Our Iowa Heritage: When Old Capitol Was The New Capitol: 1841-1857.

As we’ve discussed in earlier posts, when the Iowa Territorial Legislature first met in Burlington (1838), it was decided that a new capital city would be needed. The Territory was growing rapidly, and the new Territorial Governor, Robert Lucas, was certain that as Iowa continued to expand westward, it wouldn’t be too long before the Territory of Iowa would become the State of Iowa.

In preparation for that growth, it was decided that a new capital city should be chosen, since the temporary capital of Burlington was located so far south and east of where that new expansion was happening. So, rather than pick an existing community, a political hot potato indeed, the Legislature decided it best to start a whole new city from scratch, calling it Iowa City long before there ever was one!

Iowa City as it most likely looked like in 1839.

Once the location of Iowa City was chosen (Johnson County in 1839), the work of constructing a new capitol building began. You can read about that process here, but suffice to say, because of a limited budget, a reluctant architect, and difficult building conditions, the construction process was slow, at best. Work on the new capitol building began in the spring of 1840, but even by the fall of 1841, the facility was still not ready for the Territorial Legislature to move in.

Thanks to our Iowa City hero, Walter Butler, a temporary building was put up quickly (affectionately called Butler’s Capitol), thus the Fourth Iowa Territorial Legislative Session (1841-1842) convened here on December 6, 1841. Click here to read more.

Work on the new capitol building continued, and finally, on December 1, 1842, Iowa City had its new capitol building ready enough for the Territorial Legislature to meet here, beginning with their fifth session… but just barely.

Again, because of limited funding, our new Stone Capitol was not really completed until the mid-1850’s, just about the time when everything moved to Des Moines (1857). In fact, because of this low funding issue, most historians agree that it really wasn’t until the rehabilitation project of the 1920’s when Old Capitol was “completed” (on the outside) as originally planned!

So, here, I’d like to briefly take you through those early years of Old Capitol (1841-1857) when the building was truly the new capitol building of Iowa. Thanks to the work of historian Ann Smothers, former director of the Old Capitol Museum, we have some valuable resources to share with you…

While Iowa was a U.S. Territory (1838-1846), we had three different Territorial Governors, all appointed by the U.S. President: Robert Lucas (1838-1841) appointed by Martin Van Buren; John Chambers (1841-1845) appointed by John Tyler; and James Clark (1845-1846) appointed by James Polk.

Chambers was governor when the Territorial Legislature first started meeting in the new capitol building (December 1842), but apparently, he never did like the idea of moving the capital away from Burlington, so while the Territory moved on to Iowa City, Chambers stayed behind, living in Burlington throughout his entire term. When James Clark took office, he finally made it all official by living and working in Iowa City.

As we mentioned earlier, because of a severe lack of funding, very little was done to make the new capitol building anything beyond a functioning facility during these territorial years. When the Legislature first met here (1842), the second floor was not completed, meaning all activity occurred out of the basement and first floor.

Try, for a moment, to imagine OId Capitol standing alone on the hill above the Iowa River, surrounded by elderberry and elms, wild plums and witch hazel. Farm animals, including pigs and cattle, grazed where Macbride and Jessup Halls now stand. An outhouse sat at Old Capitol’s south; logs for stoking its wood-burning stoves were chopped and stacked to its west. As the sole building, and one of particular elegance and grace, it caught the eye, the apparent centerpiece of civilization in the newly tamed landscape. Linzee Kull McCray

Above is George H. Yewell’s sketch from 1854. Click here to read more about Yewell.
Click here to read more historical facts surrounding Old Capitol.

During the Statehood Years in Iowa City, there were three State Governors elected by the good people of Iowa. Ansel Briggs (1846-1850) Democrat; Stephen P. Hempstead (1850-1854) Democrat; and James W. Grimes (1854-1858) Whig.

1920’s view from the camera of Fred W. Kent.

Sadly, because of the problems that developed with the building’s architect, (John R. Rague walked out nine days after the cornerstone ceremony on July 4, 1840), combined with other inadequate record-keeping, the original building plans for Old Capitol have never been found. There was hope in the 1970’s, when a major restoration of the building took place, that the cornerstone might hold the original documents, but alas, when it was opened, NOTHING was inside! (A who-done-it-story for some other post, no doubt!)

