Woodbury County Court House: Sioux City, Iowa

I happened to go to the Woodbury County Court House in July of 2017. It was even more beautiful than I thought it would be.

This decal graces some of the exterior doors.

The Douglas Street entrance.

The 7th Street entrance.

I think they should rethink the color used to hold the figures together. A white or buff color would be better.

The alley side or east side of the building.

There are two buffalo on the alley side.

This is the south side of the building which faces the Sioux City city hall.

This “city hall” side still has amazing detail even though it lacks any human sculpture.

I’m unsure what the “H” stands for unless it’s a “W” then it would be Woodbury.

The cornerstone is located at the corner of 7th and Douglas streets on the Douglas street side.

This is part of the patriotic mural on the east side in the interior.

This clock is in the center of the patriotic mural and over a staircase.

This is the final part of the patriotic mural.

This is the mural on the west side of the building. It deals with justice.

The dome.

It’s a drinking fountain/fishbowl.

There is a lot more terra cotta upstairs.

You can see the staircase to the second floor behind this planter.

These benches are used throughout the building.

The place drips with all this terra cotta.

One of the courtrooms on the second floor.

The original elevator isn’t used anymore. There are modern elevators on both sides of this elevator.

We had access to most of the building and went to every floor. This is the view as you get off the elevator on the seventh floor.

The view from the window.

In the original entrance (on Douglas Street) hangs this plaque.

According to the sanctioned brochure that’s given out at the court house’s security check-point, The Woodbury County Court House is linked to the midwestern prairie style that began with Louis Sullivan in the 1890s and carried forward by Frank Lloyd Wright in the first two decades of the 20th Century. I can see how that train of thought might apply to the main structure; the first two floors — but the six-story tower seems to work against the whole prairie style aesthetic. Regardless, the architect selected for the court house project was local Sioux City architect William LeBarth Steele who submitted an ornate gothic design, which landed him the job, but after obtaining the commission he had second thoughts, tossed the gothic proposal, and enlisted the help of former co-workers William Purcell and George Elmslie who operated an architectural firm in Minneapolis.

The team’s distribution of duties were stated as follows in Western Architect: Steele who was a University of Illinois graduate in architecture, a member of the American Institute of Architects, and had worked for Louis Sullivan as a draftsman was to be the executive head and Elmslie was put in charge of design and planning. Two other men brought in for the job were Paul D. Cook as the structural engineer and B.A. Broom as the mechanical engineer.

The plan the men came up with over the spring, summer and fall of 2015 involved offices for government officials (those most visited by the public) in the four corners of the first floor, courtrooms on the second floor, and more offices for departments, department heads, clerks, and other elected officials in the six “tower” floors. A preliminary proposal of this plan was presented to the Board of Supervisors early in the year on March 23, 1915, and the Board gave their go-ahead for the work that was done over the following months by “a large force of draftsmen.” It was after the work had been completed that the attacks against the plan began at public meetings (when the proposal was discussed) and then fanned by a local press that was intent on selling papers. It was considered too controversial for many civic leaders in the community who referred to it as an “architectural experiment.” Others believed it to be too “radical” for Sioux City, Iowa. Some citizens wanted a more typical court house constructed of a tried and true muscular material, such as granite or stone, instead of Roman Brick which is different from normal brick in size and look and while the local bar association objected to the small size of the courtrooms the Sioux City trade unions endorsed the design because they understood the number of trades that would be required for its construction and the amount of work that would result from the undertaking of the enormous job.

All this began because Woodbury county had outgrown their Second Empire 1878 court house which hadn’t been built for a fast-growing community of 80,000 in mind which Woodbury county was in 1914. So, in June of that year a bond referendum was put before voters which at this early date would translate as: “voters” = men and, most likely, only white men. Fortunately, for the progress of architecture, the forward-thinking men of Woodbury county passed the referendum and provided the initial $500,000 for a new court house.

In December of 1915 the matter to proceed or not with construction was settled when the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to accept the design. According to Western Architect the reason the opposition failed was due to the fact that they lacked a “sound and convincing argument” for their opposition. “Something else” wasn’t a good enough reason. The construction contract was awarded to the Minneapolis firm of Splady, Albee, and Smith in February of 1916 and the cornerstone was laid on July 10, 1916. E. C. Copeland, the Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, oversaw the event. The final cost of the building was $825,641.43 and it was completed on March 1, 1918.

On the exterior Douglas Street side of the building the huge central figure, with the big hands, big feet, and very long beard, symbolizes the spirit of the law. The freize of figures that extends outward from him, on both sides, is a representation of the community. Above them is the text: “Justice and Peace Have Met Together — Truth Hath Sprung Out of The Earth.” Western Architect described the huge figure of Law as “aged and slumbrous but strong armed and mighty.” Standing underneath the figure and looking up at him it’s difficult to disagree with that assessment.

