Our Iowa Heritage: Science Hall (Calvin Hall).

Science Hall (Calvin Hall): The University’s Only Mobile Home.

Science Hall, known as well as the Geology Building, is a three-story red-brick building, 114 by 74 feet, and was built in 1884 for the purpose of housing the sciences. The original cost of the structure was around $50,000. To make room for the new Hall of Natural Science (Macbride Hall), Science Hall was moved during the summer of 1905, inch by inch over a distance of 200 feet to its present location on the corner of Capital and Jefferson Streets. Today, Calvin Hall, as it is now known, stands as the sole surviving relic of the Red Brick Campus that once was.

The Red Brick Campus: Building #6 – 1884 – present.

Location: The Science Hall is unique to the University campus by having two different locations! When first built (1884), it was located north and east of Old Capitol and North Hall, on what was, at that time, called University Square (The Pentacrest). At this location (1884-1905) Science Hall, like Old Capitol, faced east. But in its new location at 5 West Jefferson Street, Calvin Hall was rotated 90 degrees to the south, making the front entrance face southward!

1884: A Scientific Strategy.

As we’ve discussed in earlier posts, the State University of Iowa, in the latter part of the 18th century, badly needed additional facilities to accommodate the expanding needs of a growing University. In 1881, the State Board of Regents approved an $80,000 appropriation for the construction of two new buildings on campus. By 1882, the new Medical Building became the first of those two new facilities.

In this 1883 publication, we find the beginnings of The Red Brick Campus. 1. Old Capitol, 2. South Hall, 3. North Hall, 4. Observatory #1, 5. Mechanics Academy (Hospital), 6. Homeopathic Medicine #1, 7. Armory/Power Plant (immediately SW of Old Capitol), 8. Medical Building.

In 1883, the Board further defined that second building by approving an additional funding of $45,000 for a science building: “one new building for the better accommodations of said University in the school of Science,” and $5,600 for “steam heating, plumbing and gas fitting in said building.” R. S. Finkbine of Des Moines was employed as architect to draw up plans and specifications, for which he received payment of $700. Opening of bids occurred on June 20, 1884 and Sheets and Company of Iowa City won the contract at a bid of $39,955.

Construction on Science Hall began in 1884 and was completed in 1885.

The Burlington Hawkeye, on February 7, 1886, devoted its entire issue to the State University and made the following remarks in regard to Science Hall, which once had been designated as “the deserted Palace.”

Its design shows care and forethought, directed to a practical purpose, and its workmanship and materials are excellent. Taken as a whole, within and without, it is neat, sub­stantial and convenient, and presents the nearest approach to elegance to be found in any of the University buildings; yet it every where bears evidence of having been constructed with an eye to economy.

Getting Caught Up in Small Matters.

Science Hall with North Hall and Dental Building – all north of Old Capitol.

Over the next decade, the Board was frequently confronted with trivial matters in regard to keeping the University buildings equipped. Thomas H. Macbride, at that time a professor of botany, wrote the following message to Secretary William J. Haddock, dated August 22, 1891, “We need five window curtains for windows on the second floor of the science building. The material is not expensive, and I believe the entire cost will fall within ten dollars. What can you do for us?” Again in 1894, Samuel Calvin, Thomas H. Macbride, C. C. Nutting, B. Shimek and Gilbert Houser, all of the faculty of the Science Department, together made the following plea to Secretary Haddock:

The engine in the basement of the science building is to us the source of unceasing annoyance. During the time it is in motion, no work with the finer microscopes can be done on the second floor and none with any microscope on the third. Besides, the soot and dirt from the engine-room and sometimes the smoke permeates the whole house and makes it impossible to keep our collections clean. In addition to this, our valuable collections are constantly endangered by the shops in the basement. It is needless to say that our collections are in many ways unique and could not be replaced.

1895 Geology Classroom in Science Hall.
A crowded University Square.

All the while, the University kept growing and the Board of Regents was becoming less and less effective in putting together long-range plans while being consumed with smaller, day-to-day needs. In the process, the University failed to have any long-range facility plan, leaving the central campus looking more like a checkerboard of eclectic red-bricked buildings.

A New Direction for the Future.

In October 1897, President Charles A. Schaeffer (1887-1898) addressed these on-going facility issues by announcing a competition for designing a new Hall of Liberal Arts: one that would set a new precedent in architecture and style. The Board hired as judge Henry Van Brundt of Kansas City, one of the architects of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Van Brundt chose a scheme in the grand style of the Chicago exhibition and recommended that the new building be built on the south east quadrant of University Square, with construction beginning in 1898.

In 1900, new University president, George MacLean, (1899-1911) picked up on Schaeffer’s ideas and proposed a dramatic “New University” plan to eliminate all of the existing buildings surrounding Old Capitol, replacing them with three fine buildings similar in size and style to the new Liberal Arts Building. In a letter to the president of the University of Oklahoma, MacLean wrote:

The overwhelming majority of universities have hodge podge buildings which are dropped here and there like ostrich eggs in the sand . . . at great cost, we are rescuing this university from these defects.

