Robert R. Hutchinson – Iowa City’s Jack Of All Trades.

When the new Territorial Governor – Robert Lucas – announced in January 1839 that Iowa would be building a whole new city that would soon become Iowa’s capital, the word spread quickly back East. You see, if you were a halfway healthy young man with a marketable construction skill like stone cutting, brick laying, wood crafting, etc., there was no reason for you not to load up your tools and head westward to Iowa City. Certainly, there was a job waiting for you, and while it didn’t pay too much and living circumstances were a bit primitive, almost every young man who came to Iowa City in 1839 and 1840, ended up with an excellent ground floor opportunity. And as records indicate, there were even some of these young men who made a small fortune. Case in point – Robert R. Hutchinson.

Robert R. Hutchinson was born on September 16, 1814 in Hillsborough County, New Hampshire, and was trained as a skilled carpenter and joiner. Now, in the early to mid-1800’s, it was one thing to be good carpenter, but it was another level of workmanship when a man was also trained as a quality joiner – meaning he could craft wood and “join” pieces together to form cabinets, doors, window frames, and furniture.

So, it was for 24-year-old Robert Hutchinson – who arrived in Iowa City on July 17, 1839 with these two trades in hand – just 13 days after the cornerstone for the new capitol building had been dedicated. Undoubtedly, one of the first people Hutchinson met upon his arrival in Iowa City was Chauncey Swan (above right), and since Swan had just said goodbye to the building’s architect – the temperamental John F. Rague – I’m guessing Chauncey was pretty happy to see a guy like Hutchinson come to town, ready to work.

Records indicate that Robert Hutchinson got really busy – really fast, as he is credited with helping build Iowa City’s very first log cabin – a two-story job for Matthew & Salome Ten Eyck and his family, located on the southwest corner of Iowa Avenue and Dubuque Street (see map below). According to Iowa City historian, Irving Weber, the Ten Eyck cabin was built with “good sized hewn logs” and it served as a small lodge/tavern as well where, supposedly, Governor Lucas and his two daughters once spent the night, climbing up the ladder and sleeping in the loft. Other records indicate that the Ten Eyck cabin hosted the first worship services for Iowa City’s newly-formed Methodist church in 1839, and that it stood for about twenty years before it burned to the ground (March 1861). Sadly, this was a fate awaiting many older buildings in Iowa City during its first 50+ years.

Historian Benjamin Shambaugh writes this about the Ten Eyck cabin.

One thing’s for sure, Robert Hutchinson wasted no time in learning what was needed for the many construction projects going on around town. One of his first real estate investments – as a squatter – was to secure pieces of land on the west side of the Iowa River. At the time (1839), there was no land office in Iowa City, thus all one needed to do in order to secure land – outside of the one-square-mile designated as Iowa City – was to build a claim cabin on the land. Apparently, Hutchinson did just that – staking out 157 acres of land just west of the river – in what is, today, the Manville Heights neighborhood of Iowa City (see maps above).

As part of that land on the west side of the Iowa River, Hutchinson also took possession of a large rock quarry running parallel to the river – limestone bluffs near today’s North Riverside Drive. Known as the Hutchinson Quarry, this bountiful site was worked from the 1840’s through 1900, providing much of the foundation and basement wall stone needed for many of the new buildings being constructed around the city. And like the “Public Quarry” located in the opposite river bluff (see map above), Hutchinson’s Quarry was worked principally with hand picks and wheelbarrows, producing irregular, broken stones – material best-suited for unseen masonry.

As owner of his own quarry, and with his hands being actively involved with many of the city’s building projects – including the new capitol – Robert Hutchinson took some of the limestone rejects, and in 1840, replaced his claim cabin with a one-story stone farmhouse – located on today’s Park Road (see map below).

In 1843, Robert Hutchinson was finally able to legally purchase his 157 acres on the west side of the river – now known as part of the West Lucas Township. That year – on October 19th – he also married 19-year-old Julia Marie Whetstone who had moved here with her family from Cincinnati in 1842. So, in the home you see below, the couple – between 1843 and 1868 – had twelve children – nine of which lived into adulthood!

In 1927, Hutchinson’s descendants sold the house to SUI English professor Ernest P. Kuhl, and it underwent extensive renovation, including a second floor with dormers (see pics below). In 1977, the University of Iowa purchased the Kuhl home, making it the home of the University of Iowa Press in February 1988.

Read more about Iowa City’s extant classics like the Hutchinson-Kuhl House here.

According to city records, in the early 1840’s, Robert Hutchinson purchased – from Walter Butler – the two-story building located on South Clinton Street (see above). This building, which Butler hastily built in the summer of 1841, was known to early Iowa Citians as Butler’s Capitol, since it was constructed in order to house the 1841-1842 Iowa Territorial Legislative Assembly – which had threatened to boycott Iowa City since the new capitol building was not ready for occupancy. Read the full story here. Eventually, the name transitioned to The Hutchinson House (#2) when the new owner moved it to 318 E. Jefferson Street (see below) – prior to 1875 – where Robert (age 61) and Julia (age 51) lived temporarily while he built a retirement home – (Hutchinson House #3) pictured below.

Once married, Robert & Julia Hutchinson became foundational members of the new Presbyterian church – North Presbyterian Church – that was forming just as Iowa City was coming into its own. As we discuss on another page, Chauncey & Dolly Swan donated property to Rev. Michael Hummer and the newly-founded church, and by 1843, Robert was given the job of constructing a beautiful church building on the donated property.

