Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday August 7, 2004 

Postcard 256: The Mechanics Academy Incubator

mech academy

Early University of Iowa students and faculty pose on the steps of UI’s first home – the historic 1842 Mechanics Academy, 

which was located along the east face of Linn Street just north of Iowa Avenue, a section of street now beneath UI’s Seashore Hall.


By Bob Hibbs


A non-existing two-story brick Mechanics Academy building surely ranks second only to Old Capitol in historic significance to Iowa City and the University of Iowa.

Despite beginning life in 1842 as a school endeavor which would soon fail, it would be difficult to overstate its importance as the site of important local events. It was the nursery for many of the most important institutions and organizations in Iowa City today. Among them:  

·         First Iowa City public school class met within its walls in 1853.

·         University of Iowa offered its first classes there in 1855.

·         University Library was founded there in 1855 with 50 books in a closet.

·         Iowa’s first teacher training was provided there in 1860. It’s now the University of Northern Iowa.

·         Purchased by UI in 1866 as its second dormitory; South Hall was first in 1862.

·         Converted into the first teaching hospital for UI’s College of Medicine in 1872.

·         Nursery to Iowa City’s Mercy Hospital, founded there in 1872.

·         Home to the first UI bell, now stored at UI’s sports Hall of Fame. This bell never hung in Old Cap, rather it began in 1845 in a failed Presbyterian Church belfry along Burlington Street.

·         First home of State Historical Society of Iowa outside Old Capitol.

·         The nursery and temporary home during the 1840s to numerous local churches and clubs.


It was created by the Mechanics’ Mutual Aid Association of Iowa City, formed in 1841 to promote “advancement of the mechanical arts; and whatever may tend to the promotion of education, and the advancement of the arts and sciences.”

Some 40 members elected James Ball president, and Thomas Comb and Louis Swafford vice presidents. Before automotive “mechanics” redefined it, the word applied to carpenters, brick masons and related crafts.

During its first session in Iowa City – meeting in a two-story wood-framed temporary legislative hall called Butler’s Capitol in deference to its hotelier owner, Walter Butler – the territorial legislature incorporated the association and donated a site, subject to erection an edifice worth at least $1,000 within two years.

A “school” reserve on the original plat of Iowa City comprised a block-long by half-a-block-deep acre-sized site forming the east face of Linn Street between Iowa Avenue and Jefferson, a section of street now closed.

During spring 1842, President Ball cut stones and built a foundation, association member and pioneer brick-maker Sylvanus Johnson provided bricks, carpenter Swafford made window frames from lumber cut by Henry Felkner’s mill. Virtually everything, both materials and labor, was donated.

The 30-foot by 60-foot building with full basement cost of less than $50 cash. It was valued at $3,000 or more.

About 200 attended a cornerstone ceremony June 24 amid pageantry which included a parade along downtown streets.

Private classes ensured costing $1 a month for a three-month term, except more than $3 a month for “music on the piano.” August 1843 enrollment reached 105, including 62 girls. The association realized a $73 profit that term.

But staffing difficulties unraveled the enterprise. Soon other groups were renting the building, including the Masons and Odd Fellows the entire top floor. With organization of city government in 1853, the schools committee of the council rented the building for $230 a year.

The building served numerous ways until demolition in 1897 for a new University Hospitals, which sat in part on Linn Street right-of-way and faced Iowa Avenue.

The cornerstone currently resides in the east vestibule of UI Medical Laboratories, moved west of the river with the rest of U-Hospitals during the 1920s.

It awaits a more appropriate home in a new outdoor kiosk along Iowa Avenue near the statue of Irving Weber at the Linn Street intersection. Project, anyone?

Next Saturday: Archie Alexander: football standout and local builder.

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

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