Our Iowa Heritage: Clinton Street – Iowa City’s Center of Commerce.

Without a doubt, from its very beginning, Iowa City was one up-n-coming town. On May 4, 1839, when Chauncey Swan drove a wooden stake into that hillside high above the Iowa River, marking where Iowa’s Territorial Capitol Building will be built, Iowa City probably looked a lot like this (below). . .

Today Clinton Street, in downtown Iowa City, is one of the busiest spots in town, especially when classes are in session at The University of Iowa. Like the county located on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River, Clinton Street is named for Governor DeWitt Clinton, the most ardent advocate for the construction of the Erie Canal. The Iowa cities of DeWitt and Clinton (also in Clinton County) are named after the good governor from New York as well.

It’s not a coincidence that Clinton Street is what it is today. From the very beginning, when Iowa City was nothing more than a map drawn up on a piece of paper (1839), Clinton Street was destined to become the center of commerce for Iowa’s only pre-planned city.

Iowa City – Pre-Planned From the Very Beginning.

Historians record that in 1838, just a few months prior to Iowa City’s birth, there were 237 residents of Johnson County. In the 1840 census, that number grew to 1,504, ballooned to 4,472 in 1850, and hit the 17,573 mark a decade later in 1860. From a business standpoint, that kind of growth is phenomenal, so no wonder people were flocking here to follow their American dream.

Clinton Street was originally planned to become Iowa City’s center for commerce, stretching from the all-important limestone quarry to the north (present-day location of the UI President’s Home) to the southern edge of the city. Click here to read more about the early maps of Iowa City.

Dubuque: You see, in most cases, cities come into existence because of previous circumstances. Take Dubuque, for example – Iowa’s oldest community. In 1781, lead was discovered in the hills surrounding a very large river called the Mississippi. Feeding into that river was a tributary called Catfish Creek. In 1788, a French fur-trader named Julien Dubuque canoed down the Wisconsin River to the Mississippi River, turned left and settled on some of that land where a Meskwaki tribe was already successfully mining lead. The creek, river, and surrounding trees provided food, shelter and transportation, while the lead, when mined using techniques learned in Canada, made Dubuque a wealthy man. Others, over the next several decades, came and helped Dubuque mine that lead, building houses, having families, etc. By 1833, when the U.S. government said people could buy land here, the city of Dubuque came together quickly, because of these earlier circumstances.


Here’s a look at L. Judson’s original map (1839). Two months after the surveyors planted their stake — on July 4, 1839 — this first map of Iowa City situated in Township 79 North, Range 6 West of the 5th Meridian, was signed and approved. Iowa City, as it was laid out on L. Judson’s map, was one-square mile, divided into blocks 320 feet square with lots 80 x 150 feet. With six exceptions, the streets, which ran east and west and north and south according to the compass, were all 80 feet wide. The exceptions were Iowa Avenue (120 feet wide) and Washington, Jefferson, Capitol, and Madison (100 feet wide). Streets from west to east: Front, Madison, Capitol, Clinton, Dubuque, Linn, Gilbert, Van Buren, Johnson, Dodge, Lucas, and Governor. Streets from north to south: Brown, Ronalds, Church, Fairchild, Davenport, Bloomington, Market, Jefferson, Iowa Avenue, Washington, College, and Burlington. Click here to read more about the early maps of Iowa City.

“It is interesting to observe that when Iowa City was founded in 1839, it marked the frontier line of western settlement, and that it was here on this far-flung frontier that the pioneers erected their most enduring monument — the Old Stone Capitol,Iowa historian Benjamin Shambaugh.

Iowa City, on the other hand, had no prior circumstances that made it happen. It came about by a planning committee, looking to build a brand new city in a brand new location. So when L. Judson drew up his 1839 map of Iowa City (above), the only pre-existing conditions he had to work with were 1) the Iowa River, 2) the hills surrounding it, and 3) one beautiful spot already located on one of those hills where a new capitol building would be built. Everything else would be worked out by city planners.


Streets – Parks – Churches – Homes – Schools – Government – Business and Commerce.

Within days of Chauncey Swan’s decision on the best location for the capitol building, surveyors began laying the framework for Iowa City. The process was long and arduous, yet calculated and precise, as crews marked out a one-square-mile layout using a 20-foot board for measuring length while driving iron pins into the ground at each measurement to mark boundaries. More than 2,000 stakes were used to plot the original Iowa City area, and despite the slight inconsistency in measurements, engineering experts today say the accuracy of Iowa City’s plotting is astounding. “When we survey today, these streets run about as good north, south, east, west as you can imagine,” Glen Meisner, engineer and land surveyor says.

