The Bells of Old Capitol 



Old Cap’s long-serving 1,100-pound 38-inch
bronze bell was imaged for a restoration
record during the 1920s.   It was used from
1864 until its destruction by fire in 2001.


At the left

The way it was a quarter century ago,
the Old Capitol appears again today
after recent replacement of the belfry,
cupola and dome atop Old Capitol.
This late 1970s postcard image from
the Hibbs collection looks easterly
across the west terrace and west portico
of Old Cap toward Iowa Avenue beyond.




By Bob Hibbs

Service spanning 138 years ended in 2001 when a 38-inch bronze bell was destroyed by fire in Old Capitol.

A 42-inch replacement bell is now in place, taking up the duties of its predecessor which now is a distorted hunk of useless metal destined to be a museum piece.


The old bell became “white hot” as fire raged around it Nov. 20, 2001.  When support burned away, it fell some 10 feet to the concrete attic floor, flattening itself and suffering an unrepairable broken collar.


Fortunately, a 1920s reconstruction of Old Capitol had included pouring an attic floor of concrete to protect the lower levels from roof or dome fires.  Such fires were an obvious danger since four other major Pentacrest Campus buildings were lost to fire between 1897 and 1914.


The concrete attic floor saved Old Cap from far more extensive damage from the 2001 fire.  Had the 1,100-pound bell broken through the attic floor, it would have crashed through the central staircase into the basement, opening a path for debris from the belfry, cupola and dome.


A central inferno would have been created by burning embers from above, doubtlessly consuming the spiral stairs, and probably would have rendered Old Capitol a shell of thick stone walls. A message of thanks certainly is due forbearers from the 1920s reconstruction.


The destroyed bell had been installed in 1864 replacing an 1861 bell purchased for $360, reports Margaret Keyes in her 1988 book “Old Capitol, Portrait of an Iowa Landmark.”  Keyes, a long-time UI professor, headed the 1970s reconstruction of Old Cap and had access to results of monumental research efforts put into an accurate restoration of the historic building.


However, that research effort apparently failed Keyes in her citation of a second replacement bell in 1901. It now appears the bell clapper was damaged and repaired in 1905, rather than the bell itself being replaced in 1901.


The original 1861 bell cracked soon after installation, but continued to be used until replaced three years later.


Cracking in new bells is rare. When it occurs, it almost always is during the first five years after a bell is cast, according to retired Iowa Citian Del Gilmore, a widely-recognized authority on bells who volunteered his efforts and located the current replacement bell for Old Cap.


This reporter came into contact with Gilmore after the Press-Citizen published a column on the Mechanics Academy bell last May. That bell had been purchased by the “First Constitutional Presbyterian Church of Iowa City” for its 1845 building located along the south side of Burlington Street midway between Clinton and Capitol.


The Presbyterians considered their bell too small, and criticized its tone as shrill and grating. University trustee minutes for April 4, 1855, record $76.45 paid the Presbyterians for the bell, and $9 paid to Prather and Ealy to hang it in the Mechanics Academy. UI first offered classes in March 1855 in the academy building while state government still occupied Old Capitol.


Reports that the academy bell became the 1864 replacement at Old Capitol do not appear to be correct. University trustee records indicate the cracked 1861 bell was traded in for $366.84 credit toward purchase of the 1864 replacement. The 1864 replacement carried a $504.90 price, but UI trustees paid just $138.06 after the credit.


So, what happened to the Mechanics Academy bell?


This reporter had gleaned from sparse records the erroneous thought that with demolition of the Mechanics Academy to make way for the 1897 first phase of the Iowa Avenue incarnation of University Hospitals, the bell was destroyed; or, at best, that it was salvaged and its identity lost in its transfer elsewhere.


Next week we’ll report the rest of the story.


Next Saturday: The historic Mechanics Academy bell is located and identified.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them.


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