Starting at the UI’s center of scholarship and learning

 

 

The Pentacrest – In its first decades, the University of Iowa grew up according to the needs of students and the demands of building an institution of higher learning in what was still, in many ways, a frontier town. Italianate and Second Empire style brick buildings sprang up next to the state’s original capitol building, mostly on a north-south axis. As the nineteenth century came to a close, the decision to construct a major new Classical building adjacent to Old Capitol made a decisive break with that tradition, initiative a new era of campus panning that took shape over the span of a quarter century and the administrations of four University presidents. For the first time, designs were chosen based on their stylistic resonance with the Greek Revival Old Capitol and on how they could summon a sense of the University as a center of scholarship and learning. As new buildings of Bedford limestone went up, the older, more informal structures burned down, were torn down, or (in one instance) were moved away.

Today’s Pentacrest, four monumental halls organized on diagonal axes around the Old Capitol, did not take definitive shape until the last remnant of its nineteenth-century brick buildings was reazed in 1975. Pentacrest, meaning “five on a place of prominence,” got its designation from a 1924 naming contest sponsored by the Daily Iowan, right after the completion of Jessup Hall, the last of the four new buildings. This name was suggested by Emerson A. Plank (D.D.S., 1929) of Independence, Iowa, who later said that he coined the term because he wanted it to “recall the Old World.” Plank’s idea was an endorsement of the original concept behind Old Capitol and the Pentacrest, which aimed at continuity and express of the shared cultural values of Western Civilization, as understood at the time.

Today’s Pentacrest, four monumental halls organized on diagonal axes around the Old Capitol, did not take definitive shape until the last remnant of its nineteenth-century brick buildings was reazed in 1975. Pentacrest, meaning “five on a place of prominence,” got its designation from a 1924 naming contest sponsored by the Daily Iowan, right after the completion of Jessup Hall, the last of the four new buildings.

The Pentacrest, however, is more than the mere sum of its individual buildings. It exemplifies the City Beautiful Movement of the 1890s, which looked to the urban planning principles first formulated in the Italian Renaissance and then spectacularly realized in the symmetrical disposition of buildings at world’s fairs and expositions. The Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889, with the Eiffel Tower as its centerpiece, and, above all, Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, with its unrestrained commitment to Beaux-Arts Classicism, were decisive for the thinking that produced the Pentacrest. A premium on axial relationships had already been established by Leander Judson’s 1839 grid plan of Iowa City, which created a broad boulevard, Iowa Avenue, connecting the territorial capitol with the projected governor’s mansion eight blocks to the east. Although the latter component was not to be realized, the axial thoroughfare insured that the Old Capitol, once transferred to the University, would be the centerpiece around which other buildings would develop and that the campus would have an inextricable link to its host city.

The ideal, rigidly symmetrical plan of the Pentacrest was probably the idea of Henry Van Brunt, partner in the Kansas City firm of Van Brunt and Howe, chose by President Charles A. Schaeffer (1887-1898) and the Board of Regents to select the architect of the new Collegiate Hall (later, Schaeffer Hall) to be erected near Old Capitol. Van Brunt worked in a succession of late nineteenth-century styles, from Gothic to Classic, and had designed institutional and campus buildings in the East, notably Harvard’s Memorial Hall (1878), but, as one of the lead architects of the Chicago Exposition, by the 1890s he was a fully committed proponent of the triumphant Beaux-Arts Classicism exemplified by that impressive ensemble of buildings known as the “Great White City.” He was also a theoretician, and his advocacy of the Classical Revival style predisposed him to select the design submitted by the young Des Moines architects Proudfoot and Bird. It was the beginning of a long relationship with the University that continues in recent design work by Proudfoot and Bird’s successor firm, Brooks Borg Skiles. It was, however, Van Brunt’s idea that create the momentum for an ideal planning scheme that came to fruition in the fully realized five-building central campus complex knows as the Pentacrest.

