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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


From Encyclopedia Dubuque
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Dubuque's City Hall. Photo courtesy:dubuquepostcards.com

DUBUQUE CITY HALL. The city of Dubuque was opened for settlement in 1833 under provisions of the Black Hawk Purchase Treaty. The city of chartered in 1837. (1) Prior to the incorporation of the city and for several years afterwards, the city council met on the third floor of a building on Main Street between Fourth and Fifth STREETS. (2)

In 1845 Dubuque's first governmental home became a small two-story brick building constructed on the corner of Fifth and Locust STREETS. The first floor was used as a fire engine house with the council meeting on the second floor. (3)

The building was deserted in 1852 due to its lack of space. Offices were temporarily moved to the GLOBE BUILDING on Main Street. Four years later, municipal records were moved again to offices above G. Beckner's Store on Main Street. (4)

Land was purchased in 1855 from James Rowan and Ebenezer Miller for $20,000. (5) Planners for the building estimated the cost at $32,500. The architect, John Francis RAGUE modeled his drawings from the Fulton Street Market in New York City and Faneuil Hall in Boston. A change in plans, the PANIC OF 1857 and the decline in value of the city scrip, however, led to the final cost being nearly $50,000. (6) Although bonds were issued for $100,000 and the building was completed between 1858 and 1859, nothing was paid on the principal of the debt until after 1920.

The bonds were to expire in twenty years. Every twenty years, refunds were made on the bonds by new issues and by payment of the interest by clipped coupons, but none of the principal was ever paid. There never was a sinking fund set aside by which the debt could be paid and no special levies were made on the taxpayers to increase the revenue of the city enough to pay the debt. (7)

In issuing the bonds for the $100,000, the city sold bonds in excess of its constitutional limit of indebtedness. When the bonds came due in 1866, the city refused to pay. The case was taken to the United States Supreme Court which ruled that since no citizen had protested the size of the bond sale and all had enjoyed the results of the excessive issue, the city could not use this as a defense and found in favor of Helen Larned, the sister of a person who bought the bonds, in the amount of $8,000. When the city council refused to create a tax to pay for the judgment, the individual aldermen and mayor were sued. This case went to district court which ruled against Larned in November 1890. (8)

Dubuque's new City Hall was officially opened in January 1858, with a gala hosted by the Dubuque City Guard. (9) A 2,800-pound BELL, cast by the Meneely Bell Company of Troy, New York, at a cost of $1,352, was placed in its tower on May 21, 1858. The basement of the building was used for a police station, city jail and two saloons. First floor, designed as a market, was divided into small stalls that were rented to anyone to display and sell products to the public. Windows, eleven feet high, were designed so farmers could back their wagons up to the windowsill and unload their produce directly into the building.

Second floor provided office space for city officials, a courtroom and council chamber. Third floor was a public hall used for dances or community gatherings and was designed so that there were no pillars, posts, or columns. This area has been used in more recent times as an archery and pistol range, bowling alley and horse-shoe pitching area.

In 1859 concern was expressed about the strength of the building prior to the Mount Vernon Festival. Previously the Odd Fellows Hall and the ST. CLOUD hotel had fallen. After calls were made to get the assurance of "the builder," a famous resident responded in the February 22, 1859 issue of the Express and Herald. None other than John Francis RAGUE wrote that "in this country, too much reliance is placed upon mere builders." As the architect and superintendent of City Hall, Rague assured the citizens the building was safe for any number of visitors.

City Hall remodeling began as early as 1879 when the market was removed from the first floor and relocated outside. Offices were added. In December 1879, however, the third floor was declared a nuisance and was closed as a site for public entertainment. (10)

The condition of the third floor continued to degenerate. In 1886 the following description was made:

              Some time ago the council practically condemned the upper story, and closed
              it against large assemblages. The building is proportionately very long and
              high, with a heavy bell tower supporting a heavy bell. There are no lateral
              partitions to brace the walls, except the slight office partitions in the
              second story, which are themselves supported by iron columns standing on the
              wooden floors of the first story. It has been the habit of many to describe
              the upper portion of the structure as standing on stilts. (11)

A second proposal for remodeling was announced in January 1893. At an anticipated cost of $15,000, the plan called for tearing down the tower on the Clay Street side, extending the building toward Clay Street and erecting a new tower. Vaults added to the first floor for the treasurer, auditor, and recorder or engineer were thought to strengthen the structure. A city court room, police headquarters and market master's office were to be added to the first floor. Remodeling on the second floor would include an office for the engineer with the vault extended from first floor. Offices of the assessor, street commissioner, mayor, and the council chamber would be enlarged. Because the removal of the third floor would make the building look squat in appearance, it was planned to convert the area into a ballroom. The facade on Clay would be greatly improved leading to a vestibule from which stairs would lead to upper floors. While the proposal was made, it was thought that Mayor Saunders would oppose any expenditures on the old building. (12)

The building, at least a large exhibition room on the third floor, received rave reviews in 1895 when it was used to host the Wapsi Valley Poultry Club's ninth annual exhibition. Announcements of the day included that 1,500 birds were shown including turkeys (a 42-pound bird being the largest), chickens, ducks, geese and chickens. Judging was done and prizes awarded. (13) Renovation plans continued to call for fire-proof vaults on the first and second floors for each office and a rearrangement of the interior. The cost was then expected to be $25,000. (14)

In March, 1900, ten new cells were added to the jail under the City Hall. It was the jail that became the focus for club women in Dubuque in 1907. In early October, 1907 a delegation of club women carried a bed to the second floor. This was in protest to the policy of holding juvenile boys and girls in the matron's quarters instead of separate rooms. In response, orders were issued that girls would be sent to their homes while boys would be kept in the juvenile department until separate facilities could be arranged. (15)

A recommendation to abandon the building and construct a new City Hall was proposed in 1912. Subcommittees considered building a city hall and auditorium, but were eventually unable to move beyond discussion.

