Mechanics Academy: The Cradle of the University.
The Mechanics Academy is all about firsts. Not only did this little building host the first University of Iowa classes (mathematics and languages in the spring of 1855), but it also served as the first home for both University Hospitals and Mercy Hospital (1873 – 1897), the first location of the University of Iowa Library (1855 – 1859), and the first office of the State of Iowa Historical Society (1862 -1865). This Georgian-styled two-story brick building had a high degree of symmetry, prominent end chimneys built into the brick walls, and a central cupola of wood rising above the roof over the second story. Just think of it. All this history found in one small footprint that measured only 54.5 x 26.5 feet!
The Red Brick Campus: Building #2 – 1842 – 1897.
Location: Mechanics Academy was built two blocks east of Old Capitol, in the middle of the block directly east of City Park (off Linn Street – between Iowa Avenue and Jefferson St). The building’s entrance faced west and was replaced with the southwest section of East Hall/Seashore Hall in 1898.
The Mechanics’ Mutual Aid Association.
The Academy was built by the Mechanics of Iowa City to house the school of the Mechanics’ Mutual Aid Association, which was organized on January 6, 1841. A mechanic was any tradesman, craftsman, or technician, and included carpenters, masons, and stone workers. Like other mutual aid associations, this one served as a form of insurance. The funds raised by members served to take care of sick members and paid for funerals. In addition, the association founded a school and library, among the first in the state and said to be among the best built. The building also served as a space for meetings for functions as varied as religious services, temperance meetings, and the organization of the corporation for the Mill located upstream from Iowa City, at the present location of Iowa River Power Company/Coralville. A great many trades and craftsmen had come to Iowa City to build the new capitol building, which was underway at the time the association was organized.
The original members were James N. Ball, A.H. Haskell, A.G. Adams, L.S. Swafford, E. Lanning, Thomas Combe, Thomas Record, Francis Thompson, and Abraham Burkholder. Within one year, membership had increased to sixty.
The Mechanics’ Association applied for a grant from the State Legislature for land to construct a school building on the city block known as the “School Reserve east of City Park.” On January 3, 1842, at a legislature meeting held in Iowa City at Butler’s temporary capitol, a grant was given for the free use of the south half of the west half of block 60 with the one condition of donation being that the property be used for educational and literary purposes only. The remaining part of the “School Reserve” (north half of the west half of block 60) was donated to the Association in 1844.
Plans for construction began immediately, with the cornerstone being laid on June 14, 1842, with Rev. John Libby, a Protestant Methodist minister, giving the address at the ceremony. Labor and materials were largely donated by members of the group so that an actual cash expenditure of only $50 was required, though the building was supposed to represent a $1,000 investment.
Lumber was obtained from Henry Felkner’s mill at Rapid Creek, three miles north of Iowa City. Carpenter work was done by A. H. Haskell, L. A. Swafford, Thomas Combe, Thomas M. Banbury, Robert Hutchinson, Seth Williams, S. M. Wadley, H. P. Sexton, Hugh V. Gildee, J. B. Hollingsworth and George Bowman. Sylvanus Johnson, Charles E. Sangster and Thomas B. Anthony served as brick masons. Francis Thompson was the stone cutter. Plastering was done by James M. Hawkins and Asa Beckwith, and E. J. Lork and C. Cartrett did the inside painting. In return for their labor, all the men received shares in the ownership of the building.
Sylvanus Johnson, Iowa City’s first brickmaker, was a Connecticut native who worked in his father’s brickyard before moving to Iowa in 1837. Johnson made much of the brick used in the earliest years of The Red Brick Campus at his brickyard in Outlot 24 at the corner of Burlington and Gilbert Streets.
Keeping the Academy Afloat (1842 – 1855).
When completed in October 1842, the Mechanics Academy was the finest school building in all the Territory. With both a male and female department led by three top-quality teachers brought in from the east, the school was in operation for about two school sessions, boasting an enrollment of 120 pupils. In a published announcement in June 1843, the following description of the school was printed in an Iowa City newspaper…
“The Academy edifice is beautifully situated on the East side of the park, in the centre of the city. It is entirely new, and the superiority of its size and style of architecture never fails to attract the favorable notice of strangers. Surrounded by prairie scenery too splendid for description, and favored by a pure and salubrious atmosphere, this Institution enjoys advantages seldom combined . . . Scholars can be accomodated with board on the most reasonable terms, and the Trustees assure the public that every exertion will be made by the Mechanics’ Mutual Aid Association, to make their Academy one of the best Literary Institutions in the Valley of the Mississippi.”
