Our Iowa Heritage: John F. Rague – Creator Of A Classic.

Welcome, my friends, to Old Capitol in Iowa City!

Old Capitol? Say what?

May 4, 1839On a Hillside Overlooking the Iowa River – Johnson County, Iowa.

On this day, Chauncey Swan, serving as one of the three commissioners appointed by the Iowa Territorial Legislature, drove a surveyor’s stake into the ground. This stake marked the exact spot where a new capitol building would be erected for Iowa Territory. Click here for the full story.

L. Judson’s 1839 map of Iowa City. Click here for more early maps of Iowa City.

Two months later, on July 4, 1839, a map of the city that would surround this new capitol building was released. Its creator, L. Judson, had put together a masterful plan, one that would set in place the foundational underpinnings of this new City of Iowa. On that map, Judson included a sketch suggesting how our new capitol building might look, when completed.

But, wait

1839 sketch by L. Judson vs. 1854 sketch by Iowa City artist, George H Yewell.

John F. Rogue – Architect – Springfield, Illinois.

Thanks to a very-talented man from Springfield, Illinois, a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln, Iowa City has the Old Capitol just about any person in the world would recognize today. This iconic building, opening in 1841, has become the centerpiece of Iowa history, even being used as the official logo for the University of Iowa and the building most representative of Iowa’s rich heritage.

So, allow me to tell you a bit of John F. Rague’s Old Capitol story

Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette was a close comrade with George Washington, assisting the Colonies in the Revolutionary War. John F. Rague’s father was Lafayette’s personal physician.

John Francis Rague’s father, John Rague (pronounced Ra-gu‘), Sr. was a surgeon who came to America from France as the personal physician to General Marquis de Lafayette during the American Revolution. After the war, the good doctor married and resided for a while in New Jersey. The family Bible, which came from John Jr.’s Presbyterian mother, Hannah, states in the birth records:

John Francis Rague, born at Scotch Plains, N. J., March 24, 1799.

In 1806, the Rague family relocated to New York City, and by the mid-1820’s, John had married Eliza Van Dyke and was working as a builder/carpenter in Lower Manhattan. Historian M.M. Hoffman tells us this touching story from John’s New York City days…

Go West, Young Man. Illinois is Calling.

Sometime later, (1828), it is believe that John went on to study architecture with the famed Minard Lafever. Also a builder/carpenter, Lafever published a series of architectural plan books, enabling him to become one of the country’s leading designers in the Greek Revival style.

Armed with years of practical building experience, and very likely, a copy of Lefever’s Young Builder’s General Instructor, John and Eliza came west in 1831 to the up-n-coming community of Springfield, Illinois, the eventual home of a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. Upon their arrival, the Ragues joined the First Presbyterian Church, and soon, John opened a bakery, advertising as a wholesaler and barterer. In 1833, John served as Springfield’s market master and was elected church trustee, both solid indications that he was climbing in the community’s social and business ranks.

Rague’s Greek Revival design, the Illinois State Capitol Building was completed between 1837 and 1853. Many believe this design, his first, was also among his best.

In 1836, as John was serving as a town trustee, strong interest rose in moving the state capitol from Vandalia to Springfield. A very ambitious man, John saw this possibility as a great opportunity to utilize his architectural skills, so he briefly returned to New York, perhaps to gain some creative ideas from his mentor, Lafever. Returning to Springfield, John won the 1837 competition plus $200 for his design of the new capitol building, and was appointed supervising architect of the project at a salary of $1,000 per year.

Look familiar? No – you’re not in Iowa City, but Springfield, Illinois.

Not only had he designed the Illinois capitol building, but he also was doing well with commercial properties (Tinsley Dry Goods Building and others), plus designing many Greek Revival homes as well. Being well-known in the community, John also became friends with Abraham Lincoln, supposedly to the degree that one day, Rague suggested to his rail-splitting friend that he should wear white gloves to dinner parties (like any respectful Frenchman would, right?) Apparently, Honest Abe took the good advice and did just that, from that time on!

Abraham Lincoln made Springfield, Illinois his home from 1837-1861.

An 1839 Invitation to Iowa City – A Nine Day Stay.

Known now as the successful architect from Springfield, the Iowa Territorial commission contacted Rague, now age 40, in 1839, inviting him to design a building similar in style to his successful project in Springfield. As you can see from the pictures below, the similarities between the two buildings are striking, with the only major differences being that of the building’s depth and dome size.

Liking Rague’s design, a $46,000 contract for the construction of the new capitol in Iowa City was let to Rague & Company on November 12, 1839, and construction plans for the building began immediately with the laying of the cornerstone set for July 4,1840. Historian Benjamin F. Shambaugh tells us more about these earliest days of the project…

Shambaugh continues…

But within nine days of this joyous occasion, things went sour. Margaret N. Keyes, who was the coordinator for the major restoration done on Old Capitol in the 1970’s, tells us more…

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.