In 1840-1841, Chauncey Swan helped open The National Hotel (red x) – which became The Swan Hotel – and donated land (purple x) to the newly-formed Presbyterian Church, of which he and his wife, Dolly, were charter members. This property, located at the corner of Clinton & Market, is still the home of Old Brick today.

Historical records (above) indicate the building project took seven years (1843-1850), and from what we read, it seems that Robert & Julia Hutchinson were deeply involved in the day-to-day life of the new church family, with Robert serving as a trustee, overseeing the construction project, and helping lead the singing in Sunday services! Other historical records tell us that Robert had one fine singing voice that was appreciated by many in Iowa City.

Sadly, the first church building stood only six years before being completely destroyed by fire in 1856. A new church building (above left) was planned, but it took nine years to complete it (1856-1865), with cataclysmic events – i.e. twin disasters of a national financial panic and the loss of the Iowa capital to Des Moines in 1857, followed by the 1861-65 Civil War – slowing down the construction process. Once completed in 1865, the church became the long-time home of North Presbyterian – which changed its name to First Presbyterian Church – meeting in that building until a new facility was built in 1975 on the east side of Iowa City, leaving Old Brick as one of Iowa City’s oldest remaining structures. Read more here.

By 1849/1850, Gold Fever had exploded across the country and literally thousands of settlers were pulling up stakes, making their way westward to California in the hopes of striking it rich. Chauncey Swan was one of those city leaders who got “The Fever,” organizing a troop of Iowa Citians who headed west in May of 1849. Records show that other long-time Johnson County pioneers such as Philip Clark and Eli Meyers headed west as well, and yes, you guessed it – Robert Hutchinson pulled up stakes too! Apparently, he left Iowa City in the summer of 1849 – along with a friend named Mr. Wilson – returning back home in 1852 “about as rich as when he left.”

Upon his return to Iowa City in 1852, Hutchinson seemed to settle down and began to accept his lot in life as a Johnson County pioneer. When the city officially incorporated in 1853, Robert became the town’s sheriff – or city marshal. An 1854 listing in the Iowa Capitol Reporter (below) shows him representing the city in a civic case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court! On the bottom right, we find that by the late 1860’s, Hutchinson is serving as President of the Iowa State Historical Society as well.

Records also indicate that Hutchinson was actively involved in both the construction and administration of the Mechanics Academy – the home of SUI’s very first classes in 1855, and he played a major role in helping finance the coming of the Mississippi & Missouri Railroad into Iowa City in 1855/1856.

Finally, we’ll add that Robert Hutchinson – in the late 1850’s – also became the first proprietor of Iowa City’s Metropolitan Hall – the finest theatre of its kind at the time, occupying the third floor of one of the city’s largest brick buildings (see pics below). This classic structure was located on the southwest corner of Dubuque & Washington Streets – replaced by The Jefferson Hotel in 1913 – and while we discuss this majestic hall in another post, we’ll just say here – “kudos” to Mr. Hutchinson for giving Iowa Citians of the mid-19th century a gathering place for concerts, lectures, and social events like none other!

We’ll close with this little fact. Did you know – in 1869 – Mark Twain was the guest speaker at Hutchinson’s Metropolitan Hall in Iowa City?

Robert R. Hutchinson (b-1814) passed on August 2, 1887 at age 72. Julia Whetstone Hutchinson – born January 15, 1824 near Cincinnati – died 12 years later – at age 75 on February 21, 1899. Both Robert & Julia Hutchinson are buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City. In their memory, Hutchinson Avenue in Manville Heights (Iowa City) is named for Robert & Julia and their nine surviving children.

Without a doubt, the Hutchinson family made one big impact on Iowa City! In truth, it’s hard to find many other pioneers who had their hands in so many key events in Iowa City’s early history. From helping build the first log cabin to providing foundational stone for many of the early buildings – from helping build the first Presbyterian church to serving as town marshal, Hutchinson was there, serving Iowa Citians like few others. Thanks, Robert & Julia – Godspeed!

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

Matthew Ten Eyck, Clarence Ray Aurner, Leading Events In Johnson County, Iowa History – Volume 2, 1912, p 794

Iowa City – A Contribution to the Early History of Iowa, Benjamin Shambaugh, State Historical Society of Iowa, 1893, p 33

Saturday Postcard 230: Iowa City’s Hutchinson Quarry, Bob Hibbs,, February 7, 2004

UI Press Moves Into New Old Home, Irving Weber, Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 4, 1988, p 22

First Presbyterian Church, History of Johnson County, Iowa 1836-1882, 1883, pp 660-661

State Historical Society, Iowa City Republican, December 9, 1868, p 2

Hutchinson House, The History of Johnson County 1836-1882, 1883, p 310

318 E. Jefferson, Jefferson Street Historic District, National Register of Historic Places

Mr. Wilson-California 1849 – Reminiscing, Iowa City Press Citizen, July 23, 1946, p 4

Officers of Iowa City – 1853, History of Johnson County 1836-1882, 1883, p 676

Supreme Court Decisions, Hutchinson vs. Sangster, Iowa Capitol Reporter, August 23, 1854, p 1

Heights of Manville History, Irving Weber, Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 5, 1991, p 15

Iowa City’s Metropolitan Hall, Marybeth Slonneger, Finials, Hands Press, 2015, pp 274-275, 280-281

A Fact A Day About Iowa City – Founding A Church, Iowa City Press Citizen, December 12, 1936, p 6

Death Of An Old Citizen, Iowa City Republican, August 2, 1887, p 3

Robert R. Hutchinson, Find-A-Grave

In Memoriam – Mrs. Robert Hutchinson, Daily Iowa State Press, February 22, 1899, p 4

Julia Whetstone Hutchinson, Find-A-Grave

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