That was Iowa City in July, 1839, one hundred years ago — a map, a paper plat, recorded in the office of I.P. Hamilton, the recorder of Johnson County,” Benjamin Shambaugh

As you look at Judson’s map, Capitol Square, of course, was to be the center of everyone’s attention. The next priority for Judson was setting up a centrally-located business district, with Iowa Avenue stretching eastward from Capitol Square into the community, ending one mile later with Governor’s Square on Governor Street, where an executive mansion would eventually be built. Notice that Judson also planned a City Park two blocks from the Capitol Building on Iowa Avenue, surrounded by churches to the north and south, and a school to the east. Further east were three commercial areas, North Market, Centre Market, and South Market, all about a 1/2 mile from Capitol Square, where residents could easily secure life’s necessities.

Click here to read more about the early maps of Iowa City.

Just as the designers had planned it, a view down Iowa Avenue would be picture-perfect from Gilbert Street.

1839 – Real Estate For Sale!

On July 25, 1839, Territorial Governor Robert Lucas, announced two sale dates when the public could begin purchasing land in the newly-surveyed Iowa City: the third Monday in August and the first Monday in October. This announcement stirred excitement across Iowa Territory and back East as well.

The Lean Back Hall.

But, where will all these potential buyers stay when they come to Iowa City for these auctions? Historian Benjamin F. Shambaugh tells us the quick solution…

Join me at The Lean Back Hall – located at Washington & Linn Streets (see map below) -where the Iowa City Post Office Building (Senior Center) exists today. According to some records, F.M. Irish was the owner of the building. Many coming to Iowa City for the land sale were familiar with Tim Flanning’s Log Tavern in Dubuque. Click here to read about The Old Military Road.

And so, they came, and between the August and October sales, over 200 lots sold. Historian William J. Peterson gives us the details…

1841 – Walter Butler Welcomes the Territorial Legislators.

Speaking of last-minute hotels – since the Capitol wouldn’t be ready for occupancy until 1842, a wise businessman named Walter Butler, who bought property on Clinton Street (Block 80 – lot 5) and built a hotel there, purchased lot 6 (adjacent to his hotel), throwing up a two-story frame building on the corner of Clinton and Washington Streets. He “rented” this hall to the Territorial Legislature in December of 1841 at no cost so they could conduct their business in the new capital city – thus the building took on the nickname: Butler’s Capitol.

Click here to read more about Walter Butler and his pro-active involvement with early-day Iowa City.

Butler’s Capitol  Iowa City – originally built on the corner of Clinton & Washington Streets.

1850’s-1860’s – Iowa City’s Growth Explodes.

Photographer, Isaac Wetherby

Soon, other business were springing up on Clinton Street as well. By 1854, when photographer, Isaac Wetherby came to town, opening up his first retail shop on Clinton, he took the earliest pictures we have of the State House (Old Capitol) and downtown Iowa City.

Click here to read more about the earliest days of Iowa City.

Circa 1854- Isaac Wetherby takes the very first picture of the Iowa State House (Old Capitol) during the second annual Iowa State Fair (September 1854). A team of oxen going down South Clinton is another highlight of this rare photograph.
Circa 1854- Isaac Wetherby takes a picture of Clinton Street, looking north, directly across from Capitol Square. The largest building in this image is the only one which still exists, possibly the oldest surviving downtown structure outside of Old Capitol. It is the F.P. Brossart building at 16 S. Clinton St., occupied by McDonald Optical for many years.
Circa 1854 – Isaac Wetherby takes a picture of the corner of Clinton and Washington, shot from the steps of the Iowa State House (Old Capitol).
1854 – Iowa City artist George H. Yewell teams with map maker J.H. Millar to produce a beautiful map of Iowa City which included 12 illustrations by Yewell. Here is his “Part of Clinton Street” etching, looking southward from University Square.

In the 1850’s – 1860’s, Clinton Street continued to be the place for local business. Above is Issac Wetherby’s second storefront (1862), A. Hartbock’s Hawkeye Auction Store, and the Banking House on the SE corner of Clinton and Washington Streets.

Circa 1860 – Again, Isaac Wetherby is the photographer of this view, looking North, on Clinton Street with University Square on the left.
Click here to read more about Butler’s Hotel, building on this location in 1841.
1868 – The entirety of Clinton Street (from north to south) from A Bird’s Eye View of Iowa City by A. Ruger. Click here to read more about the early maps of Iowa City.

The Latter Part of the Nineteenth Century.

1897 – The first street paving project in Iowa City – Picture taken at the corner of Washington and Clinton across the street from University Square.
Circa 1897 – Clinton Street between Iowa Avenue on the south (right) and Jefferson Street on the north. The Unitarian Church (Unity Hall) is on the far right w/tower, located on the northeast corner of Clinton St. and Iowa Ave.

1900 – The Turn of the Century.

Circa 1900 – Clinton Street looking north toward the St. James Hotel, Unity Hall, and the spire of First Congregational Church on the corner of Jefferson and Clinton Streets.
Circa 1900 – Clinton Street looking south from the St. James Hotel.
Click here to read about Fink’s Cigar Store (4 South Clinton) and the Arcade Book & Stationery Store (6 South Clinton)- part of the St. James Hotel.

Looking to the South – Johnson County Courthouse.

