Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday May 29, 2004 

Postcard 245: Calvin Hall Serene on Pentacrest

calvin hall

Serene on the University of Iowa’s Pentacrest facing North Hall (left edge), 
soon after the image was recorded, Calvin Hall was picked up and rolled across 
Jefferson Street in 1905. Note a tiny observatory building between the tree trunks.
 A Hibbs Collection image.


By Bob Hibbs


Moving a 12-million-pound building a few inches, let along 150 feet across a street, is intuitively impossible.

Yet, that feat was accomplished a century ago in Iowa City – and, the plaster wasn’t even cracked – or so the story goes!

Despite intuition, history records that such an event took place during the summer of 1905.

Worse, we’re told classes were taught in the building while it was moving. Oh, forget intuition!

The above correctly describes a historic move of all 6,000 tons of Calvin Hall from the University of Iowa’s Pentacrest Campus across Jefferson Street to its present location. It was done to make way for construction of Macbride Hall.

The mystery of this endeavor ranks with such engineering marvels as the work of our ancient American ancestors in building Saqsaywamán, Machu Picchu, Tikal, the Great Pyramid at Teotihuacán or Cahokia Monks Mound near St. Louis. The work must have been done by wayfarers from outer space or locals trained by them.

Oh, nonsense!

They jacked it up, put it on logs and rolled it to its new site, just as the ancients rolled stones into place. It’s a mystery only in the eyes of the beholder. Fantastic, yes; mysterious, no!

So, when late 18th century planning prepared under the guidance of UI’s distinguished eighth president, Charles Schaeffer, produced four large limestone companions for Old Capitol clothed in its classic architectural style, the days became numbered for six existing red brick structures which flanked Old Cap.

A 55-year-old Schaeffer died of an apparent heart attack in 1898 just as construction was being initiated on the great hall which now bears his name. But, the plan he championed and sold survived. A state-wide property tax he sold to legislators and the governor paid for many UI buildings during the subsequent decade.

His Pentacrest plan was furthered by a 1901 fire which destroyed two of the six “reds” just as Schaeffer Hall was nearing completion. The loss of five-level 1882 Medical Building and four-level 1862 South Hall adjacent to Old Cap helped galvanize support which resulted in a spurt of construction at the university.

The med school received the first of its new quarters in 1904 with opening of what now is a biological sciences library in the middle of the block behind (east of) present-day Phillips Hall. The engineering college got new quarters in 1905 with the first phase of its present building along West Washington Street.

Moving Calvin Hall across Jefferson Street ushered in the next stage in development on Pentacrest.

It was accomplished by Chicago-based Freistedt Co. which shipped in 800 hand-screw jacks along with 27 railroad car loads of timbers and 675 six-inch-diameter rollers, each four feet long.

After the move, Macbride Hall was built for 1908 occupancy, then MacLean Hall in 1912 and Jessup Hall in 1924.

Meanwhile, 1866 North Hall and 1895 Old Dental saw use for another half century before demolition provided a finished Pentacrest fully reflecting the visionary planning from the Schaeffer years.

P.S. Long-time friend Johanna Beers died Tuesday. She’s remembered here for her warmth and effervescent friendliness. She always had time to listen, offer counsel or a smile with a word of reassurance.

Our 42-year-old career Air Force son, Randy, as a toddler during the late 1960s would burst past my desk in the Press-Citizen newsroom to see “Aunt Jo” for he knew she had candy in the bottom left desk drawer.

She never failed him; just as she never failed her readers during 67 years of writing for the paper.

She championed the Chicago Cubs to Randy, who now carries her torch for them in this family.

It was a blessing to know her; her death is a real loss; but, there are many memories to cherish.

Next Saturday: Lone Tree’s Historic Heritage.

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

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