Iowa History
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Iowa History

A Rare Glimpse at Early Iowa City

There are more than 200 million pieces of history in the State Historical Society of Iowa’s collection — and every one of them has a story.

This one begins with a friend of the society and a frequent donor named Paul Juhl, who is always scouring the universe for historical images that might end up in the collection — Iowa stereographs, cartes de visite, and other 19th century photographs.

He recently spotted a framed image of downtown Iowa City for sale on eBay and figured the State Historical Society might want it. So he contacted his friend Marybeth Slonneger, another society donor and an expert on Iowa City’s earliest photographs, who immediately recognized the building in the photo. She then approached another society supporter, Dean Oakes, who offered some funds to buy the image from the eBay. The seller lowered the original price, knowing the photo would be donated to the State Historical Society of Iowa’s collection.

The society is lucky to have such generous donors, who recognize the value and significance of Iowa’s photographic record.

Marybeth Slonneger and Paul Juhl, pictured at the State Historical Society of Iowa’s Centennial Building in Iowa City, helped acquire an early ambrotype for the society’s collection. (Charles Scott, State Historical Society of Iowa)

So let’s take a closer look at the image itself, which was probably captured between 1857 and 1860.

Technically, it’s an ambrotype, developed from a photographic process that produces a one-of-a-kind image from a wet-plate negative on glass, which is made to look positive with a black backing. Ambrotype photography was invented in the early 1850s as a more viable, less expensive alternative to daguerreotypes.

The image itself shows a stylish, three-story bank building, which architect Willett L. Carroll designed to replace a smaller frame structures on the southeast corner of Clinton and Washington streets. An early engraving of the bank appears along the margin of an 1859 map of Johnson County.

The foundations of the “Banking House are laying deep and broad, worthy to support what is destined to be the finest edifice in the interior of Iowa,” according to an account of the construction in Iowa City’s Daily Evening Reporter on Aug. 12, 1856.

The building’s location soon became known as the Bank Corner by the late 1850s, according to Gerald Mansheim’s book “Iowa City: An Illustrated History.” The bank stood across from the public square with the gold-domed capitol and symbolized the city’s prosperity and permanence, even though state leaders moved the capital to Des Moines in 1857.

A careful examination of the streetscape reveals architectural details such as an ornamental pediment, expansive windows, broad awnings and iron railings, plus hitching posts and a well-worn path across the dirt street.

The photo shows other aspects of life in a burgeoning frontier town, too, including hints at how some of the residents looked and behaved. Those individuals who didn’t keep still during the long exposure period necessary for early photography appear to have blurred or ghostly bodies without legs. The three young people in the foreground evidently moved before leaning into each other to keep steady while the picture was taken.

Among the many commercial signs on display is one that advertises “Cook, Sargent & Downey,” who were involved in banking and real estate in early Iowa City (and may have been responsible for building the bank structure). Another sign advertising “Cash for Hides” offers clues as to the character of Iowa City when bartering and trading were as important as newly formalized banking institutions. Dr. M. J. Morsman operated a drugstore in a shed in the city’s pioneer days, but this image suggests he may have formed a partnership with someone named Trusdell and moved into this new building.

In 1872, Samuel J. Kirkwood and other leading citizens organized the Johnson County Savings Bank at this location.

In 1912, the pre-Civil War building was replaced with a taller one now occupied by Midwest One bank. So for 160 consecutive years now, a bank has stood at Bank Corner.

— Mary Bennett, State Historical Society of Iowa

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