-A A +A

From the first years of European settlement down to the present moment, Iowa has symbolized the heart of America. John Plumbe, Jr., writing in 1839, spoke of the state as “this blooming belle of the American family.” 1One hundred years later, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Grant Wood noted, “Thomas Benton returned to make his home in the Middle West just the other day, saying, according to the newspapers, that he was coming to live again in the only region of the country which is not ‘provincial.’” 2

Benton, as an exponent of American regional painting, was acting on an ideology reaching back to Thomas Jefferson—the belief that the core of American life should be rural, not urban. Though Iowa has, in fact, continually been an important contributor to the economy of the country in such areas as mining and manufacturing, the image it projects is that of the agricultural center for the nation. That it would emerge as such a center was anticipated in the early years of its settlement. In his 1856 volume, The Garden of the World, or the Great West, another Thomas H. Benton asserted that “the future farms of Iowa, large, level, and unbroken by stump or other obstruction, will afford an excellent field for the introduction of mowing machines, and other improved implements calculated to save the labors of the husbandman.” 3This is, of course, exactly what has come about; the mechanized farming technology embraced by the farmers of the state has made Iowa not only the breadbasket of the nation, but also a supplier of food to the world.

The pervasive sense of Iowa as a rural, agricultural place has been sustained by the dispersal of its urban environments. Although Des Moines is a moderate-sized city (pop. 190,800), it is not the dominant urban center for the state—as Chicago is for Illinois, Milwaukee for Wisconsin, or Minneapolis-Saint Paul for Minnesota. Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Waterloo, Sioux City, Dubuque, and Burlington are contenders in many ways, both locally and outside of the state. In contrast to America's “great” urban environments, the cities of Iowa are of a size and intimacy that make them both livable and governable. The high productivity of the average farm has meant that the typical Iowa farm family is of the middle class. Thus the historic division between city resident and farm dweller does not exist. In a sense, the farms of Iowa have emerged, in their relation to adjoining towns and cities, as a form of low-density suburbia.

The unity of urban and rural in Iowa is, as one would expect, effectively mirrored not only in the artifacts of buildings and groups of buildings, but also in the general transformation of the landscape. It is this landscape, in the broadest sense of the term, which reveals the built environment of the state. While many elements of the landscape have remained as constants, others have been radically modified; and it should be borne in mind that some of these alterations may have been the result of Native American activities that preceded the white incursions of the 1830s and later.

“With the exception of some high hills in the northern part,” wrote Benton of Iowa in 1856, “the surface is nowhere mountainous, but consists of table lands, prairies, and gentle swelling eminences covered with timber.” 4Plumbe pointed out the advantage of this type of terrain, its being “divided into prairies and woodland, so as almost wholly to dispense with the labor of clearing, which was and still continues to be so material a draw-back upon most of the Western States.” 5Another characteristic of the state of Iowa is its waterways. The Mississippi River forms the eastern boundary of the state, and to the west the Missouri River defines that state border. Projecting like fingers from these two major waterways are innumerable smaller rivers and streams, of which the main ones are the Des Moines, Iowa, Cedar, and Wapsipinicon rivers. These rivers had been used as transportation corridors by the Native Americans, and the settlers followed suit. To the utilization of the rivers for transportation, the settlers added the potential for generating power for milling operations.

Early maps, sketches, and descriptions illustrate the remarkable play between open prairie land and the groves and tongues of forests. It was only in the extreme northwest corner of the state that the open prairie almost completely dominated the scene. Elsewhere the wooded lands spread along the larger streams and rivers, and in many cases extensive groves existed between the waterways. The general proximity of timber in most places meant that wood was available for fuel and for construction ranging from fences to buildings. Other natural assets commented on quite early were the excellent limestone, which could be used as cut stone or burned to make lime; clay, which could be utilized to produce bricks and terracotta products; coal, which could produce energy; and lead, with its many uses.

The Transformation of the Land

It is reasonable to suppose that there was some transformation of the environment between the “two great rivers” by Native Americans, but to what extent remains an open question. Agriculture would seem to have appeared at Middle Woodland sites along the Mississippi and its major tributaries some time between 500 B.C.E. and C.E. 1. 6In western Iowa, agriculture is associated with the Glenwood, Mill Creek, and Oneota cultures, and was probably introduced around 1200 C.E. 7Whether any of this agricultural activity affected the environment, other than by transient depletion of the soil, remains unknown at this time.

There can be no question, however, that the moment the European immigrants entered the Iowa scene, changes took place. The view held nearly universally throughout the nineteenth century and much of our own era is that the land was a commodity to be revamped and organized to serve man's needs. The writer-geographer J. B. Jackson has pointed out that the ideology that viewed land as a commodity led to specific ways of looking at and experiencing the landscape. 8The regularizing and transforming of the landscape began on a grand scale with the use of the United States rectangular survey system, with its origins in the Land Ordinance of 1785, which in turn was expanded in 1796. 9These and other ordinances laid the framework for imposing a tight grid system on the landscape.

The United States rectangular survey system was based upon the six-mile-square township, which in turn could be divided into sections, and plots of 640 acres, 320 acres, 160 acres, and 80 acres. The townships themselves could be compiled to form counties, and the counties then grouped to form the individual state. This multiple-grid system was advantageous for dealing with land ownership and proved a convenient geographic boundary device for local government; but it also made possible the creation of artifacts that would make apparent people's transformation of the environment. Once a survey had been made, the visual tokens of the grid system slowly began to appear: roads, hedges, fences and planted clusters of trees. Buildings themselves, whether a lone schoolhouse or church, a farm complex, or an entire town (in most instances), responded to the grid.

Native Americans

The Land and Architecture

The dating of the earliest Native American occupation of Iowa is anything but firm, yet present evidence points to an antiquity of around 10,000 B.C.E. (the Paleo-Indian phase). 10From this period on, various Native American groups lived within the current boundaries of the state. These earliest groups were nomadic and relied on the hunting of animals, augmented by the gathering of local berries, seeds, and nuts. Beginning around 500 B.C.E., first eastern Iowa and later the west absorbed the ideas and traits of the Woodland cultures. Initially, subsistence was still achieved by hunting and food gathering, but later this was supplemented by agriculture. The cultivation of crops meant, of course, that places of habitation, the villages, became larger and more permanent. Some of the low burial mounds found in the state may have been built during the Early Woodland period. 11

It was during the Middle and Late Woodland periods that the Native American left more lasting marks on the landscape. Excavations, especially in northeast Iowa and to the far west, have revealed the forms of their dwellings and the layouts of their villages. Along the Mississippi and its major tributaries, the Woodland peoples lived in villages usually constructed on the high bench or terrace overlooking a river or stream. 12The villages were composed of wigwams (wikiups), dwellings constructed of a frame of bent saplings which were covered with bark and reed mats. 13The usual wikiups, in both prehistoric and historic times, were accompanied by conical wigwams as well as by gable-roofed, bark-covered houses. 14Generally these latter dwellings were small and round in form, though some were elongated, somewhat akin to the eastern long-houses. The dwellings were laid out in an informal fashion, often close to one another, but not according to any recognizable geometric scheme.

To the west in Iowa, along the Missouri, the Native American dwellings were like the earth lodge forms (often referred to as pit houses in archaeological literature) 15associated with various pre-European and post-European houses of the Native Americans of the Great Plains. These houses were constructed by excavating a rectangular depression in the ground, usually only 3 feet deep and ranging from 18 to 45 feet square. Four large tree trunks were placed near the center, marking the corners of a square, and horizontal log beams were placed upon these posts. Then, small saplings were fixed in the ground around the rectangular pit, and these were bent over to join the horizontal log beams. Smaller branches were woven in and out of the saplings, and finally everything was covered by mud and sod. A rectangular ramp led down into the dwelling, and in many cases this was also roofed. As was the case in the villages to the east, the individual earth lodge dwellings were informally sited within the village compounds. 16Some of these earth lodges built by the Great Oasis people (c. 900–1300 C.E.) ranged up to 40 feet in length. 17

Mounds and enclosures are associated with various phases of the Native American Woodland cultures in Iowa. These have been categorized into eight types, ranging from the simple burial mound type to the later linear mound and effigy mound types. 18The principal concentration of these examples of earth sculpture are found along the Mississippi River and a few of its tributaries. The earliest of these mounds, used for burial purposes, were made sometime immediately after 1000 B.C.E. The last of the mounds (conical, linear, and effigy) were built around 1250 C.E. Almost all of these mounds have been attributed to the Woodland cultures (including the Hopewell), although a few may have been constructed by peoples representing the later Middle Mississippi culture.

The largest number of these mounds are conical in form, and are usually found in groups. A typical conical mound will be 20 to 30 feet in diameter (although some are 60 or more feet in diameter), and normally only 2 to 6 feet high. Many of the mounds contain single or group burials, although a number have not revealed any burials whatsoever. The methods of construction varied considerably. In many instances the ground upon which the mound was to be built was carefully cleared down to a sterile level, then a floor of clean sand was usually laid over this clay, and finally a layer of earth was added. Actual burial pits were provided within some mounds, and in a few cases, more elaborate stone slab burial chambers can be found.

