Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday August 21, 2004 

Postcard 258: The Iowa City Academy Experiment

  ic academy

A marvelously original class souvenir (center, measuring 20” by 24”) has surfaced of the 1895 class at the long-defunct Iowa City Academy. 

Enlargements offer such details as Old Capitol (left) and areas of study (right). Courtesy of Steven Warner.

By Bob Hibbs

There is history in every block of Iowa City, as well as in every piece of obscure ephemera if one can just figure out where to locate at least semi-reliable sources of data.

Case in point is a stunning piece prepared of the 1895 graduating class of the long-dead Iowa City Academy which was operated a half century beginning in 1868 in several central Iowa City locations.

It was founded by Prof. William McClain in Market Hall, a two-story brick then on the southeast corner of the Iowa Avenue intersection with Dubuque. McClain sold it to brothers Amos and Herman Hiatt effective Jan. 1, 1878, who moved it to the northeast corner of Clinton and Jefferson streets.

For the fall term in 1882 the staff included the Hiatt brothers, plus Prof. E.R. Williams in penmanship and bookkeeping, Miss Lou Mordoff in German, Miss S.F. Lougbridge in Latin, J.C. Armentrout in physiology, anatomy and hygiene, Mattie Hiatt in math and English, and George Bremer in drawing.

It passed to R. H. Tripp and Albert Loughridge in 1887, and from Loughridge to Williams and Prof. William Willis in 1891, then solely to Prof. Willis beginning in 1895. Through these years, the school was housed in a two-story brick on the northeast corner of Clinton and Jefferson streets, just across from Pentacrest.

Willis sold this site to St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in 1905 which operated St. Joseph’s Institute next door. The site eventually served St. Mary’s elementary and high school, and is currently occupied by the Newman Catholic Student Center.

Willis moved the academy to Washington Street, where it remained until his death sometime before 1922.

The Iowa City Academy was unrelated to short-lived 1843 Iowa City College which made plans that never materialized, or to never-opened 1845 Iowa City University. They were proffered by well-meaning local citizens who proved to be ahead of any local pool of potential students.

Even the University of Iowa suffered a severe student shortage when it finally struggled into existence in 1855, eight years after it was created on paper. Despite its operation of a preparatory school (read “high school”), financial shortages forced UI to close from 1858 until it finally was opened for good in 1860.

It operated the prep school as a source of students for decades, earning UI the early derisive sobriquet “Johnson County High School.”

The academy served as a private school for Iowa Citians seeking a better education, but it ultimately could not compete with UI.

Among distinguished academy alumni were long-time UI history professor and Iowa City historian Benjamin Shambaugh, and noted local business college teacher Elizabeth Irish whose name the college carried.

The class of 1895 came near the peak of academy operation while still at the Clinton-Jefferson streets intersection across from Pentacrest. The class created a souvenir which has survived, yielding photos of 40 students and nine faculty.

In addition to Willis and Williams, the faculty was Prof. Blakely, Prof. Stoke, Misses Carrie and Louise Mordoff (sisters), Mrs. Partridge, Miss Faith Willis (daughter) and Miss Calvin.

Students carried such vintage local family names as Black, Bowman, Bradley, Bridenstine, Browning, Burns, Carter, Fry, Ham, Mann, McDonnell, Miller, Moore, Morland, Roberts, Secrest, Stevens and Thomas.

Semi-concealed in a seemingly mystic background is a list nine arts and sciences, including agricultural, artist, legal, mechanical, merchantile (sic), musical, political, professional and theological. A photograph of Old Capitol also appears, surrounded by a delicate hand-painted scroll-like border. Stylized Greek letters appear elsewhere.

Spotlights of “Higher Learning” and “Practical Life” seem focused on the words “Class” and “1895” found on either side of an 11-level pyramid stack of faculty and student photos.

Please pardon a poorly spun pun; but, it stacks up as a rather classy portrayal of 1895.

Next Saturday: Another school – Hoover Elementary – marking a semi-centennial.

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

Return to Postcard Index