Our Iowa Heritage: North Hall.

North Hall: The Grandfather of the University.

North Hall was constructed in 1865, to be used, in part, as a University Chapel. The original recommendation, made by Governor Samuel Kirkwood, requested funds for a chemistry laboratory, chapel and astronomical observatory, and over the years, North Hall, the two-and-a-half-story, red-brick classic, certainly became a multi-use facility. Until it was demolished during the summer of 1949, its greatest distinction was that of being the oldest existing structure actually built for the University’s use – grandfathered into on-going campus purposes from its glory days to 1949. During its lifetime, North Hall was also called Chapel Hall and Library Hall.

The Red Brick Campus: Building #4 – 1865 – 1949.

Location: North Hall, as the name describes, was located directly north of Old Capitol (called Central Hall at the time), on what was by this time (1865), re-named University Square (The Pentacrest). Unlike Old Capitol and South Hall, North Hall’s main entrance faced south, but it did have an east side entrance as well, accessing the first-floor and basement levels where the Physical Science Department was located.

1864 – Governor Kirkwood Casts a Lofty Vision.

By 1864, the University was in successful operation, using Old Capitol (Central Hall) and Mechanics Academy for all University functions, and the newly built South Hall as a dormitory. But Governor Samuel Kirkwood, looking forward, stressed the need for more room, asking for a large assembly hall, a laboratory for chemistry and philosophy, and an observatory. All of these were to be included in one building. Kirkwood devoted a major portion of his Second Biennial Address to the needs of the University, stating:

There are no suitable rooms for the Chemical Laboratory. This, to our agricultural State, is, perhaps the most important department of our University. Chemistry is becoming daily a more liberal contributor to agricultural knowledge and success; and the advancement of chemical science in our State, through the State University, should be especially encouraged. Our University will not be complete until it shall have an Astronomical Observatory connected with it. This has already become a prominent feature of the University of Michigan, and the demands of our more western location will soon require it of us. A building may be erected to answer all these purposes at much less cost than to provide for them separately.

The Legislature appointed a committee, made up of B. F. Hildreth and R. Sears from the House and I. B. Young from the Senate, to investigate the need for a new building at the State University. It was agreed that the request for a chapel and chemistry laboratory was a reasonable demand. By an act of March 24, 1864, a sum of $20,000 was appropriated from the Tenth General Assembly for the new college building. It was to provide, according to the law, for a chapel, chemical laboratory, and astronomical observatory. Plans for the observatory tower were abandoned when it was found that it would necessitate an additional expenditure of approximately $3500. But, like many of the other building appropriations, the original grant proved insufficient for completion of the building. Governor Stone put his signature to a bill in the following year (1865) appropriating an additional $13,000 to finish Chapel Hall, including the installation of a heating apparatus. Even then, individual donations of land and materials amounting to $7,000 were required to finish, the building.

In what may be the oldest recorded image of North Hall, the building appears nearing completion. The photo was most likely recorded by Isaac Wetherby in early 1866.

A University Chapel with a Stained Glass Window.

The cornerstone for North Hall was laid on July 4, 1865, and by the fall of 1865, the building had been enclosed at a cost of $22,150. According to the original specifications, North Hall was to measure sixty-one feet east and west by ninety feet north and south, the first story being fifteen feet high and the second story twenty-seven feet from floor to ceiling. The basement walls were to be of limestone with the upper walls made of red brick. The main entrance to the building (south side) had a vestibule thirteen feet wide. The chapel room itself measured fifty-eight feet by seventy-four feet, with a gallery twelve feet wide across one end.

The Iowa City Republican noted:

We understand the means in the hands of the building committee will entirely enclose the building, putting in the stained glass windows, and making the outside complete. The north and south circular windows are to be highly ornamental. The south window will be ornamented with the great Seal of Iowa. The north one will have various devices, illustrative of the arts and sciences. This building, when complete, will be an honor to the State and will do great credit to those who had charge of its erection.

1866: From a Dog Kennel to an Elegant Ornamentation.

Slightly more than a year later, on October 6, 1866, at 2:30 P.M., the dedication program was held, with Rev. Hebard of the Congregational Church officiating. The next day, The State Press commented:

The new chapel is one of the most complete in the State; the ornamentation is elegant, and the acoustic arrangement is perfect. We visited the chemical laboratory which has been arranged under the supervision of Prof. Hinrichs, and is most complete in all its appointments.