Viewed as earth sculpture, the linear and effigy mounds have attracted the attention of present-day Americans. Linear mounds are of two types: chain mounds constructed by connecting individual small mounds together to form a line, and linear mounds designed as a single form. 19Occasionally accompanying the linear mounds, or occurring as separate affairs, are earth and stone enclosures. Some of these are rectangular or square, while others are more elaborate, such as those near New Albin. 20

Native American ceremonial enclosure, near New Albin

Native American mounds and ceremonial enclosure, near New Albin

In some instances linear mounds accompany effigy mounds, but in many cases the two types of mounds exist independently. 21As with the conical and linear mounds, the groups of effigy mounds are located on benches, terraces, or hills overlooking waterways. Generally, effigy figures are composed as a group, not singly (although in most instances, it is not known whether they were all built at once or sequentially, over a period of time). Most of the figures depicted are recognizable, though it is not always easy to “read” them from a single vantage point. The most frequently encountered forms are birds with outspread wings and bears. Other figures include panthers, turtles, wildcats, lizards, and probable depictions of humans. There are also other examples which are not readily identifiable, including several which have been referred to as elephants. While a few of the effigy mounds have revealed burials (including intrusive burials), this does not seem to have been their primary use. Surprisingly, with all of the recording of mounds and the archaeological research that has taken place in Iowa, the examples of linear and effigy mound complexes have not been conclusively attributed to any single or specific group of the Woodland peoples.

The existence of these mounds in Iowa, and the occurrence of similar mounds to the east and south, was noted early in the nineteenth century. Between 1880 and 1895 Theodore Hayes Lewis, under the tutelage of Alfred James Hill, made an extensive survey of the mounds of the Midwest, including those in Iowa. 22Also, in the 1880s the United States Bureau of Ethnology sponsored a study by Cyrus Thomas of the mounds throughout the country. 23What these and other surveys pointedly reveal to us are the tremendous numbers of mounds and mound complexes in Iowa and elsewhere which have disappeared. Most of these have simply been plowed under; others occupied sites where villages, towns, and cities have been built. Fortunately, a few remaining mound sites have been preserved, and in several cases these are part of the national or state park systems—such as Effigy Mound National Monument, Toolesboro Mounds National Historic Landmark, and Pikes Peak State Park.

Toolesboro Mounds, 500 B.C.E.–300 C.E., in autumn

The Late Woodland peoples were succeeded in Iowa by the Oneota culture—a far northern extension of the flourishing Mississippian cultures to the south of Iowa. The house types and the informal layout of Oneota villages were similar to those of the Late Woodland peoples, but there is no evidence that the Oneota engaged in any extensive campaign of mound building. When French traders first entered Iowa in the late seventeenth century, the Native Americans they encountered were the Ioways, whom archaeologists and ethnologists consider to be a historic continuation of the pre-European Oneota. By the early 1800s the Ioways' hold on the state had been superseded by that of the Sauk and Mesquakie tribes. These tribes had come into Iowa from presentday Wisconsin and Illinois in the eighteenth century. They were joined by the Sioux, to the north, and, to the far west and along the Missouri River, by the Omaha, the Oto, and the Missouri. The house types of these peoples ran the gamut from bark dwellings with pitched roofs to the many forms of the wigwam, the tipi, and, in the opening years of the nineteenth century, the earth lodge. During the decades from 1830 through the opening of the 1850s, all of the Native American groups then living in Iowa ceded their lands to the settlers.

Toolesboro Mounds, 500 B.C.E.–300 C.E., in winter

European Settlement and Planning

The first truly permanent settlement in Iowa took place in 1788, when the French Canadian Julien Dubuque obtained a lease on some 21 square miles in and around the present Mississippi River city that bears his name. He was interested in the area because of its lead deposits, and he engaged in both mining and fur trading there until his death in 1810. At the time Dubuque arrived, Iowa was a part of the Louisiana Territory and was governed by Spain. In 1800 Iowa and the Louisiana Territory were acquired by France, and in 1803 the territory was purchased by the United States. Five years later, in 1808, the United States Army founded Fort Madison on the Mississippi River.

After being part of two adjoining territories, Iowa itself officially became a territory in 1838; surveys of the land were undertaken, and the federal government established land offices. Within two years the new capital, Iowa City, was established and work began on the state capitol building. In 1846 Iowa was admitted to the Union, and in 1857 the capital was moved to Des Moines, where it has remained.

The initial settlement of Iowa, from the 1830s up until the Civil War, tended to be river-oriented. Thus the first sequence of the platting of large towns and small cities occurred along the west bank of the Mississippi River: Burlington in 1834, Muscatine and Davenport in 1836, Keokuk and Dubuque in 1837, and Clinton in 1855. This was paralleled by the laying out of the future major cities of central Iowa in the midst of what was hoped would be highly productive farmland: Iowa City, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Marshalltown, Cedar Falls, and Waterloo, all of which were platted between 1839 and the early 1850s. Sioux City and Council Bluffs developed on the Missouri River as early as the 1830s and 1840s, and, further north, Mason City was platted in 1854. These dates of the establishment and platting of communities across the state reveal the rapidity and tempo of settlement.

Generally, at least before 1860, the founding and platting of most Iowa towns was in the hands of one individual or a small group of entrepreneurs who actually “set up shop” on the site. Elkader, as a case in point, “was laid out by Thompson, Davis and Sage, who also erected the first mill in 1847.” 24A similar pattern occurred in Waterloo: “The first settlement in Waterloo was made by Charles Mullan, who, moving with his family from Illinois arrived here June 24th, 1846.… He surveyed and laid out the original town plat in the fall of 1853, and with Geo. W. Hanna and J. H. Brooks was one of the proprietors.” 25

A second type of founder of new towns in Iowa was the settlement society. The site and lands surrounding Guttenberg were “sold and conveyed by the county commissioners to the Western Settlement Society of Cincinnati, Ohio, and the society entered several hundred acres of land contiguous to the town, and employed John M. Gray, County Surveyor, to lay out a much larger town.” 26Similar in certain ways were the settlement and platting of towns by religious groups. The Amana Society, founded in Germany, established a group of adjacent villages in central Iowa in the 1850s. The Mormons established a number of communities in western Iowa in the late 1840s and early 1850s before they moved on to Utah. And there were other sects: a group of French Fourierists attempted to establish themselves near Oskaloosa, and the French Icarians did likewise with their settlement of Icaria, near Corning, in the southwestern part of the state.

There were also a number of towns established or platted by the federal government (as the administrator of the territories), and also by the state and by the counties. Bellevue, on the banks of the Mississippi, was “laid out by Commissioners appointed by the United States.” 27The site of Iowa City, which was planned as the capital of the state, was selected by a state-appointed commission, and this commission was also responsible for the plat plan and for the sale of lots. One of the typical episodes of governmental founding of cities includes the communities established to house the county seats. In several towns, such as Bedford, the seat of Taylor County, the site was selected by a commission appointed by the state through an act of the general assembly; in other cases locations were chosen by the county commissioners, by individual judges, or by popular vote.

Bellevue, view from the south

Compared to the states west of the Missouri River, throughout the Great Plains area and on the West Coast, the railroad companies' direct participation in establishing towns in Iowa was minimal until after the Civil War. 28Iowa's first railroad, the Rock Island, began building tracks out of Davenport in 1853, and the first locomotive arrived in 1855. 29By 1860 five of Iowa's towns on the Mississippi River—McGregor, Clinton, Dubuque, Davenport, and Burlington—enjoyed direct passenger and freight connections to the Atlantic Coast. 30The total mileage of railroad tracks laid within the state by 1860 was modest, 679.77 miles, compared to 2,867.9 miles within neighboring Illinois to the east. This meant that three-quarters or more of the principal towns and cities of Iowa were established before the railroads traversed their areas (though it should be noted that a number of towns were platted in anticipation of the coming of a railroad). The arrival of the railroad had a pronounced effect on towns that had already been platted and settled. With only a handful of exceptions, all of the towns platted in Iowa from the 1830s on were based upon the grid system. Yet the path of the railroad tracks into, through, and out of a community seldom mirrored the grid. In some towns, such as Newton, the right-of-way of the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad followed a diagonal path through the grid added later by the city. In the case of other communities, for example, Cedar Rapids, one of the existing city streets was transformed into the right-of-way. Often the solution was to build the tracks at the edge of the original plat, and then to lay out a new addition of the grid to encompass the tracks, the station, and, eventually, grain elevators and other businesses.

