Church holds a century of Iowa City history, its future is part of a proposed development

Outside of the Unitarian Universalist Society Church in 1908. -- photo via the  State Historical Society of Iowa
Outside of the Unitarian Universalist Society Church in 1908. — photo via the State Historical Society of Iowa

The Unitarian Universalist Society Church on the corner of Iowa Avenue and Gilbert Street is turning 109 years old this year. The building, dedicated in 1908, housed the Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City up until they voted in February 2015 to move to new location in Coralville.

Today the brick building, made to look like a home, rests next to the Iowa City downtown fire station and across the street from the State Historical Society Research Center. Its activities sign facing Iowa Avenue has been stripped of announcements. Although the sign is bare and the bushes overgrown, the building is currently in use. Property owner Jesse Allen donated the building for use as a winter shelter. Jeanette Carter, a current member of the Unitarian Universalist Society, said they are happy that the building is still in use and continuing the church’s age-old spirit of keeping its doors open to all.

The Universalists’ first church, established in 1841, stood on the southeast corner of Iowa Avenue and Dubuque Street. After a fire in 1868 the group rebuilt a larger church on the northeast corner of Iowa Avenue and Clinton Street, where the University of Iowa’s Phillips Hall now stands. There, in 1881 the Universalists decided to join forces with the local Unitarian Society, making a deal where the Unitarians paid for the ministers and the Universalists owned the church. (The two denominations formally combined at the national level in 1961.) In 1907, the University of Iowa bought the church and repurposed the building as a student union named Unity Hall in honor of the former owners.

The University of Iowa's Unity Hall shown in the 1900s. The building was purchased in 1907 from the Universalist and Unitarian Society, which had joined forces in Iowa City around 1881. -- image via the University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections
The University of Iowa’s Unity Hall shown in the 1900s. The building was purchased in 1907 from the Universalists and the Unitarian Society, which had joined forces in Iowa City around 1881. — image via the University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections

On October 24, 1908 the congregation held a dedication ceremony to the new building they would occupy for the next 109 years. The transcript of an address given by Rev. Eleanor E. Gordon, secretary of the State Unitarian Conference of Iowa, was preserved in one of the dozen scrapbooks created by congregation member Bertha Shambaugh, which are held by the State Historical Society of Iowa. Her speech acknowledged the hardships the congregation took on to go through with its construction.

“There have been dark days in the history of this church, days when some of you have wondered whether after all, your hard work was worthwhile” Gordon said. “I believe from this pulpit and from these pews will go forth an influence that will make for honor in politics, truth-telling in business, justice in the home and high ideals of human obligation and responsibility everywhere.”

Gordon’s dedication speech also addressed the young men and women who came to Iowa City to attend the university. She hoped that they would “be made to feel that only those save their lives who lose them in the life of the good citizen, in unselfish work for the oppressed and down-trodden.”

Inside of the Unitarian Universalist Society Church in 1908. -- photo via the  State Historical Society of Iowa
Inside of the Unitarian Universalist Society Church in 1908. — photo via the State Historical Society of Iowa

Carter, who is part of the church’s historical records group, said the church has worked to live up to these ideals, going to great lengths to push for a more inclusive community, both within the church and in the Iowa City community at large.

Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, many restaurants throughout Iowa City were segregated, she said, and members of the Unitarian Universalist Society took leadership roles in the community to encourage integration. Shortly after, the church also led efforts to integrate barber shops. Before they were integrated, people with a darker skin tone “had to drive all the way to Cedar Rapids just to cut their hair,” Carter said, adding that the congregation was not unique in its efforts; other churches and organizations were part of the effort to integrate.

In the 1970s the Unitarian Universalist Church reminded the community that their doors were open to the LGBTQ community, Carter said.

“For many years our church at 10 South Gilbert was the only place where LGBTQ people could have dances and parties,” she said, adding that, again, it was not the sole group advocating for inclusivity.

In addition to Gordon’s address at the dedication of the new church, Shambaugh’s scrapbooks hold other historical records documenting the society’s beliefs and actions, such as a sermon from the early 1900s by Rev. Robert S. Loring, who spoke about the veracity and importance of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Numerous records from the church’s women’s club speak to the important role women played in the history of the church. In her dedication address, Gordon credited two of these women for taking leading roles in raising the money to build the 1908 structure.

An architect's rendering of the new Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City building in Coralville. -- image via Neumann Monson Architects
An architect’s rendering of the new Unitarian Universalist Society of Iowa City building in Coralville. — image via Neumann Monson Architects

The congregation is currently waiting for a new church — a modern, airy structure — to be built at its new address at 2355 Oakdale Rd. in Coralville. The congregation voted to build a new structure two years ago because they were outgrowing the century-old building downtown and the cost of updates to increase accessibility was too high. Currently, church officials hope to move into the new building by late June or early July.

After the congregation moved out, the church building found itself at the center of new development plans. Those plans, discussed in a recent Iowa City Council work session, center around efforts to preserve the church structure while building a new parking, commercial and residential structure around it.

In a message that could still be relevant today, Gordon’s 1908 address to the congregation encouraged listeners following their efforts to build a new home: “Keep up your courage, we will save the church property.”

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