This expression of approval could be considered a triumph for the University, for the same paper had been hypercritical on two former occasions:

The new building at the University erected, we believe for a chapel and laboratory, is enclosed. It is the most barn-like public structure we ever saw; it looks like a cross between a dog kennel and a country church. (December 6, 1865)

The workmen are engaged in finishing the mill in the University grounds which is to be used for a chapel. We have seen logboards and clapboard school houses, but never yet was it our fortune to see such an abortion in the shape of a public building as this. (May 6, 1866)

North Hall opened in 1866.

North Hall: Be Quiet. Be Careful. Be Certain.

The first floor was given over to the Department of Physical Sciences, containing lecture rooms and offices, with the basement set aside for a chemical laboratory that was accessed through a separate entrance on the east side of the building.

1874 – The Physical Science Department on the steps of North Hall.

In the basement were: “the lathes, planer, drill press, etc. of a fairly complete machine shop, also a number of dynamos. Power is furnished by a gas engine. One room contains a battery of some forty-five accumulators. There is also a photometer room, an electrical laboratory, and a wood-working room.”

Second Floor Chapel – Library.

On the second floor of North Hall was the University Chapel, where chapel exercises with singing, scripture reading and prayers were conducted on a daily basis. Attendance at these exercises was compulsory for both students and faculty through 1879. Due to the unpredictability of the heating apparatus, however, one campus humorist suggested that “In Greenland’s Icy Mountains” would be an appropriate hymn!

North Hall: Host to Student & Faculty Walk Arounds.

Cinder walks and locust trees adorned the campus surrounding North Hall in those early days of the University. Commencement exercises were held in North Hall in 1867. The Baconian Club, one of the early faculty organizations, held its meetings there, the faculty members taking turns attending the wood burning stoves. Rhetoricals were frequently held in the chapel room, as well as Friday evening “sociables” with promenading by the students and faculty. These “Walk Arounds,” as they were termed, were one of the popular activities on the student schedule.

One student, C. T. W. Patrick, gives the following description:

I attended the University Walk Arounds several times. This was an institution to provide the students with an innocent form of social entertainment. The Walk Arounds were held in the second story of the North Hall, where the chapel exercises and other University assemblies were held. A young man asked a young woman to walk and the couples marched around
the whole extent of the room.

The student newspaper advertised the sociables in verse which, though of doubtful poetic worth, give a vivid description of the activities at the party:

Let’s have a sociable next Saturday night, and come out early with the customary delight.

Professors, teachers, new students and all, let us mingle together in Chapel Hall.

We hope the introductory committee will attend to the diffident, so that all new students will not feel indifferent.

Though the latter is most pleasant in our estimation, let the order be marching, singing, and conversation.

And when the evening is well spent with much wordology, let the Dr. dismiss us with the usual doxology.

Writing on the social worth of these get-togethers, one student editor commented:

Our sociable seems to be an indispensable part of our exercises. Students are apt to, and indeed do neglect, to a great extent the cultivation of their social natures, from which they must derive the real enjoyments of life. During the school days, we meet only in the capacity of teachers and pupils in the classroom, and necessarily, know but little of each other. It is indeed pleasant to have the floor of our beautiful and spacious Chapel cleared of the settees and spend the Saturday evening on once or oftener, each month. The old organ sounds no less reverently at our Chapel exercises, for having furnished an accompaniment for some gleeful quartette or a schottische or quick step for the promenades. Come out teachers with your families, and students with your friends, on Saturday evening, February 20, and let us have another pleasant time together.

University Library in North Hall.

1882 – 1901: Home to the Growing University Library.

In the summer of 1882, the University Library, in desperate need of additional space, relocated from its limited office in Old Capitol (1859 – 1882) into North Hall, making the north half of the chapel into library stacks, while the south half served as a combined reading room and chapel. Eventually, the stained glass window was replaced with clear class to improve the lighting. Those in charge of the Library made repeated requests in their annual reports to the Regents that North Hall was unsafe for the University’s growing collection of books, and that a fireproof library building was badly needed. Sadly, those recommendations were never acted upon.

June 19, 1897 – Lightning Strikes North Hall.

