Our Iowa Heritage: Inside Old Capitol.

Try, for a moment, to imagine OId Capitol standing alone on the hill above the Iowa River, surrounded by elderberry and elms, wild plums and witch hazel. Farm animals, including pigs and cattle, grazed where Macbride and Jessup Halls now stand. An outhouse sat at Old Capitol’s south; logs for stoking its wood-burning stoves were chopped and stacked to its west. As the sole building, and one of particular elegance and grace, it caught the eye, the apparent centerpiece of civilization in the newly tamed landscape. Linzee Kull McCray

Welcome, my good friends, to our on-line tour of my favorite building in the world. Today, it’s called Old Capitol, because in 1857, a majority of Iowa politicians decided to trot off to Des Moines, leaving their state house in Iowa City in the competent hands of educators. As one Iowa City newspaper columnist quipped at the time . . .

Let Des Moines have the politicians . . . we’ll take the teachers!

This stately building that was once the Iowa State House, sitting on Capitol Square, is now The Old Stone Capitol located on the University of Iowa’s Pentacrest. Built in 1840-1841, Old Cap has seen its share of ups and downs. It was rehabilitated in the 1920’s, restored in the 1970’s, and after the fire of 2001, was renewed and refreshed, now serving Iowans as The Old Capitol Museum.

I hope you’ll enjoy this tour of the inside of this beautiful treasure, and on the following page, you can take the 40-feet of stairs up to the golden dome. Enjoy the tour…

A huge thanks to The University of Iowa Pentacrest Museums for this montage of pics from the Old Capitol Museum. Be sure to click here to visit their fabulous website.
(BH-111) Many of the photos on this webpage also come from Facing East and Facing West – Iowa’s Old Capitol Museum, Linzie Kull McCray & Thomas Langdon (2007) University of Iowa Press.

Over the inside front entrance of Old Capitol is this header from 1841. The cornerstone for the State House was laid on July 4, 1840. Territorial Governor Robert Lucas did the honors. Due to financial woes, construction work on the capitol building continued for several years, but enough was completed by 1842 to open the facility. The first Territorial Legislature sessions were held here beginning on December 6. 1842. Click here to read more about the earliest days of the Iowa State House on Capitol Square.
We Build Our Capitol – 1841 – an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Mildred Pelzer’s mural depicts Chauncey Swan (right), who is sometimes called the “Father of Iowa City” since he was part of the original team that selected the site and then stayed here until 1849, serving in a variety of leadership roles; and Father Samuel Mazzuchelli (left). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.
There are three floors to Old Capitol, plus the 40-foot dome. Our tour here will begin with the First Floor.

1st Floor – The Reverse-Spiral Staircase.

Old Capitol’s reverse-spiral staircase is one of the building’s most memorable features. In an unusual twist (literally), the staircase ascends from the first floor to the left, turns right, and ends with its top step directly above the bottom step. Spiral staircases typically ascend first to the right.
The amazing spiral staircase.

Circa 1920 -Rebuilding the spiral staircase during the 1920’s rehabilitation.

1st Floor – The President’s Office.

The President of the University used this office from 1860 to 1969.
A collection of SUI artifacts (below) are kept on the President’s desk: including a fragment of the Marion Meteorite that fell on February 25, 1847, the day SUI began. An oil painting of University Square (1882) by Frank Bond is displayed in the President’s Office as well.

1st Floor – The Governor’s Office.

The first three Iowa governors – Ansel Griggs (1846-1850), Stephan B. Hempstead (1850-1854), and James W. Grimes (1854-1858) worked in this room, as did Iowa Territorial Governors John Chambers (1841-1845) and James Clarke (1845-1846). Only Robert Lucas (Iowa’s first Territorial Governor) missed the opportunity since the State House didn’t open until after he left office in 1841. In the bottom row of pictures, you’ll see a spit-toon, which was a much-needed accessory in the 19th-century.

1st Floor – The Auditor’s Office.

The state auditor was charged with collecting taxes, writing financial reports, developing working budgets, analyzing state accounts, and signing warrants.

1st Floor – The Treasurer’s Office.

The treasurer’s job was to manage money, and tools of his trade can be seen in this office. Income came to the treasurer’s office from three main sources: taxes, files, and the sale of public land. The treasurer, who was also responsible for advertising and selling public land, reported to the Legislative Assembly and the auditor.
Here’s a sample of a letter received by the Land Office in the Capitol Building in 1854. This letter comes from Ottawa, IL and since it concerned a land purchase in Iowa, it must pass through the State Treasurer’s office in Iowa City.