Alfonso Iannelli was the sculptor of the figures on the building. He’s the same man who did the sprites at Midway Gardens for Frank Lloyd Wright in 1914. Western Architect said of the sculpture, “We are impressed by the splendid spiritual quality of his work. It is worked out with fine dignity and restraint. It is not applied sculpture. It is organic and belongs in very truth to this building and nowhere else. What higher praise can be given to architectural sculpture?”

On the other street facing side, 7th Street, are figures representing a man and a woman who have their backs to each other. The woman holds a baby and this is, according to various sources, a depiction of an idealized family unit circa 1918 though visually it reads as a father who has turned his back on his wife and child. Above them are the words: “Justice and Humanity.” The back of the building, which faces an alley, holds a surprise under its fire escape for there are sculptural bison’s heads which gaze down upon the alley and the building’s small, shallow loading dock. According to the blueprints this also serves as the entrance for prisoners. The south side of the building, which is separated from Sioux City’s city hall by a single row of parking spaces and driveway, lacks any awe inspiring monumental sculpture and as a result is a “let down” as one walks around the building in discovery but I suspect Steele and company were deliberately exhibiting restraint and designing on a less flashy scale. Still, the plain city hall side has many of the decorative elements that the street facing sides have: ornate terra cotta, stained glass, and intricate metal work.

The first two-stories of the court house are 57 feet tall. To the top of the building’s tower it’s 152 feet and the tower is graced, near its pinnacle, by another Iannelli sculpture of a large eagle that looks to the west with outstretched wings.

John Warner North who lived from 1876 to 1934 was responsible for the murals which have a sparseness about them that give them a Japanese quality. North stated that the design of the murals evolved slowly and he changed them repeatedly. It wasn’t the subject matter that changed though but rather the “arrangement of spaces and color.”

In the court house’s interior, above the Douglas Street entrance, is a mural which deals with the purpose of the building itself: the courtroom. Yet, in John Warner North’s (though he’s referred to as John W. Norton in Western Architect) depiction of justice, Justice, who stands on the right near the bottom, is not blindfolded but open-eyed and she carries a human heart in her hand. On the south wall, is a depiction of contented farm workers toiling earnestly. On the east wall is a split patriotic mural that endorses America’s commitment to World War I with the text: “Our liberties we prize, our rights we will maintain.” The final mural, on the north wall, depicts the evolution of time with an old woman representing the past, a youthful couple depicting the present, and adolescent boys looking at a rising metropolis as the future.

Norton painted the murals in his studio in Lockport, Illinois and they were hung in the court house in 1919. In 1973 the court house was placed on the National Historic Register, and in 1996 it was designated a National Landmark which is reserved for structures which have a national significance.

Below are images from Western Architect from 1921.

That’s the mural that represents the passage of time on the left.

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Clausen, S. (1997). Woodbury County Court House.

Erickson-Puttmann, P., O’Kane, J. D., Townsend, L.W. & Zimmer, J. L. (n.d.). A statement in American architecture: Woodbury County Court House, Sioux City, Iowa.

Woodbury County Court House. (1921, February). Western Architect, 30(2), 13-20, plates 1-24.


Note: I have a book coming out in the latter half of 2018 from The History Press titled: The Architects Who Built Southern California. It will be 12 chapters with each chapter devoted to a different architect (or architectural firm) including: Harrison Albright, John Austin, Claud Beelman, Elmer Grey, Hudson & Munsell, A. C. Martin, Meyer & Holler, Julia Morgan, Morgan Walls & Clements, Parkinson & Parkinson, Alfred F. Rosenheim and Paul R. Williams.

Hollyhock House

I’ve been to the Hollyhock House, at least, four times.  A couple of Saturdays ago there was a three hour symposium in Barnsdall Park and I went.

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Three individuals did presentations and were later joined by two others for a panel discussion. The guy below, Timothy Totten, was up first.

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Timothy Totten. He was full of information regarding Frank Lloyd’s Wright’s life not only in relation to the Hollyhock House but beyond that too. He only spoke for forty-five minutes but it would have been easy to listen to him speak for another forty-five. He was listed on the event’s website as a “master storyteller.” That fits him. At one point, when recounting a FLW story he referred to his own “exquisite eyebrows” to make a point. I don’t know if they were exquisite but Tim Totten had lots of personality.

Also at the symposium was an author and lecturer who grew up in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. Her name is Kim Bixler and she wrote this book:

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Bixler was raised in an upstate New York Frank Lloyd Wright house. She had photographs that proved living in a FLW house isn’t all morris chairs and dried pussy willows. Her parents joined her, on stage, during the panel section and seemed like decent, kind people.

Aline Barnsdall is responsible for the Hollyhock House just as much as Frank Lloyd Wright. She’s the one that selected him and she’s the one that went back and forth with him over the plans. Her determination to get the house built led Wright to eventually refer to her as “his most difficult client.”

Aline Barnsdall's father has a plaque near the Hollyhock House ticket booth.

Aline Barnsdall’s father has a plaque near the Hollyhock House ticket booth.

