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State Historical Society of Iowa

Iowa City’s First Unitarian Church Added to National Register of Historic Places

Jan 22, 2019

DES MOINES – As Iowans move into the new year, a new addition to the National Register of Historic Places offers a glimpse into Iowa’s past.

In Iowa City, the First Unitarian Church at 10 S. Gilbert St. has been added to the National Register for its historic architecture, a blend of traditional craftsmanship and pre-industrial forms and styles influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement.

“The addition of the First Unitarian Church to the National Register of Historic Places is a significant milestone for Iowa City as it continues to preserve and celebrate its history for future generations of Iowans to enjoy,” said Steve King, the state’s deputy historic preservation officer. “We congratulate and commend all who worked so hard to make this a successful nomination.”

Designed by Boston architect Edwin J. Lewis Jr., the 1908 Tudor Revival church building represents specific guidelines for constructing dignified yet inexpensive houses of worship that were supported by the American Unitarian Association.

“The building is an outstanding example of the ‘church home’ architectural aesthetic, which is closely associated with a small but influential group of liberal women ministers who practiced in Iowa and surrounding states roughly between 1880 and 1930,” according to the building’s National Register nomination form.

The group’s leaders were Rev. Mary Safford and Rev. Eleanor Elizabeth Gordon, who served as ministers to the Iowa City congregation from 1896 to 1900 and were directly involved in the financing and construction of the Iowa City church, according to the nomination.

A parsonage was built next to the church in 1909, but it was razed in 1962 to clear space for an education wing, which was also razed. Only the church remains, and it retains its historical integrity, including character-defining features that reflect the Arts and Crafts style popular at the time of its construction.

It has an irregular T-shape layout with an intersecting gable roof and a raised basement supported by a rubble-stone foundation. Exterior walls are made of brick and ornamented with buttresses while its gables are clad in stucco and vertical half-timbers.

There is no bell tower or steeple, and it resembles a large residence rather than an ecclesiastical building. In a broader sense, it follows the “meetinghouse” tradition – domestic in form and mass, an emphasis on horizontal design, a side entrance and a pulpit but no altar.

“The term ‘meetinghouse’ implies ‘neutral public space,’ or a place that erases the distinction between sacred and secular, rather than a house of God, or a place where a deity resides,” according to the nomination.

The First Unitarian is the fifth Iowa City historic church building listed on the National Register. The other four are below:

  • North Presbyterian Church (1856), 26 E. Market St.
  • St. Mary’s Catholic Church (1869), 30 N. Clinton St.
  • Trinity Episcopal Church (1871), 320 E. College St.
  • Bethel AME Church (1868), 411 S. Governor St.

The State Historic Preservation Office oversees the National Register of Historic Places program in Iowa in conjunction with the National Park Service. The State Historic Preservation Office is part of the State Historical Society of Iowa, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and its three divisions – the Iowa Arts Council, Produce Iowa - State Office of Media Production and the State Historical Society of Iowa – empower Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to the people, places and points of pride that define our state. The department’s work enables Iowa to be recognized as a state that fosters creativity and serves as a catalyst for innovation where the stories of Iowa are preserved and communicated to connect past, present and future generations.