Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
March 22, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 186: Old Brick Stories

old brick steeple

This image of Old Brick Church from about 1875 shows a 153-foot steeple lost to an 1877 windstorm. The image is preserved in the State Historical Society of Iowa collections, but here has been digitally repaired and enhanced.

   Photo by Bob Hibbs
Old Brick at Clinton and Market Streets as it looks today without its original spire, giving it a “slightly gloomy, fortress-like solidity”
which some now find handsome.

Michael Hummer

hummer bell

This original First Presbyterian Church was started in 1843, dedicated in 1850 and lost to fire in 1856. It stood on the lot now occupied by Old Brick. The Hummer bell was taken from its belfry in 1848 while it was under construction.

Michael Hummer,
pastor 1841-1848

The notorious Hummer Bell was last reported as a Mormon museum piece in Salt Lake City in 1910. The image is from the Old Settlers Association yearbook for 1915.

By Bob Hibbs

The Old Brick Church in Iowa City has a colorful history which blends a bell, Brigham Young in Salt Lake City, Iowa City founder Chauncey Swan, first local settler Ely Myers, and a mad preacher who became laughing stock of the community and the subject of derisive song.

The tale is spiced by such natural catastrophes as loss of the congregation’s first building to fire, and from its second building the loss of a 153-foot steeple to an 1877 windstorm which provided the chopped-off fortress-like appearance that some now adore.

Old Brick was home to the First Presbyterian Church congregation from 1865 until 1975 when a new building was completed on Iowa City’s eastern edge. The 1865 edifice was given to a citizens group formed specifically to preserve it. The group paid only for the 1973 valuation of the lot – $140,000, according to church records.

Presbyterian efforts to build began in 1843 and finally culminated in a dome-topped building in 1850 to which the first preacher would return to retrieve a bell he considered he was due. The building’s seven-year gestation period proved longer than the building lasted since it was razed by fire in 1856.

A second gestation was longer, stretching from 1856 cornerstone ceremonies until completion of the edifice in 1865.  Cataclysmic events intervened including twin disasters of national financial panic and loss of the Iowa capital to Des Moines during 1857, and the 1861-65 Civil War.

After the congregation was formed Sept. 12, 1840, Chauncey and Dolly Swan, who ran Swan Hotel on the site now serving UI’s Gilmore Hall, contributed the site at Clinton and Market streets where Old Brick stands today.

The first preacher was Michael Hummer who served mostly non-resident from 1841 to 1848.  The church’s corporate bishop, Illinois Presbytery, sent Hummer east to raise money for a proposed seminary.

He refused a Presbytery request for a financial accounting and was expelled after a stormy trial during which “he got furious, storming angry, and left the room in a rage, declaring the Presbytery to be ‘a den of ecclesiastical thieves.’” A contemporary described him as “the smartest preacher, if he was not the greatest saint.”

Soon, he was planning a new “spirit-rapping” church in Keokuk “for which that fine bell at Iowa City would be a crowning jewel.” During his eastern solicitations, he had accepted the bell for Iowa City, but by November 1848, he was claiming it as unpaid salary.

With a parishioner from Keokuk he came to get it, but a crowd removed his ladder, trapping him in the dome-capped belfry. It set Hummer “raving and scolding and gesticulating like a madman.”

Ely Myers and others sank the bell near the mouth of Rapid Creek for safe keeping. Some 15 months later, it was carried off by a group headed to the California gold fields and sold to Mormons at Salt Lake.

Responding to inquiry, Mormon leader Brigham Young wrote Nov. 3, 1868, that the bell was available for the price of shipping. But, local parishioners had deducted the bell’s assumed value from an intervening settlement with Hummer, so the matter was dropped. Hummer was considered insane.

As for the wind-altered appearance of Old Brick, in his 1975 book on local architecture titled “American Classic” UI history professor Laurence Lafore writes:

“While it is not a major work of art it must be judged an imposing and beautiful example of the attempt to achieve, by using Romanesque details, the characteristic Romanesque atmosphere of slightly gloomy, fortress-like solidity in a simple and practical church building.”

Does one sense damning by faint praise?

Next Saturday: St. Mary’s Church stories.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them.
He may be reached at 338-3175 or at

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