Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday May 3, 2003 page 

Saturday Postcard 192: Clinton Street Charm


Clinton St 1910 South from Iowa Avenue
Winter grips the canopy of elms overhanging Clinton Street from the Pentacrest Campus in
this view looking southward from the Iowa Avenue intersection in central Iowa City.
The St. James Hotel site now serves the Iowa Book and Supply Company.
This 1910 streetscape from the Hibbs postcard collection terminates in the
stage tower of the 1877 Coldren Opera House at right.

By Bob Hibbs

A century ago both Dubuque and Clinton streets south of Iowa Avenue were active centers in the downtown business district of Iowa City. Busy stores also faced onto adjacent blocks of Washington and College streets.

The featured image today takes the eye to Clinton Street.  It carries a 1911 Iowa City postmark, is addressed to Verda Warner in Pasadena, Calif., and signed Irma Clark.

The 40-room St. James was considered the finest in local accommodations during the final quarter of the 19th century, but by 1910 was facing stiff competition from the Burkley Imperial Hotel located catty-cornered across Pentacrest directly south across Washington Street from eight-year-old Schaeffer Hall.

One could rent a room in either for about a dollar a night, and although both boasted restaurants, banquet facilities were available in the larger Burkley, which boasted 90 rooms. The St. James restaurant was more elegant cuisine; the Burkley's more of a café featuring mother's home cooking.

But, "dining out" then was truly rare, other than when traveling, which for most folks was even rarer.

Although many locals considered the St. James a better facility, when candidate William Howard Taft came to town in 1908, a fund-raising dinner was held at the Burkley. Taft was sworn in as the 26th U.S. president the following March.

In 1913 the Jefferson Hotel was erected as a six-story structure just two blocks away on a site opened when fire in 1912 razed the historic 1858 Metropolitan Hall on the southwest corner of Washington and Dubuque streets. Two additional floors were added to Hotel Jeff in 1928, giving the structure its present form.

Competition from the Jefferson doomed the St. James, which was experiencing physical decline in any event. The University of Iowa rented the upper floors in 1914 at its Iowa Union for students. That lasted but two years for the St. James was leveled by fire in 1916, making way for the current Dey Building on that corner.

The Jefferson began advertising itself as the only local "fire proof" hotel. It was part of the Warden group of hotels in Iowa, which included the Chamberlain in Des Moines, Maytag in Newton, Eadmar in Mason City and Ottumwa House in that city.

The corner room in the St. James Hotel from its opening in 1872 served as the local post office until the first government-owned federal building in Iowa City was erected in 1904 at Linn and Washington streets. That new limestone edifice, greatly expanded in 1931 as a Great Depression era make-work project, now serves as the local senior center.

Other historic shops in the St. James included Fink's Bazaar cigar store - the convenience store and newsstand of its era - operated by Henry Wieneke, who later in life assumed an active roll in recording local history as secretary of the Old Settlers' Association of Johnson County, which held annual picnics attended by several thousand people during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Henry's daughter, Carrie, whose real name was that of her mother, Caroline, operated a shop across the hall from her father in the St. James called Arcade Book Store. Between them they produced several dozen local-imaged postcards now considered prize collectors' items selling for several dollars each.

After the hotel fire, Carrie moved her book store into a new location at 114 E. Washington, a downtown site between Whitey's Ice Cream and Bo James restaurant across the street from Hands Jewelers. A book store operated in that storefront under various names, including Gordon Book Shop, until the early 1960s.

Except for the St. James, many of the other business buildings down Clinton Street still exist. A notable exception is the Iowa State Bank building erected in 1912 on the site of the demolished Cook Sargent and Downey bank building visible in the featured image on the southeast corner of Clinton and Washington streets.

A century changes most things, but not all.

Next Saturday: The Englert Theatre - inside and out.

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

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