In 1920 City Manager Ossian E. CARR proposed moving city offices to the upper floor of the DUBUQUE COUNTY COURTHOUSE. This idea, not acted upon, did result in some remodeling to the offices in the City Hall. Electricity was installed in January 1921, at a cost of approximately $330. This proved a cost savings when compared to the $140 per month paid for GAS LAMPS.

Major renovation was made to City Hall in 1926. Large windows on the first floor were replaced with small ones. The entire floor was partitioned into offices for city officials who had previously used the second floor. Bare brick walls were plastered. The City Planning and Zoning Commission in 1937 issued its comprehensive plan for the development of the city. In this plan, a new city hall would be located on 5th Street facing Locust with Fifth Street being closed from Locust to Bluff. (16) In 1940 a proposal was briefly considered to house part of the city FIRE DEPARTMENT on the first floor.

Serious consideration to abandon City Hall arose in 1941. Constructing a new building was impossible under present Iowa laws according to city officials. The city council proposed purchasing and renovating the old DUBUQUE CUSTOM HOUSE AND POST OFFICE at Ninth and Locust Streets. (17) Old City Hall was to be leased to Dubuque County as a location for W.P.A. activities and the Department of Social Services. City officials traveled to Washington, D.C., to determine what financial aid the city might receive from the federal government. Difficulties again arose which doomed the idea.

City Hall without its bell tower.

Plans to renovate City Hall in 1973 included a grand entrance on 13th Street. Plans called for restoration of three rooms and the 13th Street entrance with grand furnishings like those used in the early years of the building. The estimated cost of the project was $750,000, but again nothing was accomplished.

Sterling silver pin with the likeness of the city hall bell tower given to contributors during the campaign.

The last, and possibly most publicized, renovation project on City Hall involved the replacement of the bell tower. The original wooden tower was removed in 1954 due to its deteriorated condition.

In 1968 the bell that originally hung in the belfry above the City Hall was placed in a planter area on the Central Avenue side of the same building. The 2,800-pound bell, cast by the Meneely Bell Company, of Troy, New York originally cost $1,325.

Placed in its belfry on May 21, 1858 it was rung, according to Randy Gehl, public information officer for the city in 2011, to celebrate the Union victory in the CIVIL WAR, the destruction of the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, the Armistice of WORLD WAR I and VJ Day. It was also used to indicate fires in the city. By striking it from one to five times, the bell could indicate which of the five wards of the city had a fire emergency. It could also declare the 9:00 p.m. curfew signaling juveniles to return home.

Years of weathering caused the belfry to deteriorate. In 1968 it was removed.

In 1974 two sub-committees were formed to the Dubuque Citizens' Advisory Commission. One of the sub-committees, chaired by David CLEMENS was formed to study the use of the former Medical Associates building as a city hall. Clemens, president of the Dubuque Jaycees, supported the use of the old Medical Associates building and opposed a renovation proposal for the old city hall which was defeated at the polls. The second sub-committee, chaired by Tom Graham, studied the construction of a new city hall. Graham had identified a third site in addition to a location at Fifth and Main and the Medical Associates' property. (18)

Signatures of the Hoover students who raised funds for the new bell tower on City Hall.

In 1988 a City Hall Tower Fund campaign was begun by Gordon KILGORE, Wayne Andrew NORMAN, Sr., and Paul A. ROSSITER. Initial difficulty in raising funds was ironically overcome when sixth grade students from HOOVER ELEMENTARY SCHOOL contributed several hundred dollars from a school fundraiser to the project. (18) A symbolic check was given to Wayne Norman at a school assembly televised to the community. By 1990 the campaign had exceeded its $100,000 goal. (19)

A new forty-seven-foot aluminum reproduction of the original tower, brought to Dubuque in three sections, was manufactured by Campbellsville Industries, Inc., of Campbellsville, Kentucky. The bell remained stationary, but the clapper could be activated by a push button on first floor. The building was added to the NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES.


NOTE: For a fascinating video of the dedication of the new bell tower in 1990 see: http://cityofdubuque.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=3&clip_id=2774 produced by the City of Dubuque.



1. "Banners Include Incorrect Date," Telegraph Herald, June 7, 2019, p. 3A

2. Oldt, Franklin T., History of Dubuque County, Iowa. Chicago: Western Historical Association, 1880, p. 540

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. "Not A Penny of $100,000 Bonds Ever Cancelled," Telegraph-Herald, June 13, 1920, p. 1

8. "Helen Larned Gets Left," Dubuque Daily Herald, November 29, 1890, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18901129&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

9. Oldt

10. "Municipal Mush," Dubuque Herald, December 3, 1879, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18791203&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

11. "Condition of the City Hall," The Herald, May 23, 1886, p. 8

12. "Agreed On a Plan," Dubuque Daily Herald, January 21, 1893, p. 4

13. "Fine Poultry," Dubuque Daily Herald, January 3, 1895, p. 5

14. "A New City Hall," Dubuque Herald, January 27, 1895, p. 5

15. "No More Girls Will be Arrested," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, October 15, 1907, p. 5

16. "Dubuque of the Future is Pictured in New City Plan," Telegraph-Herald, January 17, 1937, p.

17. "Building of New City Hall Not Possible Now," Telegraph Herald, June 6, 1941, p. 1

18. "Council To Be Asked to Fund City Hall Study," Telegraph Herald, February 27, 1974, p. 8

19. Lyon, Randolph. A teacher at Hoover Elementary School, Lyon brought the idea to his class.