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Sioux City

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The wide, deep Missouri River provided a natural transportation corridor for the northwestern section of Iowa. This region was a lush, rich prairie just waiting for cultivation and husbandry. Two of Iowa's cities sought to exploit the potential of the waterway and its surrounding fertile land: Council Bluffs and Sioux City. To the south, Council Bluffs ended up sharing a portion of its economic pie with Omaha, Nebraska, just across the river. But Sioux City enjoyed the fruits of its favorable location alone, even though there is indeed a South Sioux City on the Nebraska side of the river. Sioux City had another advantage: being farther up the river than Council Bluffs, its hinterland eventually extended into the adjoining states of South Dakota and Nebraska, and even into Minnesota, some 75 miles to the north.

Sioux City's initial grid was platted in 1854–1855. The site was a broad, flat river plain situated between the Missouri River and the much smaller Floyd River. To the west of the future downtown was a 200-foot-high bluff called Prospect Hill, and behind the town to the north were gently undulating hills eminently situated, as Andreas observed, to “furnish many fine sites for residences.” 7A year after its platting, in 1856, the first steamboat arrived at the site of the town, carrying as part of its cargo “ready-framed houses.” 8Early in its development, the city expended its own revenues to develop docking facilities along the river. The community was equally aggressive and successful in promoting the development of several rail lines to and through the community. The Sioux City and Pacific Route was completed in 1868, and by the 1890s Sioux City had developed as a major hub for a number of national and regional railroad systems.

The usual wide variety of industries developed in the city, but its major industry (in addition to transportation) was comprised of its stockyards and meatpacking plants. With the improvement in Iowa's road system in the middle to late 1920s, the system of interstate highways leading into Sioux City permitted the growth of a trucking industry for transporting livestock and farm produce.

One of Sioux City's many architectural fantasies was a sequence of corn palaces. 9The first of these was built in 1887. This was an exposition palace sheathed from top to bottom in corncobs—stems, leaves, and all. This first palace was followed in 1888, 1889, 1890, and 1891 by fairy-tale creations of increasingly elaborate design. Though each of the palaces was mentioned as being “Moorish,” “Spanish,” of “Composite Order,” or “a Mohammedan Mosque with Iowa trimmings,” they were in truth so delightfully extravagant and playful that no stylistic label could ever be attached to them. One of America's presidents, Grover Cleveland, remarked during his visit to the first of the corn palaces that this was the “first new thing he had seen on his trip.” 10

Architecturally, the city reflected the waves of taste expressed nationally and regionally. 11Within this sequence of styles, from the late 1850s through much of the twentieth century, there were two somewhat unusual departures from the expected. One of these was a strong fascination with the Richardsonian Romanesque expressed in a large number of stone “mansions” built at the end of the 1880s and on into the early 1890s. For its population, Sioux City could boast more examples of these suggestions of medieval castles than any other city in the state. The availability of fine stone in this region was one reason for this popularity; another and probably more likely reason had to do with the economic closeness of this city to Chicago. Thus, Sioux City's stone castles closely mirrored what was then being built in Chicago by that city's great “captains of industry.”

The second episode that was distinctive for a midwestern community of its size was Sioux City's acceptance of Prairie architecture during the years 1910 through the 1920s. Here one can identify a single individual responsible for the “progressive” outlook: Sioux City architect William L. Steele (1875–1949). Steele brought to the community one of the largest and finest Prairie buildings, the Woodbury County Courthouse. He was also responsible for a number of other Prairie-style buildings—libraries, churches, fraternal and commercial buildings, and houses—all built within the community.

In recent years the image of the modern skyscraper has been taken up in Sioux City for several buildings; especially visible is the ten-story Terra Center (BWBR Architects of Minneapolis, 1981–1983), with a skin of reflective glass. Contemporaneous are the designs of several bridging skywalks already built or projected, including an especially ill-conceived one which, if built, would penetrate one facade of the Woodbury County Courthouse. As with other midwestern cities, Sioux City's skywalks have worked best visually when they have been integral to a new building. When they plunge into an older building they have often come close to destroying the integrity of the original design. This is not a problem unique to this city, but one hopes that as the system is expanded, the city's major landmarks will not be violated in this fashion. In a way, a lesson can be learned by looking back to 1887 when one of the country's first elevated street railroads was built in Sioux City. This system lasted only ten years before it went bankrupt. The citizens of the community had been quick to adopt a new concept of elevated transportation, but like people in many other cities they gave little thought to the devastating effect the elevated tracks would have on livability of the streets and in adjoining buildings. With the care now being taken with a good number of historic buildings in the community, one hopes that similar care will be taken as new transportation elements are introduced into the community.


Andreas, Atlas of the State of Iowa, 1875, 457.

M. Huebinger, Atlas of the State of Iowa, 330.

Ruth S. Beitz, “Sioux City's Splendid Corn Palaces.”

William J. Petersen, “In Quest of Tourists in 1887,” Palimpsest44:12 (December 1963): 580.

Marilyn Laufer, Edward Storm and Scott Sorensen, eds., Sioux City Iowa: An Architectural View, 1983.

Writing Credits

David Gebhard and Gerald Mansheim

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