45, 59

Irving Weber’s Iowa City Volume 5, Irving Weber, Iowa City Lion’s Club, 1989, p 213-216

Our History, University of Iowa Music Department

Quonset Huts (First Location of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop) website

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