Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday September 20, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 212: The Fine Arts at Iowa

Writers’ Workshop occupied the nearest of the temporaries in this 1958 image of what now is the site of the 
University of Iowa’s Advanced Technologies Labs. The Union footbridge, 1934 Art Building and Law Commons 
are still recognizable today. The non-extant Fitzgerald Boathouse occupies the Iowa River bank beyond the four temporaries.

By Bob Hibbs

  The end of World War II in 1945 sparked a historic return to American college campus, including the University of Iowa where enrollment doubled from 4,853 in fall 1945 to 9,783 in fall 1946. Some 60% of the enlarged student body received “GI Bill” benefits, and 30% were married.

The impacts on Iowa City and the UI campus were enormous, creating demands for classroom and housing space unparalleled before or since. Whole departments were moved into temporary teaching space, and student families lived in temporary housing which persisted into the 1970s.

Rows of trailer houses, 128 units in all called Hawkeye Trailer Village, lined the Iowa River bank between Iowa Avenue and Burlington Street on what had been UI’s Athletic Park before Kinnick Stadium was built in 1929.

Classroom temporaries were located as far east as the Iowa Avenue and Clinton Street corner now occupied by UI’s Phillips Hall.

The largest quantity of the metal buildings were divided into a pair of two-bedroom married-student housing units grouped in “parks” scattered in open areas on campus. Largest was Finkbine Park located on a site now occupied by the Dental Building, its parking lot and the athletic facilities across what is now Hawkins Drive.

Barracks near Currier Hall were called “Currier Cottages,” softening the name a bit. The area now serving Hancher, the Music Building and Art Museum served temporary communities named Riverside, Templin, Quonset and North parks. If you were married, you could rent a two-bedroom unit whether you had one child or a dozen.

During the early 1950s, the units rented at $15 to $20 monthly, including utilities; and were about $50 monthly in the middle 1960s.

The most notorious classroom temporary rested along the Iowa River immediately north of the Iowa Memorial Union.

It was made so by students in the heralded UI Writers’ Workshop who reported in published materials that the temporary nearest Madison Street had but one toilet which flushed using steaming hot water. It was the brunt of jokes from coast to coast, but mainly in such local watering holes as George’s Buffet and Bernies Fox Head.

Among noted faculty and students from that era were Vance Bourjaily, Robert Penn Warren, Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, John Cheever and W.D. Snodgrass. From 1937 until his death in O’Hare Airport of a heart attack in 1991, Paul Engle was a continuous faculty member, heading the workshop during much of that time.

The UI fine arts programs sprang to national attention during the 1930s by accepting plays, sculptures, music compositions, paintings, books and other works of art in fulfillment of thesis requirements for advanced degrees, the first major institution to do so.

In the arts community nationally, there became two recommended places for an aspiring artist to go – New York or Iowa City.

The university also benefited from the 1930s make-work program which granted funds to assist in building a half-dozen major UI structures including the Art Building and University Theatre. It didn’t hurt that the federal Works Progress Administration which doled out the funds was headed by Iowan and Grinnell College graduate Harry Hopkins.

A family connection for this reporter is sister Lilith, a painter who received her BA in art at UI in 1950 before the degree name became bachelor of fine arts or BFA. She earned her livelihood developing computer systems for Employers Insurance of Wausau.

The Day House on North Clinton Street and nearby Shambaugh House now headquarter the writing programs, and arts facilities line the west bank of the Iowa River from Art to Hancher. A major Art expansion is currently underway.

The fine arts represent the left hemisphere of the UI intellectual being, a rare thriving counterbalance to the right hemisphere represented by the array of professional colleges at Iowa, making it a truly remarkable institution.

Next Saturday: The pioneer money problem: none in circulation.

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

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