Then there are those cases where the settlement was revamped to respond to the arrival of the railroad. The town of Cherokee in the northwest section of the state illustrates this wait-and-see attitude: “It was not until August, 1870, that the village was located, though a few small buildings had been put up prior to that date, but only of such character that they could be removed to whatever point the railroad might locate their depot.” 31The west-central town of Creston, founded in 1869, is an example of a railroad-sponsored community. “The town was laid out by the railroad company [Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad] and it has always taken an active interest in its growth and prosperity. It has erected a very fine depot here at the cost of about $75,000 and has taken much pains in improving the grounds it has reserved for railroad use.” 32

Since the founding of towns was essentially a private business affair, it should not be surprising to note that there were by far more towns founded within the state than currently exist. David C. Mott, in a long series of articles, “Abandoned Towns, Villages and Post Offices of Iowa,” lists 2,807 names (not all of which represent abandoned communities); and he conjures up the demise of these towns: “The blasted hopes of many an ambitious village brings regret. Many a ‘Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain,’ is now a meadow or a cornfield, with no trace of its former busy life.” 33Mott suggests some of the reasons for the demise of these towns: failure of water power, “the waning of navigation of some inland rivers, the coming of the railroads which so often missed these towns, the coming of the automobile which made travel and transportation speedier and easier, the coming of rural mail service.” 34

The system of blocks of streets, laid out at a 90-degree angle to one another, on which the towns and cities were organized was simply a miniaturization of the larger-scale division of the land into townships and sections. In a typical Iowa town the individual block measured 300 by 300 feet; streets varied in width from 60 feet for the smaller, to 100 feet for the larger. Each block was generally bisected by a narrow alley. While it might have been advantageous to vary the size of the blocks according to use—for instance, business versus residential—this was seldom done. Leaving them all the same size meant that it was easier to expand the business and industrial corner of a town into what had originally been residential.

While the prevailing approach throughout the nineteenth century in Iowa was to orient the grid system to the cardinal points of the compass, a number of the cities responded to other considerations. Many of the earliest towns platted along the Mississippi, from Guttenberg in the north to Burlington and Keokuk in the south, were laid out in regard to their riverside location. This was also true for inland river towns like Keosauqua on the Des Moines River, or Wapello on the Iowa River.

With the advent of the railroad, there was a group of towns whose grids mirrored the direction of the tracks, rather than the cardinal points of the compass (though it should be noted that most of the railroad-sponsored towns in Iowa were oriented north-south and east-west). In the towns that were not oriented to the cardinal points of the compass, this “grievous” error was corrected by reorienting later additions.

Except for the notable example of Iowa City, which was planned as a capital city for the state, there were very few towns platted in the nineteenth century which exhibit any variation on the grid scheme. Denison reveals a number of innovations, ranging from an oval formed by a pair of streets laid out around Prospect Hill, to a set of parks laid out as an octagon and as a circle. Shenandoah platted a ten-block crescent, only part of which (the South Crescent) was carried out.

If there was a glimmer of a hope that the newly platted town might become a county seat, a square block would almost always be set aside as a site for a courthouse. This “Public Square” or “Courthouse Square,” as it was often labeled on the plats, was in most instances placed at or close to the center of the layout of blocks and streets. In addition to the courthouse square, a number of communities provided an adjoining square block for a pleasure park. Examples of such adjoining public open spaces occur in the plat plans for Atlantic in Cass County, for Eldora in Hardin County, and for other communities.

In the published plats of nineteenth-century Iowa cities, some of these central squares are depicted as assuming different shapes, ranging from squares with their corners rounded off, to circles and ovals. In most instances it is unlikely that such shapes were ever built, or if they had been initially constructed in this fashion, their shapes were later returned to the configuration of right-angle blocks. Osceola's “Public Square” is shown with 45-degree cutoff corners; and Indianola's central square has radically cut-off 80-degree corners. In a handful of towns the square was sited as the terminus of a major street; Des Moines and its Polk County Courthouse form the most widely known example of such a scheme.

Either within the first plat or included in the plat of a later addition, there was usually a lot or a full block designated as a site for a public school. More often than not, one of the early public buildings to be constructed in a town would be the public high school or normal school. (Iowa would long have the highest literacy rate in the country.) Because of Iowans' strong faith in education—and progress tied to education—a good number of towns set aside sites for institutions of higher learning such as colleges and academies. These were almost always situated outside of the downtown, in residential areas.

By the end of the nineteenth century the larger towns and cities had acquired a variety of public open spaces. These included parks (usually sites given to the community by private individuals), county fairgrounds, and cemeteries; and if a railroad was present, the station would sometimes be set within a well-landscaped park. Other sources of open landscaped space were state institutions built near or adjacent to towns. These hotly contested “prizes” were of course looked upon more for their economic implications than for the amenities of public space. But the asset of their open space was generally commented on in the nineteenth century. The Iowa Hospital for the Insane built at Mount Pleasant and the one at Independence provided extensive acreage, as did other state institutions such as the Iowa Institute for the Deaf and Dumb at Council Bluffs and the Iowa Soldiers' Orphans Home at Cedar Falls.

Planning and Parks, 1890s to Present

Many of the towns and cities of Iowa, like their counterparts elsewhere, were passionately caught up in the Beaux-Arts City Beautiful movement which came to the fore after the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Charles Mulford Robinson, one of the pioneer city planners of America, was engaged by a surprisingly large number of communities in Iowa between 1907 and 1913. He was joined over the years by other “stars” of the national planning profession: John Noland, Edward H. Bennett, and Harland Bartholomew. After World War II, national planning firms, such as Victor Gruen and Associates, were engaged to revamp downtowns or to plan suburban developments and shopping centers.

Pre-World War I planning in Iowa, as was generally true throughout the country, was concentrated on laying out Beaux-Arts-inspired civic centers, systems of public parks, and boulevard schemes that connected the parks with the downtowns and the civic centers. The three most striking episodes of such Beaux-Arts planning were in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and Davenport. In each of these cases the proposals entailed building parks, boulevards, and a civic center which took advantage of the community's riverfront. Post-1900 planning in Des Moines typifies what was experienced throughout the state. Shortly after the turn of the century the Des Moines Commercial Club formed a Town Planning Committee, and it subsequently engaged Charles Mulford Robinson. The plan, as it developed, called for the Des Moines River to form one axis for the civic center, with the cross axis made up of streets which led to the area of the state capitol and other state buildings. 35

Both Charles Mulford Robinson and Edward H. Bennett (representing the Chicago firm of Daniel H. Burnham and Company) were involved in the civiccenter scheme for Cedar Rapids, where a plan imaginatively utilized Mays Island, in the middle of the Cedar River as the location for the principal public buildings of the city. 36In Iowa, as in other states, those individuals who were concerned about planning established a planning association, the Iowa Town Planning Association, which sought to encourage not only local planning and its realization but also statewide planning.

Other ingredients of pre- and post-World War I planning developed within the state. Almost every Iowa community in the nineteenth century installed a street railroad system, at first horse-drawn, and later electrified. After 1900 a number of these systems were extended far out into the country, forming interurban rail systems. It was in the same years that suburban residential development took place, based upon the Picturesque garden tradition, as espoused earlier by Andrew Jackson Downing, Frederick Law Olmsted, and others. Thus cities such as Des Moines, Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, and Davenport exhibit informally laid-out suburban schemes characterized by curved streets and the dominance of nature, achieved through open spaces and abundant vegetation.

In the 1920s and later, the planning efforts of Harland Bartholomew and Associates of Saint Louis for Des Moines (1925–1940) and Cedar Rapids (1931), or of John Noland and Justin R. Hartzog for Dubuque (1936), became less poetic and more down-to-earth, dealing generally with questions of zoning and transportation. After 1945, as one can see in Victor Gruen's plan for Dubuque, most planning dealt with pragmatic aspects of urban renewal and other problems related to the economy. Planning in Iowa in the 1970s and 1980s still seemed committed to the world of economics, though some of the romance of the past reappeared in schemes for further improvement of riverfronts and parks.

In his 1928 article “The State Parks of Iowa,” Thomas P. Christensen cited the “inspired” writings and activities of Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and Gifford Pinchot as the touchstone for the development of a statewide park system in Iowa. 37Agitation for such a system came to the fore in the mid1890s, and in 1901 the Iowa Park and Forestry Association was organized in Ames. In 1917, through the efforts of this association and others, the state legislature passed, and the governor signed, an “act to authorize the establishment of public parks.” 38In the following year the act was expanded, making it possible for counties to raise money and purchase land for parks. Also, making 1918 a landmark year, the state purchased its first lands for parks. 39

By the end of the 1920s there were more than 31 state reserves and parks. Almost all of these had been “improved” through the designs of professional landscape architects. Many of these early parks, such as those at Clear Lake, and Ledges Park in Boone County, were designed by John R. Fitzsimmons, a landscape architect trained at Harvard University. 40In the 1930s Iowa parks were the target of a wide range of improvements within one or another of the various federal relief projects, especially the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Public Works Administration (PWA), and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The road systems, picnic and camping areas, shelters and recreation buildings constructed of indigenous materials, such as stone and wood, constitute some of the outstanding examples of planning and architecture within the state. After World War II, the state and county parks systems were considerably expanded, but as seen in planning in general during these years, the poetry and romance of the earlier work was lacking.