To say the least, MacLean’s plan was quite controversial, but as fate had it, the massive fire on March 10, 1901 that destroyed both South Hall and the Medicine Building, brought an immediate urgency to the President’s “New University” proposal, and the long road to today’s Pentacrest had begun!

1904 – Laying the cornerstone for the new Hall of Natural Science (MacBride Hall) with Science Hall looking on.

A Moving Idea.

MacLean’s first step in instituting his “New University” plan was to begin construction of a Hall of Natural Science (1904) on the northeast corner of University Square, opposite the Hall of Liberal Arts (Schaeffer Hall). While the idea of new stately stone buildings replacing the “hodge podge” of old, worn out fire-traps on campus was met with excitement, the reality for a new Natural Science building meant that the University’s most recent facility, Science Hall (1884), would need to be razed! As one might imagine, the public outcry was immediate, with the loudest dissenters being the staff of the Science Department, with Professors Samuel Calvin, Thomas H. Macbride, and C. C. Nutting* taking the lead by proposing, what would become, the greatest engineering wonder in the history of the State of Iowa:

Move Science Hall, which weighs 6,000 tons, from its present location on University Square, 200 feet to the north and west, crossing Jefferson and Capitol Streets, turning it 90 degrees to the south, and then resettle it on its new foundation; all while University classes continue to meet in the building!

Charles C. Nutting, Thomas Macbride, Samuel Calvin – “The Great Triumvirate”

Iowa City historian, Irving Weber, put the proposed move this way…

Some critics (of the plan) said they might as well try moving Old Capitol to the moon; others said it was a plot to assure the building would be torn down after all. But MacBride, Calvin, (and Nutting), ignored the critics and found a Chicago firm, L.P. Friestedt and Co., who said it could be done with screw-jacks.

In April 1905, a crew of skilled men came from Chicago. Following them, also on the Rock Island Railroad, were 800 jack-screws, 675 6-inch rollers (4 feet long) and 27 carloads of wooden timbers to be used as cribbing under the building as it was moved. The job took from April into August 1905, moving at a pace of two feet per day, and all of Iowa City and the University served as sidewalk superintendents. And, all the while, not a single Science class had to be dismissed, not a test tube was upset, nor one crack in the building develop!

In the November 1905 edition of the Iowa Alumnus, we find this interesting tidbit…

One of the most interesting features of the movement was that of turning the building on its axis as it moved forward. In order to pass another building (Old Dental Building) a one-eighth turn was necessary, and a back turn necessary in order to bring the building over the new foundation. The turning movement was accomplished by ‘cutting’ the rollers, and the adjustment of the rollers was so nicely done that the double movement landed the building almost exactly on the required spot.

So. . . What Stands on this Spot Today?

MacBride Hall.

Science Hall was moved off University Square in 1905 to make way for the Natural Science Building (later named Macbride Hall), the second building of the four classics surrounding Old Capitol in today’s Pentacrest.

A Red Brick Beauty.

A major factor behind the decision to move Calvin Hall was its Italiante red-brick exterior, which was out of place on the developing Pentacrest. The resources expended in that transfer illustrate the University’s commitment to campus architecture; not only did the administration carry through the plan for a limestone Beaux-Arts Classicism theme for the buildings surrounding the Old Capitol, it also recognized the worth of Calvin Hall and expended the resources needed to retain the older structure. The building is the oldest university building, excepting Old Capitol, and the best example of the buildings that once populated the Pentacrest. Today, Calvin Hall stands as the sole surviving relic of the Red Brick Campus that once was.

Samuel Calvin

After moving into its new location in 1905, Science Hall became known as Geology Hall. In 1964, the building was renamed Calvin Hall, in remembrance of the distinguished faculty member who taught at the University from 1873 to 1911. Samuel Calvin, was a geologist and curator of the Museum of Natural History. Today, Calvin Hall contains a variety of student services offices. A boulder beneath the south facade commemorates the 1855 decision to admit women on the same basis as men; Iowa was the first state university west of the Mississippi River to do so.

Here’s to Science Hall, now Calvin Hall . . . thanks for the “moving” memories!


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 123-127

University of Iowa Libraries: Iowa Digital Library website

History of Johnson County, Iowa Containing a History of the County, and Its Townships, Cities, and Villages from 1836-1882, author & publisher unknown w/ quotes from early settlers Cyrus Sanders, Henry Felkner, Iowa City, 1883, p 72.

Inspire – Architecture 101 – Chapter Two: Calvin Hall website

A Pictorial History of the University of Iowa: An Expanded Edition, John C. Gerber, University of Iowa Press, 2005, p 78

Saving Calvin Hall: The Back Story, James Hall, Iowa Heritage Illustrated, Fall 2006, pp 122-125

On Iowa, Irving Weber, University of Iowa Press, 1996, pp 37-39

The Iowa City Past website


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