Historian M.M. Hoffman tells us more on what exactly happened in Iowa City in July of 1840…

Temperamental Artistry or What?

As it can sometimes be when working with strong-willed leaders, it appears that Chauncey Swan, the building superintendent, and John F. Rogue, the architect, and his partners just didn’t see eye to eye when it came to the construction of our new capitol. Suffice to say that when Rogue and friends walked off the Iowa City job, taking the architectural plans back to Springfield with them, it left Chauncey Swan in one fine mess.

Over the inside entrance of Old Capitol is this stone engraving from 1841. Click here to view more pics from inside the Old Capitol Museum.

Fortunately, Chauncey Swan, who is often called the Father of Iowa City, was able to hold things together, and even without the architect’s plans in front of him, the project still turned out pretty well, don’t you think?

Click here to read more about Iowa City’s classic building …Old Capitol.


Back to Springfield – On to Wisconsin.

Back in Springfield, things were not rosy for Rague as well. In 1841, John and the entire commission hired to oversee the on-going construction of the Illinois State Capitol were fired for financial irregularities in the project. This development hurt Rague’s reputation badly, forcing him to move to Milwaukee in 1844, hoping to further his career there.

North Hall and Bascom Hall on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison.

Once settled in Wisconsin, John received a commission to design three campus buildings at the University in Madison, and his Italianate Phoenix Building in Milwaukee was constructed as well, which marked a change in John’s preferred style of architecture and a move away from attempts to seek institutional commissions. This exposure in Milwaukee opened up new opportunities in Janesville and Chicago, but sadly, John and Eliza’s home life was suffering badly. Eliza ended up divorcing John in 1851, but by 1853, the 54-year old divorcee had re-married; finding a young 22-year-old artist from Janesville named Chestina Scales to be his new bride.

Dubuque – The Key City.

Dubuque City Hall (1857) and Dubuque County Jail (1858).

In 1854, Rague made his final move, this time to Iowa’s Key City: Dubuque, at the request of Stephen Hempstead, who had just completed his four-year term as the Governor of Iowa. Often considered the most significant architect in Dubuque history, Rague designed the city’s Central Market, City Hall, and the First, Third, and Fifth Ward schools. Click here to read more about Dubuque.

The Langworthy Octagon House (1856) and the Mathias Ham House (1856) in Dubuque.

In the private sector, John designed opulent homes in eclectic designs for the city’s well-to-do, including the Langworthy Octagon House, the Goodrich/Wilson/Ryan house, and the Mathias Ham residence. The City Jail, modeled after “The Tombs” in New York City is considered his last significant work. This example of Egyptian Revival Architecture was constructed at a cost of $40,000 during the financial depression of 1857-1858.

1862-1877 – the final chapter.

To honor their renowned architect, the Dubuque County Historical Society erected this tablet in 1954.

In 1862, Rague began losing his eyesight, a fact that brought John’s first wife, Eliza, to Dubuque on occasion to help Chestina care for him. In his last months, Rague wrote his own epitaph, designated the hymns to be sung for his funeral, and chose the singers and his pallbearers. John Francis Rague (age 78) died on September 24, 1877, survived by only one known child, Louise (b. 1835). He and both of his wives (Eliza and Chestina) are buried in Linwood Cemetery in Dubuque.

Above is John Francis Rague’s epitaph. Beautiful words from a talented artist who designed one amazing statehouse for our fair community – Iowa City. Thanks, John . . . though you walked out early, your work remains forever.

Classic Iowa City thanks to John F. Rague.

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

John Francis Rague: Architect, Benjamin F. Shambaugh, The Palimpsest, Volume 48 – Number 2 – Article 9, February, 1967, pp 73-75

John Francis Rague—Pioneer Architect of Iowa, M.M. Hoffman, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 19 – Number 6 – Fall 1934, pp 444-448

Erection of the Capitol, Contribution to the Early History of Iowa, Benjamin F. Shambaugh, State Historical Society of Iowa, 1893, p. 62

John Francis Rague, University of Iowa Biographical Dictionary

John Francis Rague, EncyclopediaDubuque

John F. Rague, Wikipedia

John Francis Rague Marker, The Historical Marker Database

Greek Revival Architecture on the Prairie, Abraham Lincoln Association

Old Capitol – Construction Begins – July 4, 1840, University of Iowa Old Capitol Museum

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

Iowa Old Capitol Building, Wikipedia

John Francis Rague, Find-A-Grave

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