Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs

Postcard 270: Mysterious University Buildings

med college lab 

Postcard images of these University of Iowa buildings draw blank stares from many long-time locals despite the 
fact one still exists a few steps from Iowa Avenue. The other was destroyed by fire in 1901, causing a monumental 
scramble for classroom and laboratory space.

By Bob Hibbs 

Images of several University of Iowa buildings set off blank stares among some long-time local residents, even one existing building near the heart of the campus in central Iowa City.

Their use seems mysterious; their appearance so unfamiliar that even their very existence as Iowa City buildings sometimes is doubted.

Two structures from photographic postcards in the author’s collection provide a duel case in point. One is historic, that is, no longer existing; the other rests a few steps off Iowa Avenue at the north edge of downtown Iowa City.

The historic building burned in 1901, so it naturally has faded from living memory. Rather, it lives in century-old images recorded between its construction in 1882 and its demise at age 19.

It was erected specifically to house the then 12-year-old UI medical school and was so doing when a fire struck at 2:45 a.m. March 10 during a blustery early spring snow squall which changed into a mixture of sleet and rain 103 years ago.

The fire not only consumed Medical Building, but leveled engineering school quarters next door in 1863 South Hall. Both structures inhabited Pentacrest in a row of red brick structures on both north and south flanks of Old Capitol.

As the fire consumed first Medical Building, then South Hall, fear for the safety of Old Capitol and unfinished Schaeffer Hall spread among the dozens of faculty, students and townspeople who turned out to help battle the blaze.

Most local residents had been awakened as the town was shaken by explosions in the chemistry laboratory in the basement of the med building setting that structure ablaze.

Only blistered paint on Old Cap and a few charred window frames in Schaeffer resulted, but South Hall and Medical Building which represented nearly 20 percent of all UI classroom and lab space were lost. Replacements soon sprouted, but it was several years before the campus was back to some semblance of normal.

The first segment of the present engineering building at the top of the Washington Street hill was occupied in 1905, providing space into which to move much of the school’s apparatus which had been carried out of South Hall into the rain and sleet four years earlier.

The med school, which lost its entire apparatus, mostly was crowded into University Hospital, then located along the north face of Iowa Avenue between Linn and Gilbert streets. Its replacement came in two parts – a labs building and a classroom structure.

Classes were settled into a 1904 structure catty-cornered across the Jefferson-Dubuque streets intersection from First Methodist Church. It’s been converted into laboratories for the biological sciences now housed in two larger structures on either flank of Dubuque Street, connected by a pedestrian overpass.

The new med school labs structure – called Anatomy Hall during its early existence – was opened in 1902 adjacent to what would become the southwest corner of the classroom building.

This century-old labs building – now surrounded by other structures – is located in the center of the block serving as home to Phillips Hall and the Congregational Church on the west face.

It now serves as the Biological Sciences Library, until recent weeks hidden away behind construction vehicles and fencing. It is being given a clear courtyard vista opening to the Avenue.

Rather than being lost, Anatomy Hall is now flourishing as a specialty library, while Medical Building has perished into image archives.

Both buildings have served the university well.

Next Saturday: Joe Williams – Iowa City’s original judge.

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

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