Further south of downtown Iowa City, construction was underway on a new Johnson County Courthouse (pictured below) which was completed in 1901. This is the fourth Johnson County Court House since 1837, with three of the four located on South Clinton Street. Read more here.

(P-0045) Johnson County Court House – four blocks from downtown on South Clinton Street. Click here to read more about the history of the Johnson County Court Houses.
This 1854 Map of Iowa City reveals that South Clinton Street has long been the home of Johnson County Court Houses. Court House #2 (1842-1850’s) was located on the SE corner of Harrison & Clinton Streets, while #3 (1857-1901) was built in Court House Square, until being replaced with the current Court House #4.
Circa 1910 – On South Clinton Street, the Court House fills up the entire block – here’s a look north on Capitol Street, with Old Capitol in the distance – taken from the west side of the Johnson County Court House.

Circa 1907 – Postcards featuring Clinton Street – looking north.

The Shrader Drug Company was established in 1899, located at 132 S. Clinton St. (see picture above), but moved into the Hawthorne Glove and Novelty Company building prior to World War I.
Circa 1910 – Clinton Street stores in the St. James Hotel – University Book and Fink’s Cigar Store.
Circa 1912 – looking at the corner of Clinton & Washington Streets from University Square.

Circa 1914 – The College of Engineering – MECCA parade always marched down Clinton Street.

Looking east from the Pentacrest on Iowa Avenue – Unity Hall on the left – University Books on the right.
On Good Friday, April 21, 1916, The St. James Hotel went up in flames – drastically effecting the Iowa City business community of Clinton Street. Read more here.
The ruins of the St. James Hotel – 1916.

The President’s Home – North Clinton Street.

While most of the city’s attention on Clinton Street focuses on downtown Iowa City, one must not forget that at the far north end of the street, you will find the stately mansion built for the University of Iowa President. If you recall, when Iowa City was first laid out (1839), the plan was to build a Governor’s Mansion at the far eastern edge of Iowa Avenue (Governor Street). But those plans were all for naught when the state capital moved to Des Moines in 1857.

So, it seems rather fitting that at the northern end of Clinton Street, Iowa City still has its executive mansion. And a beautiful one it is.

(P-0046) The Home of the University President.
(P-0047) The University of Iowa President’s Residence stands on a bluff overlooking the Iowa River. This neo-Georgian home was completed in 1909, at the north end of Clinton Street, for a total cost of $25,067. Proudfoot and Bird were the architects, and B.A. Wickham was the contractor. The original home contained 16 rooms and four bathrooms. The house now offers over 12,000 square feet of living area.

The Roaring Twenties on Clinton Street.

1922 – Homecoming Parade.
Circa 1920’s – North Clinton Street – Block 100 – The Music Department used several buildings along with Unity Hall until 1932.

1939 – The Nile Kinnick Era.

1939 Homecoming Parade.

World War II Era.

1946 – Quonset huts replace Unity Hall. 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.

1960’s into the Twenty-First Century.

Circa 1960’s – The temporary Quonset huts put in after WWII, were removed in the early 1960’s and replaced with Phillips Hall in 1965.
Circa 1960’s – Iowa Book & Supply – An Iowa City icon.
Circa 1965 – West side of Clinton Street – Kenney’s Bar was a very popular place for the Writer’s Workshop participants in the 1960’s. “Since my Iowa days I’ve heard that Kenney’s has appeared more in American novels than any other bar.” Philip F O’Connor, “The Fellowship” A Community of Writers: Paul Engle and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Click here for more info on the 1960’s at Iowa.
(P-0228) Circa 1970’s – Clinton Street -looking north.

Today – The 100 block of S. Clinton Street – looking north.
Today – The 100 block of S. Clinton Street – looking south.

Though the changes are dramatic indeed, from the 1850’s to today, Clinton Street remains the place to be when in Iowa City. On Iowa! Go Hawks!


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

Early Iowa City, Bob Hibbs, IAGenWeb-Johnson County, 2003

Map: Iowa City looking dandy at 175 years of age, Mitchell Schmidt, Iowa City Press Citizen, July 10, 2014

The Sale of Town Lots, Benjamin F. Shambaugh, The Palimpsest, Volume 48 – Number 2 -Article 7, February 1967, pp 65-67

Lean Back Hall, Finials – A View of Downtown Iowa City, Marybeth Slonneger, Hand Press, 2015, p. 21

Walter Butler: Capitol Builder, William J. Peterson, The Palimpsest, Volume 36-Number 12-Article 2, December 1955, pp 485-492

Inside Butler’s Capitol, Bob Hibbs, Johnson County IAGenWeb, August 1, 2003

The Old Military Road, John C. Parish, The Palimpsest, Volume 2-Number 2-Article 2, February 1921, pp 33-34

South Clinton Street, 100-Block, 1965, Iowa City Past, May 8, 2014

Take a peek at the potential future of downtown IC, Drew Bulman, Little Village, Sept 26, 2013

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