Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday November 15, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 220: Sky Perch Caps Downtown

An enlarged insert of the curious top on a tall wooden pole seems to crown downtown Iowa City 
about 1909 in a postcard view looking north on Clinton Street from the College Street intersection. 
The image predates construction of the Iowa State Bank building in 1912 which would appear behind the pole today.


By Bob Hibbs


Sky perches provided spectacular images of central Iowa City a century ago, several preserved on postcards sold and mailed by the hundreds. A few survive, providing surprising insights into life in Iowa City long ago.

One postcard photograph even preserves the image of an unusual sky perch which topped an extra-tall wooden pole located along the east face of Clinton Street a half-block south of Washington Street.

The pole stretched up nearly twice as tall as the adjoining three-story building which housed Yetter’s Department Store with its “The Big Store” sign on its roof, now site to a portion of the Iowa State Bank facility downtown.

The non-extant building was more than 40 feet tall, meaning the pole stretched up at least 75 feet above antique Iowa City. Nearby utility poles were about the height of two-story buildings, or about 30 to 35 feet tall. Those utilitarian servants also exhibited substantially different heads.

Cross-bars adorn the utility poles to keep wires separated as they pass from pole to pole, while the sky perch pole sports a round platform about four feet below its top, and a circular railing three feet above the platform. A hole in the platform allowed passage upward by a photographer and his equipment.

Although no one is left to explain the existence of the over-height pole, or its platform crown, no other alternative use is readily apparent. Out in the forest, it might have been a fire watch tower; but, downtown Iowa City is hardly a timber preserve.

The image in which the pole appears was taken sometime after the Crandic Railway’s “interurban” tracks were installed during 1904 in the midst of the Clinton Street right-of-way between Washington and College streets. The postcard carries a local postage cancellation dated Feb. 26, 1910.

The interurban tracks and one of its cars show in the image, as does the three-story Cook Sargent & Downey bank building demolished in 1911 to make way for what is now the six-story Iowa State Bank building. Heavy foliage along the Clinton Street frontage of the University of Iowa’s Pentacrest indicates a mid-year season.

Thus, the image probably was recorded during the summer or fall of 1909, but perhaps a bit earlier.

In fact, one of the earliest known images of Clinton Street seems to have the vantage point of the perch. It was taken about 1865 by noted photographer Isaac Wetherby whose studio was located in a nearby Clinton Street building. However, 45 years or more seems a long time for a wooden pole to have survived without replacement.

Extensive reading of local history materials through five years has not yielded a single mention of the sky perch. It came to light on the accompanying postcard image, although it appears unnoticed in a similar but street-level scene printed as the frontpiece of a 2001 book, “Iowa City, a sense of place,” written by this reporter and published by the Press-Citizen. The book is out of print.

Other images preserved on postcards came from other sky-high locations, including the windows of the copula atop Old Capitol, the smoke stack at the non-existing University Hospital power plant on a site now serving the State Historical Society of Iowa at Gilbert Street and Iowa Avenue, and from atop the 196-foot 1874 steeple of St. Mary’s Catholic Church.

The west bluffs of the Iowa River provided interesting perspectives for images of central Iowa City, as did the upper floors and roofs of most two and three-story corner buildings downtown. The six-story 1912 Johnson County Savings Bank building and 1913 Hotel Jefferson’s original six levels raised the elevation of available perches.

The record of antique Iowa City a century ago would be greatly diminished without the sky perch perspectives preserved by postcards.

Next Saturday: A marvelous 1900 football image turns up.

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

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