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Iowa City

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Iowa City was created as a fiat governmental center, similar to the way in which towns were established to house county seats throughout the state. 27Early in 1839, the territorial governor and the legislature authorized the creation of a commission to “locate the seat of government of the Territory of Iowa.” 28The city's name was selected at this time, and the governor, Robert Lucas, instructed the commission to place the proposed site for the territorial capitol within Johnson County, which was then on the western frontier of Iowa. The commissioners settled on a picturesque location on the Iowa River, at a point where the river was “a clear, limpid stream” and where the land on the western bank climbed up some 50 feet “to the level of a smooth prairie, which approaches the bank of the river at this place, and then sweeps off westward in beautiful undulations.” 29

The site for the future capitol building was selected on the eastern bluff overlooking the Iowa River valley. The site was surveyed in July 1839, with Leander Judson drawing up a grid plat for the city. Befitting a place that was to be the capital for the state, Judson made a number of modifications in the usual repetitious grid scheme. On the bluff, he laid out a 12-acre square for the capitol building; one block east of this he proposed a city park defined on its north and south edges by sites for future churches. Eight blocks farther to the east was a full square block for the governor's house. The town's principal street was to be Iowa Avenue, which was to be 120 feet wide. Four other public open spaces were also provided: a college green, a market square south of Iowa Avenue, and two additional market squares north of the avenue. Two half-block sites were reserved for additional churches. Finally, in a move that was quite unusual for most nineteenth-century American cities, a public “promenade” was designated along a section of the east bank of the river. By the mid-1870s, much of this original generous public open space still remained intact. The capitol grounds (as well as the old capitol building) had become the site of the University of Iowa in 1857, and with the expansion of the city to the south, a block was set aside for the county courthouse.

In the early years, high hope was held for the utilization of the Iowa River for transportation. Construction of locks was started downstream by the federal government, but this project was finally abandoned as being far too costly.

The 1850s witnessed both losses and additions to the community. On the plus side was the arrival of the railroad in 1856; on the negative side was the loss of the state capitol to Des Moines. The economic and physical growth of the community from the 1850s on until the present day has been a moderate one. By the early 1900s, when its population was around 8,000, it was “the Iowa State University in its midst [which gave] it great prominence and the hundreds of students who flock[ed] there add[ed] life to the town.” 30

The preeminence of the university within the community increased appreciably in the 1920s, until indeed Iowa City became a college town in every sense of the term. In its growth the university eventually spilled over onto the west bank of the river, which now houses many of its largest buildings. The low, somewhat swampy land on the river's west bank was reclaimed in the late 1930s for a “Fine Arts Campus” for the university. During the years 1964 through 1978, extensive urban renewal and expansion of the university took place east of the river. Also, the university's presence is expressed in the impressive number of wonderful period revival sorority and fraternity houses, which so effectively sum up the decades from 1900 through 1930. As was par for the course for post-World War II urban renewal, an appreciable number of significant historic neighborhoods and buildings have disappeared. In the 1970s and 1980s the downtown acquired an urban enclosed mall (Old Capitol Center), a multi-storied parking structure and adjacent hotel, and streets were closed to provide for new buildings and pedestrian malls. As one would expect with the presence of the university and offices of the Iowa State Historical Society, Iowa City has in recent years been active in the field of historic preservation. Both in the downtown, and in the outlying areas, a good number of important buildings from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been restored and modified for new uses.

In recent years the university has emerged as the community's avant-garde patron for contemporary architecture. This is very much apparent in such buildings as Walter Netsch's (SOM) Bowen Science Building (1970–1972); his Hardin Library for the Health Sciences (1972–1974); Gunnar Birkerts's 1985–1986 Boyd Law Building; The CRS/Durrant Group's Carver-Hawkeye Arena (1980–1982); and in the commissioning in 1988 of the Los Angeles architect Frank O. Gehry to design the Laser Science and Engineering Center.

For a variety of reasons, including a history of decades of slow growth, Iowa City has avoided many of the planning and architectural errors and devastation usually inflicted on American cities over the past four decades. Notwithstanding the usual strip development (which could be anywhere) along US 6, “the Coralville Strip” northwest of the city, and more recently along I-80 and US 218, the community still reads strongly as a university town that was founded and began its growth in the middle to late nineteenth century.


Gerald Mansheim, Iowa City: An Illustrated History, 25–29.

Benjamin F. Shambaugh, ed., Documentary Material Relating to the History of Iowa, 142.

Shambaugh, Documentary Material, 149.

Huebinger, Atlas of the State of Iowa, 279.

Writing Credits

David Gebhard and Gerald Mansheim

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