Our Iowa Heritage: The Old Stone Capitol.

1892 – Old Capitol. Take an insider’s look at Old Capitol today.

Old Capitol: The Icon of the University.

The Old Stone Capitol stands at the heart of the central campus, overlooking the Iowa River which divides the campus of the University of Iowa. Dr. Benjamin F. Shambaugh, in his classic book The Old Stone Capitol Remembers (1939), pays the following tribute…

Today (Old Capitol) is the most significant monument of the early history of Iowa. The story of its erection, its financial history, the legislative, judicial and educational memories that cluster around its walls, lend it a reverential distinction unparalleled by any other public building ever erected in the State.

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The Red Brick Campus: Building #1 – July 4, 1840 – present.

Location: Old Capitol sits at the center of what was originally called Capitol Square in the new territorial capital of Iowa City. The building was built to have two stately entrances, with the east side entrance being constructed first, and the west side entrance and lawn finally completed in the 1920’s. Old Capitol remains today as the iconic symbol of The University of Iowa, proudly standing at the center of The Pentacrest.

July 4, 1838 – Iowa Becomes a U.S. Territory. For those who don’t know the story, Iowa became a U.S. Territory on July 4, 1838. Dubuque and Burlington, bustling Mississippi River communities located to the far north and the far south, had served as territorial hubs in the past, but as Iowa, now a U.S. territory, expanded in population, its citizens insisted upon a more-centralized location for its new capitol city.

1839 – Iowa City Begins to Take Shape.

On January 21, 1839, Territorial Governor Robert Lucas issued the following decree:

An Act to locate the Seat of Government of the Territory of Iowa … so soon as the place shall be selected, and the consent of the United States obtained, the commissioners shall proceed to lay out a town to be called “Iowa City.”

By early May, those commissioners, Chauncey Swan, John Ronalds and Robert Ralston, were surveying Johnson County along the Iowa River in search of the perfect location. Their search ended on a rolling hillside just about 2 miles north of the little community of Napoleon, overlooking the Iowa River. On May 4, 1839, a small ceremony was held with a dedication stake being driven into the ground. It’s this spot where the new capitol building of Iowa Territory will be built. On the first map of Iowa City (July 4, 1839), this location is now called Capitol Square.

L. Judson’s 1839 proposed city map of Iowa City. Two months after the surveyors planted their stake — on July 4, 1839 — this first map of Iowa City situated in Township 79 North, Range 6 West of the 5th Meridian, was signed and approved.

Who Designed the Capitol?

Legend attributes the original design of the capitol building to Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, a Dominican missionary priest, who designed churches in the Territories of Iowa and Wisconsin. Although no verification has ever been made of this claim, the following passage appears in his Memoirs, dated in 1843, describing Old Capitol:

. . . a structure whose dimensions are 120 feet long by 60 feet wide, with three stories, the whole built of stone. This building situated upon a beautiful eminence on one side looks down upon the Iowa River, and from the other commands a view of the Capital City; it rises from the center of a great square; it towers above the ancient oaks surrounding it.

To set the record straight, it’s the name of John F. Rague that has been correctly recorded on the cornerstone as the supervising architect of the new capitol building. A contract for the design and construction of the building was let to Rague and his business partners on November 12, 1839 and the construction plans began immediately, with plans to lay the cornerstone on July 4, 1840.

July 4, 1840 – Dedicating the New Capitol’s Cornerstone.

Fast forward with me to July 4, 1840. Iowa City is now a community under construction. To celebrate both Independence Day and Iowa’s second birthday as a U.S. Territory, Johnson County pioneers gather on Capitol Square for a special ceremony. Territorial Governor Robert Lucas has come from Burlington to dedicate the cornerstone of the new capitol building. A few Native Americans who have remained in the vicinity attend the festivities as well.

Following the cornerstone ceremony, a community picnic is held in City Park featuring speeches by some of the city’s leading citizens. Reports indicate a barrel of Cincinnati whiskey, with a tin cup attached, serves as the podium for the speakers. Here, from Iowa historian, Benjamin Shambaugh, is the full story…

Building Old Capitol.

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 Margaret N. Keyes, who was the coordinator for the major restoration done on Old Capitol in the 1970’s, tells us more about the earliest days of the construction process…

Click here to read more about architect John F. Rague and his involvement with the construction process.

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Most of the Devonian limestone used in the construction of Old Capitol comes from the banks of the Iowa River. The first stone was taken from the site on which the President’s Home is now located, while the remainder of the four-ton blocks was quarried from bluffs near North Liberty, floated on barges to Iowa City, and then hauled by oxen to the construction site. Original floor joists, roof trusses and other supporting beams were hand-hewn from native oak.