Sadly, despite the good press, the Academy was short lived. With other private and public schools opening at the same time, the Association struggled to keep the school financially solvent, especially since tuition was paid not in cash, but in goods or labor of the families of the students. In 1845, with finances very tight, the upper floor was leased to the Masonic Lodge of Iowa City, and they, in turn, subleased it to the Odd Fellows the following year. All of this sub-leasing put the property in danger since the State had originally given the land to the Association under the condition that it only be used for educational and literary purposes.
But in 1847, a solution was beginning to take shape. On February 25, 1847, the State of Iowa officially recognized the new State University of Iowa, the first seat of higher learning in Iowa. But since little money was set aside for the school’s development and Old Capitol had not yet been vacated by the state legislature, very little happened until 1855. But at a meeting of the Board of Trustees on May 8, 1855, the Building Committee was instructed to secure rented classroom space from the Academy. A lease was quickly signed for 25 dollars per month (300 dollars per year) for five years to house the SUI Normal Department (teaching high school graduates to be teachers) and a Library. That spring (1855), the first SUI classes in mathematics and languages began and the Mechanics’ Association was finally off the financial hook!
The Little Bell That Could (1845 – 1897).
The first bell to chime in Iowa City was purchased in 1845 by the Mechanic’s Association for $76.45 from the First Presbyterian Church. (see Iowa City Press Citizen story). When SUI classes began in Mechanics Academy (1855), the bell rang to promote punctuality for students. Today this bell, dated 1844, is displayed in Old Capitol Museum.
The Emerging University Library (1855-1859).
As the University moved in, the effort to build a school library began. On May 7, 1855, a short letter from the Office of Public Instruction to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC stated:
Our university is but in its infancy, the present being the first Session of the University proper. We are wishing to collect a Library as fast as possible, and as this is the only one of your Const which we have, can you not furnish us with the previous 5 volumes? If so please direct to Iowa City.
It is unknown if these volumes were ever sent from Washington, but in November of 1855, approximately 50 books were received from the School President Amos Dean in New York, and they were put on display in the Academy in a four-by-four side room. Thus was started the University’s Library!
After eleven years of renting, permanent University use of the building was secured in 1866 when arrangements were made with Chief of Police Robert Hutchinson, by this time the primary owner of the building, to trade a house and lot which the University owned on College Street in return for the Academy.
As the University grew, classes moved into the newly-built South Hall and North Hall, and the recently renovated Old Capitol while the Academy was converted into dormitory use. The larger rooms were divided into smaller ones to accommodate two students to a room. The work in this remodeling was not to exceed $500. Authorization was also given to insure the building. Dormitory preference was given to members of the Syntrapazone Club, one of the bachelor living clubs on campus, and thus Mechanics Academy acquired the nickname of Syntrap. It continued to be used as a dormitory until March of 1873 when the newly formed Medical School was authorized to take over the building for a practicing hospital.
From Syntrap to Mercy Hospital (1873 – 1897).
In the late 1860s, a prominent Davenport surgeon named Washington F. Peck initiated efforts to create a medical college in Iowa City. With support from Judge John F. Dillon (a patient of Peck’s and a graduate of the Davenport, IA medical college) and the Honorable John P. Irish (Iowa City newspaper editor, state legislator, and a member of the university Board of Trustees), the Iowa City medical department gained approval as the official University medical college in 1870. Read more about the College of Medicine here.
In 1873, four Sisters of Mercy traveled from Davenport by train, carrying as many furnishings and medical supplies as they could manage. They came at the invitation of Dr. Peck, who wanted the Sisters to establish a hospital in Iowa City. Such a hospital would provide a facility where medical students could gain clinical experience and the Sisters could pursue their mission of caring for the poor and sick.
When the Sisters arrived at the Iowa City train station, a kindly local farmer offered to take them to their final destination in his wagon. The Sisters were greeted by Dr. Peck and set to work immediately, cleaning and refurbishing Mechanics Academy. Within three weeks, on September 27, 1873, the new Mercy Hospital admitted its first patient—a gentleman with tuberculosis.
