Our Iowa Heritage: The Pentacrest – The New University.

University Square – Circa 1882 – Oil Painting by Frank Bond.
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University Square – Circa 1885 – Picture by Frank Horack.

The State University of Iowa had its humble beginnings on February 25, 1847, less than two months after Iowa became the 29th state of the union (December 28, 1846). Today, Old Capitol and the four stately buildings that surround it (Schaeffer Hall, Macbride Hall, MacLean Hall, and Jessup Hall) form what is affectionately called The Pentacrest. Over the last one hundred years, Old Capitol and the Pentacrest have stood as the symbolic center of the campus. Yet in truth, this iconic collection of five classically-designed buildings, systematically placed on this unique 10-acre plot of land called Capitol Square, was never on anyone’s radar screen prior to the turn of the 20th century.

Capitol Square.

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Following the placing of the cornerstone July 4, 1840, the building we now call Old Capitol was planned as the Iowa Statehouse. In 1842 it housed the Fifth Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Iowa and then, in 1846, become the first capitol building of the State of Iowa. But no sooner did the State Legislature first meet there, state politicians began arguing over whether or not to keep the capitol in Iowa City or move it to a more central location (Des Moines) of this fast-growing state. 

1854 map

Over the next decade, as Legislators continued to bicker over funding issues and other details, very little actually happened in developing the new State University. Finally, in 1855, some money was awarded toward the school, and the first instruction given (mathematics and languages) occurred in the Mechanics Academy, a two-story red-brick building located two blocks east of the state capitol building.

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In 1857, when the State Capitol finally moved to Des Moines, the state bequeathed the Statehouse to the University. One wise person was quoted in an Iowa City newspaper, “Let Des Moines have the politicians, we’ll take the teachers!” Between 1857 and 1882, with the state government now gone, most University functions took place in three key buildings all located on what was then renamed University Square.

University Square.

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1869 photograph (left to right) South Hall, Old Capitol (Central Hall), and North Hall.

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(C-0038) State University of Iowa cacheted envelope from mid-1880’s This cacheted envelope is postmarked January (late 1880’s?) 5:30 am in Iowa City, Iowa. It’s a letter written on State University of Iowa stationary and includes a beautiful cachet etching of the University campus…

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From left to right: the Medical Building (1882), South Hall (1861), Old Capitol (Central Hall-1840), and North Hall (1865).

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By 1895, as the University kept growing, the grounds surrounding Old Capitol were getting pretty crowded. At one point (1895) there were eleven out of a total of sixteen campus buildings all located on the 10 acres of land known as University Square!

1895 – The Red Brick Campus – University Square.

Buildings                          Year Built

Old Capitol (1)                       1840      

South Hall (3)                         1861            

North Hall (4)                          1865            

Medical Building (5)                1882        

Science Hall (6)                       1884        

Observatory (9)                       1891                 

Dental Building (10)                 1894             

Armory/Power Plant (13a)       1879   

Water Closet (13b)                  1880’s               

Horse Barn (13c)                     1860’s       

Weights & Measures Bldg (13d)  1880’s   

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1897 – It’s getting pretty crowded . . . time for the “New University.”

In a serious attempt to address this uncontrolled growth, SUI President Charles A. Schaeffer (1887-1898) strongly suggested the Board of Regents immediately adopt a long-range facility plan. In October 1897, Schaeffer got the ball rolling by announcing a competition for the design of a new Liberal Arts Building. 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 to the south east of Old Capitol, 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.

This idea was quite controversial, but as fate had it, a massive fire on March 10, 1901 destroyed both South Hall and the College of Medicine, located directly south of Old Capitol. This brought an immediate urgency to the building plans set out by MacLean, and the long road to today’s Pentacrest had begun!

Medical Building & South Hall – destroyed in fire March 10, 1901.

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Between 1901 and 1924 MacLean’s “New University” building plan went into high gear, resulting in a total dismantling of the existing Red Brick campus of 1895.

Buildings                          Year Built       What happened & when?

South Hall (3)                         1861            burned – March 10, 1901, temporary bldg until 1909

North Hall (4)                          1865            fire – 1897/restored, demolished -1949

Medical Building (5)                1882            burned – March 10, 1901, temporary bldg until 1908

Science Hall (6)                       1884            moved – 1905 – present (Calvin Hall)

Observatory (9)                       1891            demolished – 1923         

Dental Building (10)                 1894            west end removed – 1923, demolished – 1975

Armory/Power Plant (13a)       1882             burned – after 1920

Water Closet (13b)                  1880’s           demolished – 1908       

Horse Barn (13c)                     1860’s           demolished – 1907  

Weights & Measures Bldg (13d)  1880’s        demolished – 1923  


In telling the story of the Pentacrest, we’ll begin one building at a time…

Pentacrest Building #1: Old Stone Capitol (1840).

