My wife and I had the joy of meeting Marybeth Slonneger this summer (2021), sitting down with her for coffee (actually Sandy and Marybeth had Italian ice) at a local shop, while chatting everything Iowa City. I’d first run across Marybeth’s work earlier this year as I was gathering material for my article on Iowa City’s ground-breaking photographer, Isaac Wetherby.
Since then, I’ve come to truly respect Marybeth’s work here in Iowa City, as she has tirelessly labored for more than three decades, keeping our Iowa heritage, especially the amazing history of Johnson County, alive for future generations.
A very unpretentious person, Marybeth is a quiet force in our city, and from my perspective, a voice we all should pay more attention to as Iowa City draws ever closer to the dawn of our third century of existence (1839-2039). As the old saying goes, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” And while some might look at Marybeth’s work (or mine for that matter) as meaningless remembrances of the past, I’d propose that there is much you and I can learn and discern from those earlier generations of Iowa Citians who have gone before us.
Over the years, Marybeth has produced four amazing books on Iowa City history, and from what she told us when we met for coffee (and Italian ice), her new work on Johnson County’s earliest pioneers is in its final editing process. I, for one, can hardly wait!
In the meantime, allow me here to unpack what I believe, is her most amazing book. Much of the content below (words and pictures) comes from an excellent article written in 2015 by The Iowa City Press Citizen‘s Josh O’Leary…
Downtown Iowa City through the lense of Marybeth Slonneger.
In 2015, Iowa City historian, Marybeth Slonneger, turned her attention to the repositories of our city’s history, tracing downtown Iowa City’s roots through long-forgotten photographs, early maps and century-old city directories. The result was a 366-page book titled “Finials: A View of Downtown Iowa City,” with all proceeds going to the Iowa City Friends of Historic Preservation (ICFHP).
“I was hoping for aesthetics, and I found them,” Slonneger said, “I was very surprised by the beauty of downtown. Some of the buildings are just gorgeous but unfortunately are no longer there because of urban renewal. So much has been split up by more recent construction, and it’s hard to piece it together without looking at the old photographs.”
This isn’t the first time Slonneger has found inspiration in local history. She’s also compiled books about Iowa City’s Goosetown district (1999), and Isaac Wetherby (2006), whose 19th century home she had relocated to Governor Street after saving it from demolition near downtown. In 2012, she published a book about Iowa City’s famous Hamburg Inn, titled “The Burg: A Writers’ Diner.”
Urban Renewal – Really?
A Chicago native, Marybeth Slonneger moved to Iowa City in 1982 as a graduate student in art, at the tail end of the urban renewal era that saw blocks of downtown buildings demolished. She said she’s always had a curiosity about what the city looked like before she arrived. Today, she holds degrees in art history, book arts and photography, all of which have greatly influenced the beauty found in each of her four books.
For the latest project, Slonneger mined the State Historical Society’s massive archives for the vast majority of the photographs of downtown’s streetscapes and citizens, many of which have never before been printed. Dozens of other photos came from the University of Iowa’s Special Collections.
In addition to the images, Slonneger uncovered a number of compelling stories of Iowa City’s history, including the sale of a slave at a downtown hotel in the city’s early years, and the time abolitionist John Brown was accosted by a pro-slavery mob at the corner of Clinton and Washington streets. Another anecdote revolves around the time Mark Twain visited Iowa City while on a lecture tour in 1863, staying at one of the town’s earliest hotels. As the story goes, a hotel worker awoke Twain too early for his liking, leading the writer to pen a scathing review of the city. Twain later apologized for being so hard on his hosts!
“There’s always change,” Slonneger concedes, “but there’s also the beauty of retaining something with historic merit…I’ve left the argument open for people to look through and make up their own mind as to whether these things are beautiful enough, important enough and historic enough to hang on to.”
Slonneger hopes that Finials will serve as a reference point for downtown stakeholders for future preservation, planning or renovation efforts. More than anything, she hopes that it promotes a sense of shared ownership of Iowa City’s rich history and the buildings that have contributed to it. From my seat on the bench, Marybeth has succeeded at both goals!
Great work, fellow Iowa City historian…we look forward to more of your artistic work in the months and years ahead!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Here are Marybeth’s other two books on Iowa City history…