Originally the Unitarian Church of Iowa City, SUI 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.
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.
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 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 (below left).
When North Hall opened in 1866, the second floor included the University Chapel (above right), 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 most popular activities on the student schedule.
Beginning in 1882, the second floor of North Hall also housed the University Library – yet another reason for students and faculty to gather here. But on June 19, 1897, a fire destroyed much of the second floor, leaving SUI 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 immediately offered their church to be used for these urgent SUI facility needs.
Actually, from nearly the time the church first opened, the University – always short of extra meeting space – had rented rooms here for special occasions. And as we discussed in an earlier post, with the first Homeopathic Medical Building being located a few doors down on North Clinton, and with the church being only a few steps from University Square, this was a very convenient place to hold extracurricular SUI activities.
So, while this stately red-brick building with its distinctive steeple was still under the ownership of the Unitarians, the church was long-identified – by both students and faculty – as a key component – Building #12 – of the SUI Red Brick Campus.
In 1897, with North Hall out of service because of the fire, facility needs were urgent, so the University immediately rented the church’s entire basement, using it as both a temporary library space and 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 liked to call it, Old Unity. In 1907, the building quickly became part of the “official” SUI campus – becoming the home of the SUI Department of Public Speaking.
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 historian Irving Weber’s recollection of that time…
But, as the University continued to grow, Unity Hall proved to be inadequate. In December 1913, the SUI Student Union moved to a larger space – the upper rooms above the Brunswick Bowling Parlor at 121-123 Iowa Avenue. In its place, the School of Music moved into Old Unity, making good use of its open spaces for student performances.
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.
Just as the School of Music was settling into Unity Hall, the SUI Student Union was still trying to find an adequate meeting space for its increasing student population. In March 1914, the Union moved once again, this time from above the Brunswick Bowling Parlor to the St. James Hotel – located directly across Iowa Avenue from Unity Hall.
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!
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 by hosting the SUI School of Music until 1932.
Sadly, when the Music Department moved out in 1932, Unity Hall was razed soon afterward – with this valuable city lot remaining vacant until after World War II – when six temporary Quonset-type classrooms were built. These small buildings (like the ones pictured above) were designed to help the University cope with the huge influx of students taking advantage of the GI veterans bill.
In 1933, as Old Unity was being razed – a big surprise was found in the belfry tower…
By the early 1960’s, the Quonset huts were gone – replaced with Phillips Hall (1965).
So, here’s to Unity Hall – or Old Unity – as some called it. SUI’s Gathering Place from the 1880’s to 1932 . . . gone, but never forgotten.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.