1st Floor – The Territorial & State Library.

Creating a library was a top priority for early Iowans. In 1839, Territorial Governor Robert Lucas sent Theodore S. Parvin, later appointed Iowa’s first territorial librarian, to Cincinnati to bring back a collection of 238 books on a variety of subjects, including medicine, poetry, history, science, religion, travel, and education. When the capital moved from Burlington to Iowa City (1841), the library moved as well. Today, Old Capitol has 1,000 of the more than 1,500 books that were once housed here. They are arranged according to Parvin’s original cataloguing system. Click here to read more about T.S. Parvin.

1st Floor – The Supreme Court Chamber.

This room served as a courtroom for both the Iowa Supreme Court and, beginning in 1849, the western region of the United States District Court. When the state court moved to Des Moines in 1857, SUI brought the Iowa Law School (from Des Moines) to Iowa City. The school moved into the second floor of Old Capitol, becoming the SUI School of Law in 1868. Below are pictures of the Law Library – housed in the 2nd floor Senate Chamber, at the turn of the century. Read about Charles B. Elliott, law student at SUI, who managed the law library in 1880.
Circa 1976 – original brick enrtry-way exposed over west door of Supreme Court Chamber.

Now, we climb the spiral staircase to the second floor…

2nd Floor – The Senate Chamber.

Lawmakers gathered here on January 2, 1847 for the First General Assembly of the new State of Iowa. It was also here, on February 25, 1847, when that same Assembly passed a bill authorizing a single state university to be developed in Iowa City, and SUI was born. Click here to read more about that special day.
The Senate Chamber has been used for a variety of gatherings over the decades: lectures, faculty meetings, dissertation defenses, recitals (above), even church gatherings like the one pictured (below) in 1925.
The chandelier (below) was made in Kansas City and was part of the 1920’s rehabilitation. It weighs about 650 pounds and supports 1,000 crystal pendants and balls, including 750 prisms. The 1878 Steinway piano weighs 1,500 pounds and was hoisted by a crane through a window on the northeast side of the Chamber in October 2006.

2nd Floor – The House Chamber.

In September 1846, Iowa’s constitution was written in this room, and in December of that year, Iowa became the 29th State in the Union. In 1857, a convention met here to revise the constitution to better serve the needs of the growing state. This constitution is the one still in use today. In its early University years, the House Chamber served as a chapel. In 1880, it was divided into three rooms for the Law Department: a classroom, library, and office.

This replica of the original, handwritten 1857 Constitution of the State of Iowa (left) rests on an original desk in the House Chamber. A beautiful 29-star US flag (right) is displayed in the chamber as well. Iowa, as you know, was the 29th state to enter the Union (1846).


Look Up! There’s More!

As you are touring the second floor of Old Capitol, you’ll find the original bell (1844) that rang out for SUI students between 1855-1857. It hung in Mechanics’ Academy, where the first University classes were held beginning in 1855.

Read more about the many bells of Iowa City here, including the three bells of Old Capitol.

And now, if you look upward on the second floor of Old Capitol, you’ll see a beautiful chandelier hanging from a domed ceiling. Many assume they are looking at the bottom portion of the golden dome of Old Capitol. But in truth, this is just the floor covering for the section of the Old Stone Capitol that very few people ever see.

Now, it’s time to climb the forty feet that exists above that ceiling, as we tour The Dome…click here to continue…


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

A huge thanks to The University of Iowa Pentacrest Museums for this montage of pics used on this page.

Facing East and Facing West – Iowa’s Old Capitol Museum, Linzie Kull McCray & Thomas Langdon (2007) University of Iowa Press.

Old Stone Capitol Building, Interior, Central Staircase Renovation, Cornell University Library, circa 1920-1924

“The Gallery Will Be Reserved for Ladies”, Margaret N. Keyes, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 42 – Number 1 – Summer 1973, pp 1-16

Old Capitol, Frederick Kohli, FineArtAmerica

Check out these priceless pics: Old Capitol – The Jewel in Iowa’s Crown, IAGenWeb, August 30, 2010

Old Capitol Timeline, Old Capitol Museum

Facts, Names & Faces -Old Capitol Restoration 1974-1976, IAGenWeb

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