Two intriguing landscape architecture projects in Iowa were the 1910 design of the Chicago landscape architect Jens Jensen for Luther College in Decorah, and the 1930s scheme of Alfred Caldwell for Eagle Point Park in Dubuque. Jensen's approach to the beautiful hilly site of Luther College, overlooking the Upper Iowa River, was to make more vivid the prairie landscape of the place (in the fashion of the eighteenth-century English landscape architect Capability Brown). Some twenty years later, Caldwell adopted Jensen's prairie theme in landscape architecture and strongly mixed it with Frank Lloyd Wright's early Prairie style of architecture. The result of this nearly perfect melding of architecture and the landscape easily equals Wright's own wonderful essay at Taliesin, in Spring Green, Wisconsin, or Jensen's designs for parts of the Chicago public park system. 41

Iowa and Its Architecture

The common belief that as one travels west, one finds there was an everincreasing time lag in the occurrence of architectural fashions, is simply not the case. As Iowans grew out of the log cabin and sod house (in the far western parts), they got “right up and at 'em” in mirroring what was going on in the East. The characteristic Iowa county courthouse of the 1840s, or the typical rural or urban dwelling, was designed in the style of the moment, ranging from the late Federal-Greek Revival mode to the Romanesque and Gothic revivals, to the Italianate. Such styles might indeed be a bit old fashioned for the few major urban centers of the East—Boston, New York, or Philadelphia—but it was exactly what was being built at that moment in cities, towns, and rural areas of upstate New York, western Pennsylvania, or central Ohio and Kentucky. This up-to-date quality of Iowa architecture continued throughout the nineteenth century, and it should be no surprise that it has characterized the architectural scene in the state up to the present moment.

The romantic image of the first settlement of the western American frontier as typified by the pioneer's log cabin is beautifully fulfilled in Iowa. From the very first settlements in newly platted towns, or on homesteads in the countryside, the first buildings were generally log cabins. The usual cabin was a tworoom single-story structure built of split logs, though there were a fair number of one-and-a-half-story and even two-story cabins built. Either at the moment the cabin was built or soon afterward, a masonry fireplace with its accompanying chimney was provided, and factory-built, double-hung windows were purchased and used. The log cabin was not simply an on-the-spot, do-it-yourself affair. It was a house type presented in pattern books of the mid-century. Daniel Harrison Jacques of New York, in his 1859 The House: A Pocket Manual of Rural Architecture, opened his presentation by stating, “As our first design, we present a log cabin—a kind of dwelling which must continue to be common for a long time to come, in parts of the west and south.” 42

Whether such a log structure was the first county courthouse, a store, or a dwelling, it was always regarded as temporary, to be replaced as soon as possible by an acceptable masonry or mill-framed and sheathed wood building. Again, as was true of the general pattern of settlement of the state, the replacement of the log structure by a permanent one usually happened quickly. In most instances the log structure was not discarded or torn down, but was simply moved and used for another purpose. There are a number of examples where the initial log county courthouse was replaced by a permanent building, and then the first building was sold and transported off the site, either within the town or out into the country. On the homesteaded farm the log cabin often assumed a second life as a barn or storage building.

Although the Iowa log cabin was almost always the work of the settler, it is interesting to note how it often reflected elements of high-style architecture. Its proportions (especially the relationship of width and height of a facade) were quite classical, so too the pitch of the roof and also the general symmetry of windows and doors. In many examples, if the building was sheathed in clapboard, louvered shutters were added to the windows, and the cornice-entablature was cleaned up, so that the building could easily pose as a late Federal design.

Sod houses appeared relatively late in the settlement of the Iowa, after 1850. 43As with the log cabin, the sod dwelling and the even more primitive dugout were viewed as impermanent structures. These were built almost exclusively in the western areas of the state, where there was a lack of timber. They continued to be built as dwellings through the 1870s; after this decade, sod-walled structures were almost exclusively used as small utilitarian farm buildings.

By the time sod houses were built, pre-milled house components—doors, windows, and the like—were cheap and easily available, as were cast-iron stoves and sheet-metal chimneys. These sod houses were constructed of rectangular blocks of prairie sod, whose shape, size, and method of construction were similar to those used in southwestern or California adobe buildings. Generally the floors were of packed earth; the low-pitched, gabled, or shed roofs were formed of log beams, log rafters, a sheathing of prairie grass or willow brush, and then several layers of sod and dirt.

Almost from its earliest years of settlement, Iowa (as well as other midwestern states) attracted individual socioreligious groups that established colonies. A wide range of ethnic groups—Norwegians and Swedes, Germans and Czechs, and the Dutch—were also drawn to the rich lands of the state. While some of these groups consciously sought to retain aspects of their ethnic identity in language and culture, they almost instantly assumed whatever was the prevailing imagery and method of construction found in the architecture of their adopted land. If one searches diligently, one discovers a few instances here and there that could be looked upon as elements taken from the architecture of foreign homelands, but these are scarce and scattered. There are certainly those examples, such as one finds among the people of the Amana Colonies, where there was a strong tendency to the simple and puritanical, but the basic forms and fenestration of the buildings of these and other groups were an obvious reflection of the typical frontier image of the time. The ethnic qualities one finds in a number of Iowa communities, such as Pella with the Dutch windmills and half-timbered buildings, are purely an invention of the middle to late twentieth century.

There are two striking aspects of early domestic settlement architecture in Iowa, in addition to its up-to-date quality. The first is how speedily permanent masonry or milled-wood houses were constructed; the second, how large—in some case how grand—many of these dwellings were. Pre-1875 written descriptions and early drawings and prints of the Mississippi River landscape between Burlington and Dubuque note numerous hilltop Italianate villas, matching in miniature what one would have then encountered along the Hudson River.

These dwellings were not only large and built quickly, they were often of brick or stone and elaborately detailed, both within and without. A look at the individuals and families who built these houses reveals that a large number of settlers came to Iowa after they had sold their farms or businesses in upstate New York, Vermont, or elsewhere in New England. In a sense, these were not the ordinary homesteaders one usually envisions as settlers of the west. They were drawn to settle in Iowa because of its agricultural and trade possibilities, and they came with a reasonable amount of capital, enough to organize their farms or business activities and to build themselves stylish dwellings without delay.

The farmers, businessmen, and professionals were joined by carpenters and masons who could construct the houses and other buildings. Sawed lumber and prebuilt components were at first imported into the state, but sawmills and woodworking establishments came into existence very quickly. These first buildings, whether they comprised business blocks, churches, schoolhouses, or dwellings, almost always derived their designs from their builder (often working in a traditional fashion with the owner) or from pattern books. The studies that have so far been made of pre-1860 Iowa architecture have not revealed how many and which pattern books had been used (one was advertised as early as 1839 in Davenport). We are aware of specific houses, such as the Silas W. Gardner house at Lyon, which were designed by Palliser and Palliser of New York and illustrated in their Palliser & Palliser's American Architecture (1878 and 1888). It would seem likely as well that there were a good number of Iowa dwellings derived from plans presented in the pages of such magazines as the American Agriculturalist (especially during the 1840s and 1850s) or Wallace's Farmer (published between 1879 and 1929).

That pattern books were used seems most likely, as the mid-nineteenth-century publication of Orson S. Fowler's Home for All, or the Gravel Wall and Octagonal Mode of Buildingindicates. This little volume, advocating the glories and ethical virtues of the octagonal dwelling, was first published in 1848, and by the beginning of the 1850s Iowa had acquired its first batch of octagonal dwellings. The brief popularity of the octagonal mode all across the country provides a clue as to how extensively pattern books were used, before 1850, as well as their striking influence in the later nineteenth century and in the twentieth century.

Octagonal houses in Iowa ran the gamut from large, sumptuous examples of the mode, such as the 1857 Langworthy house in Dubuque, to the more austere versions, an example of which would be the Logan House of about 1854 in Decorah. The octagonal mode was also utilized for other building types such as the Grundy County Courthouse at Grundy Center (1870, demolished), and for barns from the mid-1870s on. 44

The principal public buildings of Iowa during most of the nineteenth century were public schools, churches, and county courthouses. Public school, academy, and college buildings were often the first permanent masonry buildings constructed within a newly established town. While there are a few examples of early schools utilizing the Greek Revival style, most of them were within the Italianate mode, exhibiting segmental arched windows, bracketed entablatures or cornices, and central cupolas.

Within a few years after the establishment of a new town, churches began to be built. Along with schools and possibly courthouses, churches were always considered to be the emblems indicating that a community had become a town, and, it was hoped, a civilized one. Generally, most of the earliest churches were either late Greek Revival buildings, or were Greek Revival structures with some proportions, details, and fenestration that might point to the Gothic, the Romanesque, or the Italianate. By the late 1850s and on into the 1860s, denominational differences were increasingly expressed in the buildings' images.

The Roman Catholic church tended at first to think of itself garbed in a simplified Romanesque Revival style, part Italian, part French. In the years after the Civil War, the Catholic church turned increasingly to the French Gothic, though a certain number of Romanesque-inspired churches were still built. Before and after the turn of the century, there was an increased tendency for church builders to look at the Italian or French Baroque (Beaux-Arts) as a possible source.

From its introduction into the state, the Episcopal church held tightly to the image of the small-town or rural English Gothic church, responding to the edicts of the Ecclesiological movement. With the fewest of exceptions, these Episcopal churches were small, almost dollhouselike in overall size and fenestration; at the same time, their designs were sophisticated, and the buildings were richly detailed with elaborate woodwork, carved stone, and stained glass windows.

The Congregationalists, following the national precepts of design laid down by their denomination, opted for an abstracted version of the Romanesque. The Quakers built their interpretation of the simple brick or clapboard-sheathed meetinghouse, while the Presbyterians maneuvered between the Romanesque (eventually taking over the Richardsonian Romanesque beginning in the late 1880s), and an urbane Gothic image.