In preparation for the 1970’s restoration, Arthur Kuehn, an architect from Davenport, did go back through old Iowa Territorial records, finding a few descriptive paragraphs that assisted him with drawing up a new set of plans that best represented what the new capitol building in Iowa City might have looked like. Below are those plans…
The basement was an important part of the building, especially during the first 30+ years of the building’s use, prior to the time when the University began adding additional facilities around Old Capitol. Before the second floor was completed, meeting rooms here were vitally important, and there was even a large opening in the basement giving access to Iowa City’s first fire department, who housed their equipment here. In the 1860’s, the University hired a maintenance man who lived, with his dog, in the basement of the building!
Before the second floor was completed, Iowa’s Territorial Legislature met on the first floor. After the second floor was completed, both the Senate and House chambers opened up, leaving the first floor for other important state-related purposes.
The first floor as it appears today. Click here to take a visual tour courtesy of The Old Capitol Museum.
Besides serving as the home of the Iowa Senate and Iowa House of Representatives, the second floor was also rented out for a multitude of other city and public events, ranging from business meetings and community functions to church services. Click here to see the floors plans of Old Capitol today.
The second floor as it appears today. Click here to take a visual tour courtesy of The Old Capitol Museum.
During the building restoration of the 1970’s, wood veneer that surrounded many doors was removed, revealing these two amazing stone headers (above & below) from the original 1841 construction.

Keeping the building warm in the winter and cooler in the summer was no easy task. Until the University built a steam power plant on University Square (1879) the building was heated using four wood burning fireplaces and smaller wood-burning stoves. The outside limestone walls (several feet thick) helped keep both the heat and the cold out, but large window shutters (above) were built in to help do the same thing.

Take a visual tour of each of the rooms in Old Capitol….

(M-0086) July 4, 1976 – Old Capitol Re-dedication Commemorative Key. A special full-size commemorative key (just like the original that was used on the front doors of Old Cap) was produced to celebrate the re-opening. We enjoy placing this key on our Christmas tree each year! Click here to read more…

The reverse-spiral staircase as pictured in the 1930’s. Read more about the beautiful reverse-spiral staircase here…
The wooden Corinthian columns in the rotunda are among the only original woodwork remaining in the building.
This 1854 map of Iowa City shows the Iowa State House on Capitol Square. Notice that City Park was only two blocks away from the capitol building (on Iowa Avenue), and just east of City Park was Mechanics Academy, which the University began renting in 1855 to hold SUI’s first classes.

From the 1840’s to 1857, the grounds around the capitol building were called Capitol Square. The original plan for Iowa City included a widened, one-mile avenue (Iowa Avenue) heading directly east where it would meet with Governor Street. There a Governor’s Mansion would be built, allowing the state’s governor to be “just down the avenue” from the Iowa State House. Obviously, when the capital moved to Des Moines in 1857, the idea of a governor’s mansion went with it. Click here to read more about the move of the state capital from Iowa City to Des Moines.

After the state government moved out (1857), the University (SUI) took over the building. Outside of a rental facility (Mechanics Academy) three blocks away, Old Capitol was the University’s only building until the 1860’s when South Hall and North Hall were constructed, causing Old Capitol to be renamed, logically, Central Hall.

The earliest photographs of Old Capitol were taken by Isaac Wetherby. Click here to read more.

When the University took over Old Capitol and the surrounding grounds in 1857, the name was changed from Capitol Square to University Square. By the 1920’s, after four stately educational buildings had been constructed around “Central Hall,” SUI students called the grounds, The Five Spot. In December of 1924, The Daily Iowan hosted a contest to choose a better name. The winner? The Pentacrest. Read more here.

Notice the fencing in this picture (above) taken around 1860. Historical records indicate that during those first few years when Old Capitol housed the University’s only classrooms, one of the primary duties of the custodian 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.

Of course, before we close, we should tell you about two additional buildings that were a great necessity to all those using the capitol building from the very beginning…

The Horse Barn, located directly west of South Hall, was added in the early days, serving as University Square’s first “parking lot,” housing horses and carriages for faculty and staff until its demise in 1907, making way for the construction of the Physics Building (MacLean Hall).

Click here to read more about these little “support” buildings that once surrounded Old Cap.

The Water Closet – Located south and west of Old Capitol, this little building (built in the 1880’s) served as the restroom facilities for facility and students until “indoor plumbing” was installed in University buildings after the turn of the century. This ‘throne-room’ replaced earlier “out-houses” that were used from the earliest days when Old Capitol was the Iowa statehouse (1841-1857).

In closing – we must never forget that our oldest surviving building in Johnson County is, without a doubt, our most beautiful, and certainly, the most stately capitol building around.

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

Here’s a tip of the old hat to: The Iowa Territorial Capitol BuildingThe Iowa State HouseCentral Hall The SUI Administration Building – Our Old Stone Capitol.

May you live on forever!


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

A tip of the hat to Ann Smothers, the former director of the Old Capitol Museum in Iowa City.

Second Floor Rotunda, The University of Iowa Old Capitol Museum

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