In the early morning hours (4:00 am) of Saturday, June 19, 1897, an almost fatal blow was dealt North Hall when the chimney on the southwest corner of the building was struck by lightning. The second floor, where the University Library was located, was completely destroyed by the resulting fire, while the Physical Science Department on the first floor, suffered heavy losses to equipment, with great damage being done by water and by the hurried removal of fragile instruments.

Sadly, the very first Iowa City fireman to lose his life in the line of duty, died while fighting the fire. Lycurgus “Kirk” Leek, of the Protection Engine and Hose Company No. 1, was on the second floor, attempting to remove the Library’s card index trays, when the roof collapsed, trapping him.

Burned out second floor Library.

The University Vidette-Reporter said this…

In about three hours, the largest and most comprehensive Library in the State was reduced to 4,500 volumes that were saved from the conflagration. Many rare and costly works were lost that can never be replaced.

In all, approximately 25,000 of the 33,600 volumes and 15,000 pamphlets were destroyed, along with the shelf list and catalog cards.  Also destroyed were the Tallant and German libraries, and part of the Talbot collection. In the 1899 Hawkeye yearbook, Ellen M. Rich, wife of Librarian Joseph Rich, wrote a dramatic account of the fire. 

Book cases, with their precious freight, were precipitated to the floor and ignited.  It was a wild scene of the fiery elements never to be forgotten.

Besides books, also destroyed in the fire were: class memorials such as a visitor register and its “artistic stand,” from the class of 1893, and a mahogany clock presented by the class of 1894; portraits of presidents of the University and large photographs of several of the early professors of the University; plaster busts of Homer, Shakespeare, Scott, Goethe, and Franklin; a silk flag given by the girls of the University to the boys who went out as hundred-day men during the Civil War; a plaster cast of the Rosetta Stone; and the inter-class cup.

The salvaged books were taken to the basement of the Unitarian Church (Unity Hall), and by October when repairs had been completed, the library moved back into North Hall, remaining there until moving into the new Hall of Liberal Arts (Schaeffer Hall) in 1901.

1897 – 1949 Grandfathered Into Multi-Purpose Use.

Repairs began immediately after the fire, but North Hall never looked the same after the 1897 fire. The original gable roof with chimneys was replaced with a flat slate roof, and within a few months, the building was back on-line, serving the University without missing a beat. In 1912, the Home Economics Department established their headquarters in North Hall after the Physical Science laboratory moved out.

North Hall during World War I – 1918.

Later, the School of Music and the Department of Speech made their offices in North Hall until the building was vacated and given over to storage purposes in 1942. No longer did students gather there for daily chapel services. No more did it serve for classes, lectures, or experimental plays. North Hall had lost all the glory of its pioneer days.

Historian Katherine Bates, writing in 1949, said this of North Hall:

Over eighty years of service to the University have seen changes in North Hall. The latter day observer noticed missing window panes and fallen plaster. In the former chapel room on the second floor stood a high-backed chair, its leather upholstery worn and ripped; it was, perhaps, used by the presiding officer at those early chapel services. Surplus material from World War II occupied the main floor: mattresses, filing cabinets, desks, textbooks, even a washing machine. The west door had been boarded up, leaving only the east door accessible. North Hall has had a varied and colorful history. Few other University of Iowa buildings have housed as many departments or could boast of as many activities as North Hall witnessed. Until it was demolished and removed during the summer of 1949 its greatest distinction was that of being the oldest existing structure actually built for the University’s use. Few students recognized the description written in 1866

“The finest audience room in Iowa. Few superior in the Northwest. Its spacious dimensions, frescoed walls, stained glass windows, with emblematic representations, make up a hall that is a credit to the great State that has erected it.”

So. . . What Stands on this Spot Today?

Razed in 1949, the spot where North Hall stood is an open grassy area between MacBride Hall and Jessup Hall.

Here’s to North Hall . . . gone, but never forgotten.


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

History of the State University of Iowa: Aspects of the Physical Structure, Katherine V. Bates, MA (Master of Arts) thesis, State University of Iowa, 1949, pp 15-17, 104-115

University of Iowa Libraries: Iowa Digital Library website

University of Iowa Libraries: History of the Libraries website

A Pictorial History of the University of Iowa: An Expanded Edition, John C. Gerber, University of Iowa Press, 2005, p 27

Iowa City Fire Department History website


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