The county courthouse, as a building type, provides a historical view of the succession of images employed for public buildings throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 45In Iowa the first permanent masonry courthouse was built in 1839–1840 for Henry County at Mount Pleasant (demolished). In essence this brick two-story building, with its low, hipped roof and four end-wall chimneys, appeared more as a large residence in the Federal style than as a public building. Following the construction of this courthouse, there was a spate of them built throughout Iowa, and they were made in the Greek Revival image. These buildings were usually gabled rectangular brick structures, two stories high, and often surmounted by a cupola or tower placed either at the center of the roof ridge or directly over the entrance pediment. The sides of these buildings were usually presented with pilasters supporting a wide entablature and cornice. The principal fronts varied, some with pilasters, others with columns providing a two-story portico. Most of these early Greek Revival courthouses are now gone, but one can gain a sense of what they were like from the few surviving examples, such as the 1861 Allamakee County Courthouse at Waukon (now a museum), and the Lee County Courthouse of 1841 at Fort Madison, which is still in use.

Surprisingly, though variations of the Italianate mode were extensively used for schools, business blocks, and dwellings, it was generally not a style that was used often for the county courthouses of Iowa. The tendency was to mix Italianate features, first with the late Greek Revival, and then, into the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s, with the French Second Empire style, the new rage. The 1857–1859 Greek Revival Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma exhibits numerous Italianate details, while the Howard County Courthouse of 1879–1880 in Cresco has an Italianate body with some French Second Empire detailing.

In the late 1870s and into the 1880s the French Second Empire was the modish image for county courthouses across the country. The most impressive contribution to this rich, exuberant style in Iowa was the Davis County Courthouse (1877) in Bloomfield. The French Second Empire mode gave way in the mid to late 1880s to the Richardsonian Romanesque, and the state fortunately still possesses a good many examples of this profoundly American imagery. Since most of these buildings were constructed of brick with limestone trim, they tend to convey the banded coloristic qualities associated with the Ruskinian Gothic. The 1883–1884 Ringgold County Courthouse (demolished) was in fact a rather energetic example of the Victorian Gothic, similar in spirit to the contemporary work of Frank Furness in Philadelphia. Typical of the Victorianized Richardsonian Romanesque is the Washington County Courthouse of 1885–1887, the body of which was built around a massive corner tower.

Corn Palace, Sioux City, 1891

Coal Palace, Ottumwa, 1890

Bluegrass Palace, Creston, 1890

A revealing and vivid clue as to how Iowans viewed architecture can be seen in their late nineteenth-century exposition buildings. The wildest of these, verging on Victorian madness, comprised the group built for in-state exhibitions meant to celebrate local industry and production. All of these, like the famous Ice Palaces of Minnesota, are gone, but we can still experience them through illustrations and written descriptions. Sioux City, with its aggressive campaign to sell itself, initiated its first Corn Palace in 1888. This was followed by a second in 1889, and the third and final one in 1891. 46Contemporaneous with these corn palaces were Ottumwa's 1890 Coal Palace (built, of course, with blocks of coal), Creston's Bluegrass Palaces of 1889, 1890, and 1892, and the 1892 Flax Palace in Forest City. 47All of these structures featured accretions of almost unbelievably rich Victorian architectural elements—these were indeed palaces one might encounter in the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Iowa's selfimage can also be glimpsed in the buildings that the state constructed at various national and international expositions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For the Centennial Exhibition held in 1876 in Philadelphia, Iowa presented itself through an Eastlake dwelling that had a few references to the post-Civil War Italianate style; the building was described as “a neat tasteful frame cottage.” 48For the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the state of Iowa leased an existing Richardsonian Romanesque park pavilion, and the architectural firm of Josselyn and Taylor of Cedar Rapids made some additions and alterations. 49The image chosen for the Iowa pavilions at the smaller exhibitions at Omaha (1898) and at New Orleans (1884–1885) was loosely Colonial Revival. At the two great American expositions of the early 1900s, at Buffalo (1900) and at Saint Louis (1904), the state represented itself in terms of a knowing, sophisticated version of Ecole des Beaux-Arts Classicism.

Flax Palace, Forest City, 1892

Iowa State Building, Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia, 1876

Iowa State Building, Louisiana Purchase Exposition, Saint Louis 1904

Following the ins and outs of fashion, the designers of Iowa courthouses turned to the classical Beaux-Arts mode in the 1890s and on through the 1920s. The first phase of the Beaux-Arts looked to the liveliness of the French Baroque tradition and its revival in the nineteenth century. Thus the 1893 Dubuque County Courthouse in Dubuque can be thought of as a Victorian interpretation of the Beaux-Arts. By the early 1900s, Beaux-Arts classicism had become more “correct” but often still retained its former richness of form and details, beautifully summed up in the 1906 Polk County Courthouse in Des Moines.

The one and only exception to the dominance of the Beaux-Arts tradition for the design of Iowa courthouses between 1900 and 1920 was the well-known Woodbury County Courthouse (1915–1917), designed by William L. Steele, and Purcell and Elmslie. This is the only example of a large public building designed by the exponents of the Prairie school. The general format, a public-oriented building capped by a tower devoted to the business of the court, was similar to that of the later Beaux-Arts style Veterans' Memorial and City Hall of 1927–1928 in Cedar Rapids. A comparison of these two buildings well illustrates how in architecture “the clothes make the man.”

The teens and twenties brought even more simplification and refinement to courthouse architecture. Frequently the building form was a rectangular three-story box, with a rusticated basement and a surface above composed of inset loggias accompanied by the suggestion of end pavilions. The O'Brien County Courthouse (1917) at Primghar and the post-World War I Pocahontas County Courthouse (1923) at Pocahontas sum up this approach. The path of abstraction of the Beaux-Arts Classical tradition continued on through the later 1920s and the 1930s up to the opening of World War II. Those courthouses designed during the Coolidge and Hoover administrations tended to be traditional classical buildings that had been brought up to date; those in the depression years of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration (the PWA Moderne) were to be perceived as efficient office buildings. The Louisa County Courthouse of 1928 at Wapello would characterize the former approach; the Jones County Courthouse (1937) at Anamosa, the latter.

After World War II a number of the older county courthouses of Iowa were replaced by larger, more “efficient” buildings. Until the 1970s, two approaches characterized the design of these buildings. One of these was to continue on with the Beaux-Arts tradition but to water it down, so that the building would be responded to more as a modern building than a classical one; an example of this would be the 1958 Emmet County Courthouse, in which the architect seems to have played a visual game between the theme of narrow classical engaged piers and the theme of machine repetition signaling the modernist architectural image. The second approach, as seen in the Clarke County Courthouse (1955–1956) at Osceola, was to commend the building fully to the modernist image by suspending a rectangular box above the landscape. In recent years the modernist imagery of the International style has been replaced by the masonry cut-into box, which presents the building as a piece of minimalist sculpture; the Butler County Courthouse (1975) in Allison is a case in point.

If one looks into who designed these county courthouses one can begin to understand how the practice of architecture developed within the state. With only a few exceptions, the designers of the first permanent buildings remain unknown, which usually means that the structures were designed by their builders in consultation with the clients. An exception would be Stephen B. Brophy, who designed the first Muscatine County Courthouse (1839–1941). Brophy provided a simple Greek Revival design of sophisticated proportions which would have been at home anywhere in the East. 50By the 1860s and later, the professional architect was definitely on the scene. Iowa courthouses of the years 1860 through 1900 were designed by both out-of-state and in-state individuals who advertised themselves as architects. A good number of designs for county courthouses in Iowa were obtained through public competitions. Of the winners of such competitions, well over half were out-of-state architects. Eckel and Mann of Saint Joseph designed the Pottawattamie County Courthouse at Council Bluffs (1885–1888, demolished); T. Dudley Allen of Minneapolis designed three of the county courthouses in Iowa, and was an unsuccessful competitor in two other competitions; John C. Cochrane, one of the architects for the Illinois State Capitol, designed the Marshall County Courthouse (1884–1886) in Marshalltown; and there are numerous other architects from Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and elsewhere that ended up designing one or more of the county courthouses of the state.

While competitions continued to be held to obtain architects for these courthouses, after 1900 there was a marked tendency to engage architects who practiced within the state. Thus after 1900 the Des Moines firm of Proudfoot and Bird obtained a good number of commissions for county courthouses, and such patronage of in-state architects has continued to the present day.

Iowa's two major public commissions of the nineteenth century, the first Iowa State Capitol (1840–1842) at Iowa City, and the later capitol building at Des Moines (1871–1886), were produced by talented professionals. John Francis Rague designed the earlier building, Cochrane and Piquenard the latter. Professionalism also dominated other prominent public building types, including libraries and post offices. The Chicago firm of Patton and Miller designed some 100 Carnegie libraries throughout the Midwest, and of these, 19 were built in Iowa. 51The remaining 80-plus Carnegie libraries within the state were designed by both local Iowans and out-of-state architects, with the general tendency increasingly to engage in-state architects. 52

Post office buildings, along with county courthouses, churches, bank buildings and motion picture theaters, are among the most memorable building types encountered in almost all of Iowa's towns and cities. As was true throughout the country, the earlier post offices, from the 1890s through 1920, were almost always designed in Washington, D.C., by the Office of the Supervising Architect for the Treasury Department. In the 1920s and 1930s a number of the designs were by local architects working within the specifications set by the Washington office.

