The University of Iowa was founded in 1847. Ten years later, when the state capital was moved to Des Moines, the 1840 capitol building and its plat of land were given to the university. By the mid-1870s the university campus had acquired several additional buildings; the two largest (in the Italianate mode) were situated to each side of the Old Capitol building. At the end of the 1890s, with the impact of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 before them, university officials turned to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts for a new, up-to-date image. In 1898 the Des Moines firm of Proudfoot and Bird won a limited competition for Schaeffer Hall, which was to be one of four Beaux-Arts buildings to be arranged around the Old Capitol building.
Between 1902 and 1924, four buildings—Schaeffer Hall (1902), McBride Hall (1908), MacLean Hall (1912), and Jessup Hall (1924), all by Proudfoot and Bird, or Proudfoot, Bird and Rawson after 1910—were sited in a balanced composition with the Old Capitol building as the centerpiece. An impressive series of terraces with balustrades and stairs leading down toward the river was added in 1922 at the time of the restoration of the Old Capitol building. This “acropolis,” referred to as the Pentacrest, was conceived of as the symbolic center of the new campus. The Beaux-Arts imagery was effectively carried over into the three-arched concrete bridge (1916; rebuilt, 1988) to carry Iowa Avenue over the river, thus connecting the east and west campuses of the university. Slowly the university expanded north and south along the river, east into the town center, and to the west bank of the river. Up through the 1920s almost all of the buildings were designed in a version of the Beaux-Arts style by Proudfoot and Bird (and their successor firms). The one notable exception was the University Hospital building (1929), which was designed in the “English Gothic style.”
In the early 1930s a 30-acre strip of land along the west bank of the river was reclaimed, and this became the site for three buildings (a music building, a dramatic arts building, and a museum and arts building) which were to make up a fine-arts campus.
As with almost all of America's state universities, the University of Iowa experienced a rapid growth in acreage and in the number of new buildings after World War II. With the triumph of Modernism, the older Beaux-Arts image—both in campus planning and in architectural design—was dropped. It was replaced by aggressive noncontextualism, coupled with the image of utilitarian practicality. This utilitarian quality was reflected not only in the buildings but in the general lack of vision pertaining to open spaces and landscape architecture.
A critic once commented that if one wishes to see the worst architecture within a city or on a university campus, then one should immediately look for a post-World War II hospital and/or medical school. The University of Iowa's medical school provides no exception to this adage.
The most recent years have signaled an appreciable shift in the attitude of the university toward its own environment, and in its relationship to its host city. Historic preservation and restoration (with the crowning achievement of the restoration of the Old Capital building in mind), a new concern for planning and landscape architecture, and an increased desire to engage prominent local and national architects to design the new buildings (the most recent instance being the 1988 engagement of Frank O. Gehry to design the Laser Science and Engineering Center) have characterized the university's approach during the 1970s and 1980s. Construction on the Gehry building, supposedly modeled after a collection of farm buildings, began in the fall of 1990.
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