Old Capitol, one-hundred and twenty feet north and south by sixty feet east and west, has foundation walls six feet in thickness and basement walls with a uniform width of four feet. The greater portion of the first and second floor outer wall is three feet thick. Doric columns adorn the portico entrance to Old Capitol, and Corinthian columns sustain the dome. Each portico is supported by four massive pillars. Stone pilasters nearly four feet wide ornament the east and west fronts. Inside the building, the swinging chandeliers with scores of crystal glass pendants are imposing to the visitor. An unusual reverse spiral staircase dominated the central hallways, and the building’s dome was first sheathed in copper.

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.

By 1842, four rooms in Old Capitol were completed, and the Iowa Legislative Assembly used the building for the first time in December of that year. The building was not completed, however, until after the state government, having just appropriated $4,000 to finish construction of Old Capitol (1855), moved to Des Moines in 1857.

Take a look at those early years when Old Capitol was the New Capitol.

Click here to read more about the move of the state capital from Iowa City to Des Moines.

There it stands the Old Stone Capitol – a work of art, radiating the spiritual values of simplicity and dignity, proportion and harmony, poise and tranquility. Benjamin F. Shambaugh

Again, we turn to historian Margaret N. Keyes to gives us an overview of this historic building…

1853-pentacrest
1854 – Old Capitol through the photographic lense of Isaac A. Wetherby.
1854 map.
“A Distant View of Iowa City” (from the north) as sketched by George H. Yewell in 1855. Click here to read more about George H. Yewell.
Click here to read about the many bells of Iowa City – including the bells of Old Capitol, the first being hung in the bell tower in 1862!
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April 19, 1865 – Old Capitol draped for memorial service for President Abraham Lincoln.
Late 1860’s. During these first years of University use, the faculty was held responsible for buildings and grounds. It was their duty to see that fuel, books, furniture and all of the essentials to maintain the University were on hand. One of the many duties of the janitor was to drive all livestock off the campus. Apparently the responsibility was not an easy one, for in 1862, the University president recommended the following resolution: That hereafter no horses, cattle or other stock shall be allowed upon the university grounds; and that until otherwise ordered the grounds and buildings of the university shall be under the control of the faculty of the university. Meanwhile, the faculty voted that “the janitor was authorized to purchase a dog at a cost not exceeding the sum of five dollars to assist him in keeping the yard clear of stock.”
Circa 1866 – Old Capitol as seen from the southeast. Describing the campus as it appeared in 1867, Thomas H. Benton wrote: What may be properly termed the college green consists of an oblong square of five acres in front of the buildings. It is covered with a rich sward of blue grass, and well studded with thrifty trees, among which are a number of large native oaks, with selections from the best varieties of the adjacent forests. The green is enclosed with a substantial iron fence, and is destined to excel in beauty the ornamental grounds of many of the older colleges. Some of the classes who have recently graduated conceived the excellent idea of commemorating the event by planting a tree on the college grounds. Several of these trees have already attained fair proportions, and a half century hence a few gray-headed men, by whose hands they were planted, will recline under their foliage, and recall the halcyon days and pleasant reminiscences of college life.
Circa 1882 – Oil painting by Frank Bond.

So. . . What Stands on this Spot Today?

The University of Iowa Campus looking west from Old Capitol and the Pentacrest.
Take a complete insider’s look at Old Capitol today.

Of this venerable building, Benjamin Shambaugh wrote…

With the passing of years the Old Stone Capitol has come to be looked upon as something more than a building, something more than stone and mortar moulded into forms that are pleasing to the eye. Somehow through the alchemy of time it seems to have acquired a kind of spiritual personality that speaks to us of memories – memories of bygone days – days when our Common­ wealth was young and our people were pioneers . . . All this and much more the Old Stone Capitol remembers.

Take a look at those early years when Old Capitol was the New Capitol.

Click here to take an inside look at Old Capitol as it appears today, courtesy of The University of Iowa Old Capitol Museum.

In his book, Iowa – Through the Years, published in 1940 by the State Historical Society, Cyremus Cole wrote. . .

The most historic and, in many ways, the most beautiful building in the state.

Here’s to The Old Stone Capitol . . . may she endure forever!


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 5, 8, 15, 17-18, 79-86

University of Iowa Libraries: Iowa Digital Library website

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

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

The Journals of George Henry Yewell, Oneita Fisher, University of Iowa, 1966

Irving Weber’s Iowa City, Irving Weber, Iowa City Lions Club, 1976, p 3

Irving Weber’s Iowa City – Volume 5, Irving Weber, Iowa City Lion’s Club, 1989, p 237

The Old Stone Capitol Remembers – When Iowa City Was Young, Benjamin F. Shambaugh, The State Historical Society, 1939. pp 116-119

John Francis Rague – Architect, Benjamin Shambaugh, Palimpsest – February 1967

University Square painting-1882, Frank Bond, Facing East and Facing West – Iowa’s Old Capitol Museum, Linzie Kull McCray & Thomas Langdon (2007) University of Iowa Press, p viii


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