The styles of these post office buildings in Iowa followed the pattern generally found elsewhere in the country. The first were Beaux-Arts Classical; from the twenties on they were designed according to variations on the Georgian and Federal themes and were meant to be read as Colonial. In contrast, the public library buildings were far more varied, ranging from the Beaux-Arts Classical to the medieval and, in the teens and twenties, to the Craftsman (Arts and Crafts) and Prairie modes. One would find it difficult to point to even one example of a federal post office building constructed since 1945 which has contributed substantially to the aesthetic quality of any Iowa city or town; on the other hand, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, a remarkable number of public libraries were built which represent some of the best designs of these decades.

Commercial Buildings on the west side of Main Street, south of the town square, Malcom, Iowa

Turning to the commercial architecture constructed in Iowa from the early 1860s on, it would seem quite certain that most of these buildings were designed by architects. The Directory of 19th Century Iowa Architects, compiled by Alan M. Schroder, 53indicates that almost every Iowa community of some size had one or more architects. This continued to be the case into the early 1900s. 54One can play all sorts of games in trying to answer the question of who was the first practicing architect to live and work in Iowa. Certainly the first strong designer to emerge was John Francis Rague, who designed the State Capitol at Iowa City and later (1854) established himself in Dubuque. 55Rague, however, was hardly alone in pursuing architecture in the state in the 1850s. Josiah P. Walton was located in Muscatine in 1854, George Edwards (of Edwards and Carroll) was established in Davenport by 1856, J. B. Graham was practicing in Keokuk by 1857, and J. Stover was listed in Burlington in 1859. There were a number of others. By the 1860s there were a few figures, such as William Foster of Des Moines, whose practice extended around the entire state. 56

These architects, and those who followed, furnished their clients with a sequence of styles that were popular on the national scene. As in public architecture, the round-arched, bracket-corniced Italianate style merged into the French Second Empire; and this in turn was replaced by the turreted Queen Anne, the Rusticated Richardsonian Romanesque, and finally, before the turn of the century, the Beaux-Arts Classical. In designing these commercial buildings of the late nineteenth century, the architects of Iowa relied on ordering an impressive array of pre-fabricated parts from catalogues, ranging from cast-iron piers and lintels to pressed metal entablatures and cornices, as well as doors, windows, and other components. Some of these were produced quite early within Iowa; others were ordered from Chicago, Cleveland, and other points to the east.

By the late 1850s, Iowa architects found themselves involved also in domestic architecture, though to what extent remains unknown. Only in recent years have research and historical surveys begun to pin down who designed Iowa's middle- and upper-middle-class houses. It is also becoming apparent that designs derived from pattern books proliferated in the years after 1880. The architect George F. Barber of Knoxville, Tennessee, provided inspiration through the many editions of his The Cottage Souvenir #2 (1891), and his New Model Dwellings and How Best to Build Them (1895). Historical studies are revealing an increased number of homeowners who ordered sets of his working drawings.

Domestic designs that came from Barber or others, from in-state or out-of-state architects, or from carpenter-builders, methodically followed national trends throughout the nineteenth century. By the 1860s the earlier Federal-Greek, Gothic Revival, and Italianate styles were replaced by (or in some instances combined with) the French Second Empire mode. In the seventies the Eastlake mode entered the scene, its features often combined with one of the earlier styles, or with the emerging Queen Anne. Though brief, the predilection for the masonry monumentalism of the domestic Richardsonian Romanesque was a vigorous trend within the larger cities, especially in Sioux City and Dubuque. The final decade of the century witnessed the gradual triumph of the Colonial Revival, first combined with the Queen Anne, and then on its own.

Whether it be a skyscraper of the 1910s, a suburban house, or a farm dwelling, the Iowa buildings realized after 1900 simply illustrate how far-reaching was the American scene. Most businessmen wished to see themselves and their warehouses in exactly the same garb as those of their compatriots in Chicago and New York. While a few of these buildings were designed by non-Iowa architects—for instance, some of the commercial buildings by Daniel H. Burnham and Company of Chicago—most were designed by the larger Iowa firms, such as Liebbe, Nourse and Rasmussen and Proudfoot and Bird, 57both of Des Moines, or by Josselyn and Taylor of Cedar Rapids. The products of these and other Iowa firms were, in fashionability and quality of design, well the equal of what one would have found elsewhere in the country.

The architecture of Iowa directly related to agriculture forms a significant chapter on both the regional and national scene. Drawings and written descriptions indicate that the classic, continually repeated organization of the Iowa farm complex was established at the very beginning of settlement. The farm complex was approached via a dirt or gravel driveway usually laid out perpendicular to the public road. This driveway penetrated to the center of a group of buildings. The formal front of the house faced the public road, although the everyday entrance—usually through a porch—looked out onto the driveway between the dwelling and the farm buildings. Often a fenced lawn, perhaps with a few flower beds, was placed in front of the farmhouse, and a gate from the farm driveway led up to the formal entrance—an entrance that was seldom used. The barn, smokehouse, corncribs, ice house, and other utilitarian buildings would be located on the other side of the driveway. This classic farm complex, with its right-angle relationship to the public road, has continued to be used to the present day.

In addition to the changes in architectural fashions over the decades, which are beautifully revealed in the farm dwellings, there have been other changes as well. The earlier small barns with gable roofs were replaced around the turn of the century by much larger octagonal barns and gambrel-roofed barns; high cylindrical silos made of hollow tiles or reinforced concrete became a common sight by 1910. The latest elements are the new high-tech, large-scale, and brightly painted metal silos one now finds all over Iowa.

Rural barns throughout America (and it is certainly the case in Iowa) form a fascinating chapter within the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century architecture. The advantages and disadvantages of the various forms for the barn were endlessly discussed in farm journals, and in such pattern books as W. E. Frudden's Farm Buildings, How to Build Them. 58As Lowell J. Soike has pointed out in his Without Right Angles: The Round Barns of Iowa, a good number of these barns built before 1918 were designed and constructed by companies and contractors who specialized in this building type. 59While there is no question that these round barns are impressive objects on the landscape, one should remember that their popularity was just one more indication that the midwestern farmer looked at agricultural production as a business entailing the latest technology. The round barn, with its central round silo, was adopted by the farmers because it was considered to be the latest technological device for sheltering and feeding livestock. Like the short-lived rage for the octagonal house, the popularity of the round barn was relatively brief, lasting from around 1910 through 1918. The form was discarded when it was demonstrated that it had as many disadvantages as advantages.

As nineteenth-century agriculture on the plains evolved, a variety of more specialized building forms came to be associated with the typical farm complex. One of these was the corncrib, which started out as a small gable-roofed log structure, often in the form of a keystone or V-shape. 60While the roofs and floors of these structures were tight, the walls were left with air spaces between the logs or milled, sawed sheathing, so that the interiors would be well ventilated. Plans for such buildings were published in the American Agriculturalistin the 1860s. 61By the end of the century, with the increased need to store larger quantities of corn, the form of the double crib with a central drive-through evolved. By 1916 W. E. Frudden provided readers of his Farm Buildings, How to Build Themwith schemes for a central-gabled tower for elevating machinery, and even a cylindrical model realized in terracotta tile. 62Prefabricated perforated steel cribs were produced and marketed from 1910 to the present, as were cribs of concrete block or reinforced concrete. These twentieth-century cribs run the gamut from those with gambrel roofs, to those with semi-circular ends, to structures that are purely circular. The corncrib remains a very important feature of the farm scene, and in recent years, with the general increase in the size of farms, the cribs have been getting ever larger, and their images, high-tech.

Farm complex near Waukon, c. 1910.

Equally dominant on the agricultural scene were the grain elevators which thrust themselves upward near rail lines, like skyscrapers of the plains. 63The first of these were tall, vertical wood buildings (often sheathed in sheet metal) surmounted by a pair of shed roofs from which shot up an even narrower gabled roof monitor. Rows of reinforced concrete grain elevators began to appear on the landscape after 1900, and by the twenties almost every town with a railroad connection displayed these sentinels of the plains; in larger cities they even appeared downtown. Accompanying these elevators were other utilitarian buildings used for processing grain. These often sprouted tubes, pipes, gangways, and pieces of machinery that frequently created the type of small-scale industrial world one might find in 1920s and 1930s paintings by Charles Sheeler or Charles Demuth. This factorylike aspect of agriculture accelerated in the late 1950s and afterward with the introduction of processing facilities, which, with their machine image, match the high-tech imagery of current architecture.