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Click here to view the postcard story of the Wieneke family.

(P-0012) The cornerstone of the Old Capitol Building was laid in Iowa City on July 4, 1840. Iowa City served as the third and last territorial capital of Iowa, and the last four territorial legislatures met at the Old Capitol Building until December 28,1846, when Iowa was admitted into the United States as the 29th state of the union. 59 days after being admitted into the union, the state of Iowa passed legislation in the Old Capitol Building authorizing the formation of the state’s first public university. When the state government moved to Des Moines in 1857, the Old Stone Capitol Building became the first permanent building owned by the University of Iowa.

Old Cap in 1905.

For much more about The Old Stone Capitol, click here.


Pentacrest Building #2: The Liberal Arts Building (1902) Schaeffer Hall – SE Corner.

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Circa 1900: Note the new Liberal Arts Building (named for SUI President Charles A. Schaeffer) under construction behind South Hall (construction started in 1898).

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(P-0022) Click here to view the postcard story of the Wieneke family.
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(P-0203) (P-0238) Click here to view the postcard story of the Wieneke family.

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Here’s a campus map from 1900: a transitional season between the Red Brick Campus and Schaeffer & MacLean’s  “New University” plan.


Pentacrest Building #3: The Hall of Natural Science (1906) Macbride Hall – NE Corner.

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The idea of tearing down the Science Building (to the north and east of Old Capitol), which was built in 1884, was protested heavily, causing Professors Thomas H. Macbride (who later became president 1914-1916) and Samuel Calvin to propose moving the 6,000-ton building 200 feet, across Jefferson and Capitol Streets, and turning it halfway around!

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1904 – North side of University Square: North Hall, Dental Building, Science Building.

So, in 1905, with the help of a moving team from Chicago, the Science Building (now named Calvin Hall) was moved, making way for the construction of the third of the five buildings of the Pentacrest: The Natural Science Building (later named Macbride Hall) in 1906.

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Construction of the Natural Science Building at graduation 1906.

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(P-0027) Click here to view the postcard story of the Wieneke family.
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(P-0028) Click here to view the postcard story of the Wieneke family.
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Pentacrest Building #4: The Physics Building (1912) MacLean Hall – SW Corner.

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1908 – President MacLean at the cornerstone ceremonies for the new Physics Building (MacLean Hall) on the south west corner of the Pentacrest.

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(P-0030) MacLean Hall was the fourth of the five buildings of the Pentacrest. Originally named the Physics Building, the cornerstone was laid in 1908 and the building opened in 1912. The building was renamed for U of I President George E. MacLean (1899-1911).

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(P-0030) “One of the very fine University buildings.”
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(P-0032) Circa 1915 – This postcard has a bird’s-eye view of the SUI Campus. That’s Schaeffer Hall in the forefront and MacLean Hall behind it to the west.  


Pentacrest Building #5: University Hall (1924)  Jessup Hall – NW Corner.

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1923: University Hall (Jessup) is under construction on the north west corner of the Pentacrest.

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Originally named University Hall, this fifth and final building of the Pentacrest, and was completed in 1924. University Hall housed the Departments of Education, Commerce, and English until the latter moved to the English-Philosophy Building in 1970. University Hall was renamed in the 1940’s to honor the U of I’s eleventh president Walter Jessup (1916-1934).

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1925: The Pentacrest is now complete, but note that North Hall and the Dental Building are still intact just north of Old Capitol. Old North Hall (1865) came down in 1949 and the Old Dental Building (1894) in 1975, finally achieving Presidents Schaeffer’s (1897) and MacLean’s (1900) dream of five stately buildings located at the center of the University of Iowa campus.

University Square – The Five Spot.

In the 1920’s, after the completion of University Hall (Jessup) and a remodel of Old Capitol, many people continued calling the central campus “University Square.” But there were also a number of students who liked the nifty name… “The Five Spot.”

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In order to settle the argument, a naming contest was announced in the Daily Iowan newspaper. The contest resulted in the winning name…

The Pentacrest.

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(P-0260) A beautiful view of the 1920’s Pentacrest.
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(P-0033) A great view of the Pentacrest, as it looked in the 1980’s.
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Dating pictures of the Pentacrest. The Old Stone Capitol (cornerstone laid July 4, 1840 with west-side pillars and portico added in 1921) in the center, Schaeffer Hall (SE-top right-1902), Macbride Hall (NE-top left-1906), MacLean Hall (SW-bottom right-1912), and Jessup Hall (NW-bottom left-1924).

The University of Iowa Campus looking west from Old Capitol and the Pentacrest.

Today, the Pentacrest stands as the symbolic center of The University of Iowa. While it took nearly 80 years to accomplish (1897 until 1975) it seems well worth the wait. May Capitol SquareUniversity SquareThe Five Spot – The Pentacrest endure forever!

On Iowa! Go Hawks!

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