 

 

Old Capitol – Old Capitol’s history began as the seat of the territorial government of Iowa. It became the University’s first permanent building in 1857 when the state legislature moved to Des Moines. In addition to being the administrative center of the University, at various times it was also the home of the law school, the library, a museum, a dormitory, and even a gymnasium.  The story of Old Capitol intersects with some of the most defining moments in the nation’s history. Abraham Lincoln was eulogized on its steps on April 19, 1865. A hundred years later, another moment of turmoil – the protests over the Vietnam War – engulfed Old Capitol. It is the heart of the University, its pivot, and the imaged conjured up when remembering the high bluffs and city above the Iowa River.

Despite Old Capitol’s popularity, it has had its detractors. In 1939, the rabidly anticlassicalist Frank Lloyd Wright famously called the building his least favorite on campus, adding, “all of your buildings are very bad…and they are destructive of me and my work.”  He advised the University to “forget your sentimentality for Old Capitol else you are doomed for destruction.” Wright was advocating for contemporary design. Yet Old Capitol remains the focus of collective memory and the point of departure for architecture on campus, having inspired the Beaux-Arts Classicism of the Pentacrest buildings, the dome of the Boyd Law Building, and the axes along which the various campuses are organized. Old Capitol itself has also been refine and redefined over the years, with a near total rehabilitation from 1921 to 1924 that added the west portico, an element included in the original design but never built. Owing to a lack of space, and after 110 years and 15 University presidents, the Office of the President was moved in 1970 from its location in the southeast corner of the first floor to Jessup Hall. Old Capitol was rededicated as part of the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations, this time restored to its original character as territorial seat and home of state government. The 2006 renovation, made more extensive than originally planned by a November 20, 2001, fire that destroyed the lantern (cupola) and dome, has even more fully revived the building’s nineteenth-century character.

Despite Old Capitol’s popularity, it has had its detractors. In 1939, the rabidly anticlassicalist Frank Lloyd Wright famously called the building his least favorite on campus, adding, “all of your buildings are very bad…and they are destructive of me and my work.”

A late example of Greek Revival architecture, Old Capitol reiterates on a more modest scale the state capitol in Springfield, Illinois (also designed by Rague) and a distinguished succession of state capitols (Ohio, Tennessee) going all the way back to Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia state capitol at Richmond (1799). The walls of Old Capitol are composed of porous Iowa limestone, giving the building a rough-hewn quality. The portico columns, pediment, bell housing, and lantern (cupola) were all wood painted to imitate stone. Owing to its prominent porticoes, Old Capitol is a Doric building. This choice was both symbolic and aesthetic – the fluted Greek Doric order, and its associations with the Parthenon and Athenian democracy, conveys efficiency, modesty, and good government. The façade walls are articulated with the even sparer Doric pilasters. Frugality and moral rectitude are the order here, relieved only by the Corinthian capitals of the lantern columns, modeled on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, a fourth-century BCE work in Athens.  The gilded dome captures the sun to become the focal point of the building and the entire campus.

The result of the 2006 project are also visible in the detailed work done to restore Old Capitol with greater historical accuracy.  Because no drawings existed from the building’s construction, architectural historians pieces plans together from fragments. Some changes were made – the original wood-shingled roof, which had been replaced first with slate, then with asphalt shingles, was restored with standing-seam metal cladding – but Old Capitol today is as close to its original design as it has been since the nineteenth century. Inside, the inversely rotated stairway has been retained, and the building’s bell – destroyed in the fire – has been replaced by one from the same period.  The new interior color scheme, more in keeping with the mid-nineteenth century, has also been introduced; in place of sober white walls from the 1970s, Old Capitol is warmed by lavender, rose, and azure hues. Burnished and reopened in May 2006, it again greets visitors and looks westward across Iowa, as it has since 1842.  As a “nationally important example of Green Revival architecture,” Old Capitol has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

Editor's Note:  "Architecture 101" is an introduction to the architecture of the University of Iowa campus and some of the history of a handful of its buildings. New chapters will be added weekly beginning in mid-June and through the fall.  All installments of Architecture 101 are excerpts from the second edition of the book, "The University of Iowa Guide to Campus Architecture," by John Beldon Scott and Rodney P. Lehnertz. The guide was published for the Office of the President by the University of Iowa Press and will be available for purchase in late summer/early fall 2016.