A blend of technology and our image of Iowa's picturesque rural scene is reflected in silos associated with farm complexes. The earliest of these were low, small, rectangular structures of wood; circular forms, also in wood, began to appear in the later nineteenth century. Just after the turn of the century, silos began to be built of hollow terracotta tile, of concrete block, or of reinforced concrete. Generally, the silo was placed adjacent to the principal barn, but in some instances (as in a number of the round barns), the silo was incorporated within the barn. After 1945 the silo emerged as a high-tech form, beautifully summed up in the bright blue “glass fused to steel” silos built by the A. O. Harvestore Products, Inc., of DeKalb, Illinois. The Harvestore silos were first introduced in 1949, and continue to be installed on farms. The earliest were 14 feet in diameter; today the most common diameter is 20 feet. The silos range in height from 40 to 89 feet. Generally they are plain, monochrome, but they can be “customized” with the date or the farmer's name, or they can display the flag of the United States or Iowa.

Another utilitarian form that dramatically announced the location of a town or city is the water tower. The earliest of these were usually of wood, occasionally of cast and wrought iron. The classic hemispherical-bottom metal tanks on steel legs which we so closely associate with the towns of the Middle West were introduced into Iowa at Fort Dodge in 1894 by the Chicago Bridge Company. 64This early water tower is no longer standing, but similar ones can be found at Urbana (between Waterloo and Cedar Rapids), Independence, West Union, Algona, Hampton, and in many other communities. In the years since 1945 many of the older water towers have been replaced by an inverted teardrop-shaped tank that melts into its thin, enclosed, curved stem.

In both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, bank buildings constituted one of the dominant building types in Iowa towns. In the early twentieth century several firms emerged which specialized in this building type. One of these was A. Moorman and Company of Saint Paul, Minnesota (1918); another was the Lytle Company of Sioux City (1921). The usual imagery they employed was that of the Beaux-Arts Classical, sometimes pointing to the Greek, sometimes to the Roman, and in some instances to the Renaissance. There are a few additional examples by these firms that utilized the Prairie school image, as well as the Colonial Revival. Generally the buildings provided by these two firms were sophisticated, well-detailed designs; and although the buildings appeared traditional, they were often highly innovative in structure, layout, and mechanical equipment.

Turning to public architecture in Iowa after 1900, one finds that the most impressive buildings were public schools, small city halls, and on a number of occasions churches. The group of schools designed in the 1920s in Des Moines by Proudfoot, Bird and Rawson took the Elizabethan image and re-created the romantic feeling of an English country house set within a picturesque garden. In the later 1930s the PWA and WPA programs of the federal government helped to finance a large number of school buildings and auditorium-gymnasiums, almost all of which expressed the Streamline Moderne image. In the twenties, and above all in the depression years of the 1930s, numerous small Iowa towns built tiny street-side buildings that contained all of the municipal functions, from the city-hall council meeting room to a garage to house the community's fire truck. A few of these in the teens were Prairie-esque; in the twenties they leaned toward the Georgian and Federal styles, and in the 1930s the style was that of the Streamline Moderne. The quality of good design in this earlier work continued in the decades after World War II, especially in the numerous “finger-plan” single-floor schools built all over the state. These schools, with a corridor to one side and classrooms to the other, generally demanded large suburban sites at the edges of a community.

As one would expect of a center of American Scene painting, Iowa has public buildings of the twenties and thirties that contain an impressive number of murals. 65Grant Wood's importance in the 1930s is directly revealed in his many murals, and his influence appears in post offices and school buildings in murals produced by artists working in the American Scene tradition. 66These murals, as well as the earlier Beaux-Arts murals in the state, show us how painting could successfully be related to architecture, and vice versa.

The commercial architecture of Iowa followed the usual national pattern of the 1920s and later: first Beaux-Arts Classicism, with an occasional look to the medieval; then the Art Deco and Streamline Moderne in the later twenties and thirties. With only a few minor exceptions, International style modernism seized hold of the commercial scene after 1945. Mies van der Rohe designed one building in Des Moines, and some years later Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill designed a small office building, also in Des Moines. The swing in fashion has in recent years brought Postmodernism to the state, and in the 1980s almost every major commercial building—whether the image be high-tech or abstracted classicism—indicated how Iowa architects kept up with the latest trends.

Because of slow replacement of some of the older structures, Iowa has retained an appreciable number of older roadside buildings, especially service stations. Some of these form wonderful roadside ruins. There are abandoned double-pier stations, and even some in the Mediterranean mode. There are still many Art Deco service stations that have continued in use or have been converted to other uses. Although Iowa never had an abundance of roadside programmatic buildings or sculpture, there are a few highlights, such as the 1958 statue of Pocahontas on the outskirts of the town of Pocahontas.

The state has also contributed to the inventory of twentieth-century architectural follies. These whimsical structures include the Grotto of the Redemption (1912–1954) at West Bend; “The World's Smallest Grotto” (1946–1976) in Iowa City, and Frederickus Reinders's scattering of follies in Hospers (1921, 1945).

Iowa architectural firms and individual architects designed a wide array of houses for the middle and upper middle classes of the state. The preference during the first two decades of the century was for the Colonial or English Tudor styles. In the realm of the American Arts and Crafts movement, Iowa did indeed realize an assortment of Craftsman dwellings and California bungalows, plus a small number of public and commercial edifices reflecting the influence of Gustav Stickley and his Craftsmanmagazine. At least for domestic architecture, many of these designs were derived from pattern books published in Iowa or elsewhere, and probably a good number of houses were built from working drawings ordered from lumberyards or from regional and national home and farm magazines.

Iowa is a place that for many people personifies the rich productivity of the prairie, so it is to be expected that the state participated to the fullest in the early episode of American modernism, the Prairie movement. 67The high point of the Prairie school approach to suburban development is found in Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahoney Griffin's Rock Crest-Rock Glen development of 1912 in Mason City. Within the development are a number of the Griffins' most significant designs, including one of the most romantic and picturesque of American Prairie houses, the 1912 Melson house. Louis H. Sullivan's design for the Merchants National Bank in Grinnell (1913–1914) is unquestionably one of the gems of his late Prairie banks; and William L. Steele and Purcell and Elmslie's Woodbury County Courthouse at Sioux City (1915–1917) embodies the summation of approach of the Prairie school architects to the design of a public building.

In addition to Sullivan, the Griffins, and Purcell and Elmslie, a good number of the principal advocates of the Prairie mode designed and built within the state of Iowa. These included George W. Maher, Francis Barry Byrne, Dwight Perkins, and William Drummond. The homegrown Prairie exponents of Iowa were dominated by William L. Steele of Sioux City, and Einar Broaten of Mason City. However, a majority of the Prairie houses built in the teens and early 1920s in Iowa were designed by local architects who, it would seem, treated the Prairie mode not as a crusade but simply as one of the available fashionable images. 68When one travels throughout Iowa, one is surprised by the number of these Prairie houses that were built, not just in the larger towns and in the cities, but also in very small towns, and even out into the country. There is no question that there was a sizable clientele within Iowa for the Prairie dwelling, as well as for the Craftsman house and the California bungalow. Most of the Prairie houses were based either on Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie box—derived from his 1906 project for the Ladies Home Journal—or from more classical-oriented houses of George W. Maher.

The number of pre-fabricated houses that were erected and purchased within Iowa in the years after 1900 is also surprising. Studies of pre-fabricated housing in Iowa are only beginning, but even now it is apparent that some Iowans must have thought of this form of housing as a viable one. There are a few clues indicating that Iowans did purchase pre-fabricated houses from Sears, Roebuck and Company. 69Aladdin Homes of Bay City, Michigan, and Hodgson Portable Houses of Boston and New York advertised extensively in such regional and national Iowa magazines as Successful Farmingand Better Homes and Gardens, both published by the Meredith Publishing Company of Des Moines. Within Iowa itself was the Gordon-Van Tine Company of Davenport, which advertised itself as the “World's Largest Specialist in Home Building Since 1865.” It sold not only “plan-cut houses,” but also barns and other farm buildings.

That Iowans had not lost an interest in the potential of pre-fabricated housing is indicated pointedly by the number of houses bought from the Lustron Corporation of Columbus, Ohio. These pre-fabricated porcelain-enameled steel houses were built between 1949 and 1951. As was the case with the Prairie houses of the teens and early twenties, Lustron houses were erected all over Iowa, from the smallest towns to the largest cities. Considering the brief period of time in which they were produced, it is amazing how many were built within the state.

In the years immediately after World War I, Iowans continued to build Craftsman and California bungalows, though these later examples tended to be more sedate in fenestration and detailing. By the end of the twenties and into the thirties the smaller bungalows and dwellings began to reflect one or another of the period revivals, especially the Colonial and the English Tudor. A fitting termination of the period revival for the small Iowa house is notable in the wonderfully romantic, almost dollhouselike dwellings that were designed by the builder Howard F. Moffitt and built in Iowa City at the end of the 1930s and the beginning of the 1940s. Larger, upper-middle-class homes and houses for the wealthy followed a similar course, only there was an added sprinkling of the French Norman and the Mediterranean-Spanish styles. Compared to the residents of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, Iowans did not build many grand suburban or country houses in the opulent decade of the 1920s. There are a few exceptions in and around Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and Des Moines. Salisbury House (1923–1928), the suburban estate of Carl Weeks in Des Moines, with its assemblage of medieval parts imported from England, could easily match similar Tudor houses built elsewhere in the country.