The University Reporter printed the following description of the University’s first hospital:
This hospital is old “Syntrap” reconstructed and much modified. Glancing at the building as we walked down the ’Avenue’ (Iowa Avenue), we were quite favorably impressed. The old, dingy, battered walls of “Syntrap” have been repaired and nicely painted. Good substantial steps, leading to the doors at either end of the main building, have been substituted for the old rickety ones so promiscuously carved by the penknives of ’the boys.’ The rear, or frame part of the building, has been raised to an equal height with the main part, and a broad covered stairway connects the upper story of this to the first floor of the main building. The floor of this entrance is covered with scrupulously clean oil-cloth; a valuable clock hangs upon the nicely tinted wall, while a table with a chair or two complete the furniture of the room. A door at the east of this room opens into the RECEPTION ROOM. This room is, in size, about 14 x 24 feet. The walls are ornamented with pictures. A nice substantial carpet is upon the floor. A table stands at either side of the room, upon one of which rests a Bible and upon the other a visitors’ register. Adjoining this room, at the south, is a small room partially furnished, but not yet assigned in specific use. We pass from this room again into the entrance, and, passing through a door at our right, enter the MALE WARD. This ward, although quite narrow, is very long, and gives abundant space for the six beds it contains. The bedding upon these beds, was laid so smoothly and perfectly, the walls of the room so spotlessly white, the floor so thoroughly scrubbed and clean, and the stove so well blacked and polished, that we concluded that the ladies having it in charge were experienced hands at the business. This ward, at present, has but one patient.
From this room a wide door-way at the east side, opens to the stairs which lead to the clinical LECTURE HALL, the which measures about 25 x 40 feet. The walls are sixteen feet high at either side, while the ceiling in the center rises a number of feet higher. This hall, when finished, will be exactly what our medical department has long needed. It is abundantly lighted by several large windows, while on the south side is also a large bay window and an outside entrance for the students. The operating table will be placed directly in front of the bay-window, around which the seats will be arranged in amphitheater style. Dispensary is not yet completely furnished with the conveniences such a room requires, but will be shortly. A stairway from this room leads to the BASEMENT. which is divided into two equal divisions by an east and west hall through its center. One of these divisions is used exclusively as a kitchen. It is furnished with a fine, large cook-stove, cupboards, tables and a large variety of utensils necessary for the full equipment of such a room. The other side of the basement, on the south side of the hall, is again divided into two fine rooms by a partition passing from north to south. One of these rooms is used as a dining-room, the other as a store-room. From the east end of the hall is an entrance to the first floor of the frame building, directly under clinic hall. This floor is divided into several rooms, for the occupancy of the ‘sisters,’ and a small chapel, also for their exclusive use. The female ward has about the same dimensions and accommodations as the male ward. There are also four moderately sized rooms for private patients. Two of these are nicely finished and furnished, and one of them occupied. The floor of the hall from which these rooms open, is covered with heavy matting, thus doing away with the greater part of the noise occasioned by the passing to and fro of physicians, nurses and visitors.
Saying Good-Bye to the Academy (1897 – 1898).
By the late 1890’s, the College of Medicine had grown to such a degree, the University decided to step away from its agreement with the Sisters of Mercy, expanding into their own state-sponsored 65-bed hospital. On January 20, 1897, the University advertised for the sale and removal of the “Old Medical Hospital” and soon after, Mechanics Academy, the Cradle of the University, gave way to construction of the first wing (SW) of the new University Hospital.
One report states that canes and gavels were made out of the razed timbers of Mechanics Academy. Canes were sent to members of the State Legislature, while the gavels were distributed to presidents of various Iowa colleges.
The new University Hospital opened on January 11, 1898 while the Sisters of Mercy went on to form what is now Mercy Hospital of Iowa City, first utilizing the nearby Dostal House for their new home.
While the Mechanics Academy is, sadly, no longer with us, the original cornerstone, which was also used as the cornerstone in the first University Hospital (1898), is now embedded in the wall of the east entrance of the present day Medical Laboratories Building (1927) located in the Hospital complex on the west side of the river.
So. . . What Stands on this Spot Today?
For an ever-expanding University, time never stands still. As we’ve discussed here, Mechanics Academy was replaced in 1898 by what became the SW section of the new University Hospital. More additions came in several installments; the southeast wing being completed in 1906, the northwest wing in 1912, and the northeast wing and an addition to the central portion being built in 1914.
When University Hospital moved to the west side of the river (1928), the buildings became known as East Hall, and then in 1981, was renamed Seashore Hall. Serving the University as a longtime multipurpose facility, slowly over the decades, sections of Seashore Hall have been razed, with the final portions of the building going down between 2018 – 2021. In Spring 2020, the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, long overdue for updated facilities, began classes in its new building at the original site of Mechanics Academy.
Appropriately, just a half black south of what would have been the Academy’s front door, stands the bronze statue of Iowa City’s most famed historian, Irving B. Weber.
Here’s to the Mechanics Academy . . . gone, but never forgotten!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.