One influence of Iowa on the national architectural scene occurred through the production of architectural components by the Curtis Company of Clinton, and the Pella Company in Pella. The heyday for the Curtis Company was in the 1920s and 1930s when national figures such as Royal Barry Wills and Dwight James Baum designed entrances, fireplace mantels, and other woodwork components for the company. The influence of the Meredith Publishing Company on the national scene has been strong since the mid-1920s, whether it be through the popular middle-class magazine Better Homes and Gardensor the more recent Metropolitan Home. Under the editorship of the architect John Normile, this company published pattern books and offered a mail-order-plan service for its “Builtcost Gardened Homes.” As did the Curtis Company, Meredith engaged a number of nationally known architects—Royal Barry Wills and Verna Cook Salomonsky among them—to provide the drawings for houses.

Although the effect of the Great Depression of the 1930s was a devastating one for the construction of single-family houses, a good number were built in Iowa, especially after 1935. While the Colonial style predominated among them, a remarkable number of Art Deco-Streamline Moderne houses were built within the state. As would be expected, most of these are encountered in the larger cities, but still a tour of the smaller cities and towns will almost always reveal one here or there. If a list were made of a dozen major examples of pre-World War II Moderne houses, the Streamline all-concrete Butler house (1935–1937) in Des Moines would be right at the top. 70

In the years following World War II, the newly expanded suburbs of Iowa cities and towns sprouted forth with mildly Colonial Revival dwellings and versions of the California ranch house. There were a few episodes of important period revival houses built after 1945, especially those designed by the Chicago architect Jerome Robert Cerny. Frank Lloyd Wright dotted the Iowa landscape with a number of his low, single-story late Usonian houses, and the Modernist Richard J. Neutra and Keck and Keck of Chicago illustrated how the glass post-and-beam dwelling could be related to the woods and hills of the state. By the mid-1950s a number of local architects had taken up the imagery of the post-World War II Modern with real understanding. This was especially the case with the houses designed by Crites and McConnell, as it was with the late Modern and Postmodern in the domestic designs of Charles Herbert and Associates (now Herbert Lewis Kruse Blunck Architecture) of Des Moines.

A perusal of the awards issues of the Iowa Architectfrom the 1980s reveals how closely these architects have been involved with the current imagery—ranging from high tech, to late Modernism, to Postmodernism—and it equally reveals the general high level of design found throughout the state. Along with the intensified programs of historic preservation and historic renovation, Iowa buildings of the late 1980s, through siting, scale, and contextualism, accomplished much to create a sense of the specificity of place, whether within an existing downtown or on new sites reaching out onto the prairie.


John Plumbe, Jr., “Sketches of Iowa and Wisconsin Taken during a Residence of Three Years in These Territories, 1839,” Annals of Iowa14, no. 7 (Jan. 1925): 484.

Grant Wood, Revolt Against the City (Iowa City: Clio Press, 1935), 23.

Thomas H. Benton, et al., The Garden of the World, or the Great West, 146.

Ibid., 145.

Plumbe, “Sketches of Iowa and Wisconsin,” 484.

Marshall McKusick, Men of Ancient Iowa (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1964), 98; Wilfred O. Logan, Woodland Complex in Northeastern Iowa, 181–84.

McKusick, Men of Ancient Iowa, 168–96.

J. B. Jackson, American Space (New York: W. W. Norton, 1972), 23.

Hildegard Binder Johnson, Order upon the Land: The U.S. Rectangular Land Survey and the Upper Mississippi Country, 40–49, 55–56.

Duane Anderson, Eastern Iowa Archaeology, 13–20.

Ibid., 26.

Logan, Woodland Complex, 178–89.

Peter Nabokov and Robert Easton, Native American Architecture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 56–62.

Ibid., 63, 66–67.

Anderson, Eastern Iowa Archaeology, 34.

McKusick, Men of Ancient Iowa, 171–73; John and Margaret Hotopp, “Gathering the Past at Glenwood.”

Anderson, Eastern Iowa Archaeology, 40.

McKusick, Men of Ancient Iowa, 106.

Cyrus Thomas, “Report on Mound Exploration,” 99–103.

Ibid., pl. 5, fig. 49.

R. Clark Mallam, “The Mound Builders: An American Myth.” Journal of the Iowa Archaeological Society23 (1976): 145–75.

Charles R. Keyes, “A Unique Survey,” Palimpsest11:5 (1930): 214–27.

Thomas, “Mound Exploration.”

Alfred Theodore Andreas, Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa, 1875, 436.

Ibid., 440.

Ibid., 437.

Ibid., 445.

Clare C. Cooper, The Role of the Railroads in the Settlement of Iowa (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1958), 46; William H. Thompson, Transportation in Iowa: A Historical Survey, 18–26.

Frank P. Donovan, “The Rock Island in Iowa,” Palimpsest44 (September 1963): 384.

William J. Petersen, “Railroads Come to Iowa,” 257.

Andreas, Atlas of the State of Iowa, 454.

M. Huebinger, Atlas of the State of Iowa, 293.

David C. Mott, “Abandoned Towns, Villages and Post Offices of Iowa,” Annals of Iowa (3rd Series) 17 (October 1930): 435.

Ibid., 435.

George B. Ford and Ralph E. Warner, City Planning Progress in the United States, 49–51.

Charles Mulford Robinson, 1909 “Report with Regard to Civic Affairs in the City of Cedar Rapids, Iowa,” (Cedar Rapids: City Commissioners, 1908). Ford and Warner, City Planning, 30–31.

Thomas P. Christensen, “The State Parks of Iowa,” 332–33.

Ibid., 345.

Ibid., 348.

P. W. Elwood, Jr., “Work of Landscape Architect in Iowa State Parks.”

Charles W. Roberts, “Poetry in Stone,” 1976.

Daniel Harrison Jacques, The House: A Pocket Manual of Rural Architecture, 46.

Rita Goranson, “Sod Dwellings in Iowa.”

Lowell J. Soike, Without Right Angles: The Round Barns of Iowa, 9–24.

Richard Pare, Court House (New York: Horizon Press, 1978); Paul K. Goeldner, “Temples of Justice: 19th Century County Courthouses in the Midwest and Texas.”

Ginalie Swain, ed., “Iowa's Incredible Exposition Palaces,” 4–9.

Betty Baldwin, “Flax Palaces,”; Ruth S. Beitz, “Swarthy King of the Palace Age”; John Ely Briggs, “Sioux City Corn Palaces”; Bruce E. Mahan, “The Blue Grass Palace,” Palimpsest44:12 (December 1931): 563–71. Swain, ed., “Exposition Palaces,” 10–14.

James D. McCabe, The Illustrated History of the Centennial Exposition… (Philadelphia: The National Publishing Company, 1876): 605.

Iowa Columbian Commission, Iowa at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, 10–26.

Loren N. Horton, Iowa Planning, Growth and Architecture. In Selected Mississippi River Towns of Iowa, 1833–1860, 233, 350.

Paul Kruty, “Patton and Miller: Designers of Carnegie Libraries.”

Bowers and Klingensmith, 1980.

Alan M. Schroder, Dictionary of 19th Century Iowa Architects.

William T. Comstock, The Architects' Directory and Specification Index for 1905–1906, 43–44.

M. M. Hoffman, “John Francis Rague—Pioneer Architect of Iowa”; Betsy Woodman, John Francis Rague: Mid-Nineteenth Century Revivalist Architect (1799–1877).

William Wagner, “William Foster—An Early Iowa Architect.”

Barbara Beverly Long, Iowa's Pre-Eminent Architectural Firm: the Architectural Legacy of Proudfoot and Bird, et al. in Iowa.

William Elmer Frudden, Farm Buildings.

Soike, Round Barns, 51–56.

Keith E. Roe, Corncribs: In History, Folklife, and Architecture (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1988).

Ibid., 27.

Frudden, Farm Buildings, 26–30.

E. G. Nourse, “Fifty Years of Farmer's Elevators in Iowa,” Bulletinof the Agricultural Experiment Station, Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, No. 221 (March 1923): 235–71.

John S. Gardner, “Tanks and Towers: Water-works in America,” Craig Zabel & Susan Scott Munshower, eds., American Public Architecture; European Roots and Native Expression (University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1989), 211.

Gladys Hamlin, “Mural Painting in Iowa.”

James M. Dennis, “The Mural Projects of Grant Wood,” The Iowan26 (Summer 1978): 22–26; Gregg R. Narber, “These Murals Were a New Deal,” The Iowan32 (Spring 1984): 8–17; Gregg R. Narber and Lea Rosson DeLong, “The New Deal Murals in Iowa,” Palimpsest63 (May/June 1982): 86–95; Mary L. Meixner, “Lowell Houser and the Genesis of a Mural,” Palimpsest66 (January/February 1985): 2–13.

Richard Guy Wilson and Sidney K. Robinson, The Prairie School in Iowa.

David Franklin Martin, “The Moderately Priced House and The Prairie School.”

Katherine Cole Stevenson & H. Ward Jandl, Houses By Mail: A Guide to Houses from Sears, Roebuck & Co..

Lawrence McCann, “The World's Most Modern House,” American Magazine123 (March 1937): 50–51, 124–27.

Writing Credits

David Gebhard and Gerald Mansheim