Aline, born on April 1, 1882, received a large inheritance from her father, Theodore, who made his money in oil and gas. She originally was interested in acting and studied with Eleanor Duse for a year but Duse saw her potential not in acting but behind the scenes and told her so. Designer Norman Bel Geddes who met Barnsdall years later gave her a backhanded comment when he said his impression of her was that she was, “erratic, unpredictable, contrary, stubborn and generous.” Bel Geddes went on to say, “she had a violent passion against convention; was one hundred percent rebel; would give vast sums of money to anything revolutionary, not because she was sympathetic to the principal involved, but because it was challenging easy conformity.”

Wright in his autobiography said of Barnsdall, “Her very large, wide-open eyes gave her a disingenuous expression not connected with the theater and her extremely small hands and feet somehow seemed not connected with ambition such as hers.”

Originally, Barnsdall wanted to build a theater in Chicago but by 1915 that plan had fallen away and instead she decided to move to San Francisco with the intention of building a small theater at that location. She was in long distance contact with Wright for years through letters regarding plans for a house but two problems cropped up: 1) Wright had signed a contract to design and build the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo so a great deal of his time was wrapped up with that endeavor during this time period and 2) while Barnsdall knew she wanted Wright to design her complex of buildings she hadn’t settled upon a site and it was impossible for Wright to design what she wanted when he didn’t know where the building would be situated.

After years of looking eventually Aline found a site in Olive Hill (now Barnsdall Park) which consisted of 36 acres. Los Angeles civic leaders had considered this plot of land for a public park because of its proximity to downtown along with its views of downtown to the east and the Hollywood hills to the west. When Barnsdall purchased the land it had been on the market for an extended period of time and priced at the steep price of $10,000 per acre. Barnsdall made an offer of $300,000 for the entire lot or just over $8,000 per acre. That offer was accepted.

Aline wanted four major buildings built upon the site. She wanted a home, a theater, a small house for the director of the theater and an apartment building to house the actors of the theater. The estimated cost for all four buildings, from Wright, was approximately $375,000 which was $75,000 more than the estimate from another architectural firm that she considered for the project which was the firm of Walker and Eisen

The house that Walker and Eisen submitted to Barnsdall for the Olive Hill property was a one story house in the Spanish Colonial Revival style with a plaster exterior and a tile roof. It contained five bedrooms and three and a half baths. Barnsdall commissioned these plans mostly likely when her frustration with Frank Lloyd Wright was at its peak. For it seems, Wright kept stringing her along with promise after promise of plans, models and colored drawings that never seemed to materialize or materialized months or years after they were promised. In Kathryn Smith’s book on the Hollyhock House she recounts in letters from Barnsdall to Wright Barnsdall’s continual exasperation at the lack of progress on the plans for the house. It’s really amazing the house was ever actually built because in numerous letters Barnsdall asks Wright if they should proceed with the endeavor of if they should just call the whole thing off. Wright seemed to sense when Barnsdall was at her wits end because it was then, and only then, that he would get to work and supply her with just enough of what she wanted to keep her on the hook.

One thing of note that I found interesting was that Barnsdall was most likely the one who put forth the idea of incorporating hollyhocks into the overall design Wright later said, “…Miss Barnsdall had pre-named the house for the Hollyhock she loved for many reasons, all of the good ones, and called upon me to render her favorite flower as a feature of (the) Architecture, how I might.”

Aline also said in a letter to Wright, “I don’t want it to look green but to feel green as a background for the rich hollyhock…”

  • Wright never stated what the Hollyhock House mantel depicted but his son Lloyd Wright claimed that it depicts Aline Barnsdall as an Indian princess on the left side, upon a throne no less, and she is surveying her land which is depicted on the right.
  • Wright’s local Los Angeles office was in the Homer Laughlin building at 522 Broadway located next to the Million Dollar Theater. That location is currently occupied by the Grand Central Market.
  • Barnsdall was a supporter of both birth control advocate Margaret Singer and political activist Emma Goldman.
  • Rudolf Schindler, who worked on the project stated there were some Mayan motifs in the design though the Los Angeles Times referred to it as a “modernized Aztec style.”
  • When the house was finished in 1921, the final cost of the house, with improvements, (it leaked so badly most of the floors buckled and had to be replaced) was $990,000 including architect’s fees.
  • By 1923 Barnsdall wanted to sell the house and land for $1.8 million but decided against it because she didn’t want Olive Hill sold to a hotel syndicate “and have it turned into a jazz parlor where smokers would congregate.”
  • Barnsdall chose not to live in the house. She later stated, “Its more ornate beauty never satisfied me. My heart was not in it. I never felt well on Olive Hill…”
This is the entrance into the house on the north side. There is a long narrow entry that leads to two large wooden doors.

This is the entrance into the house on the north side. There is a long narrow loggia that leads to two large wooden doors. (Please forgive the poor quality of the picture but I was shooting into the sun.)

These three plaques are attached to one of the entrance walls.

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This is the west side of the house that looks toward the Hollywood hills.

This is the west side of the house that looks toward the Hollywood hills.

West side house detail.

West side house detail.

This is the south side of the building.

This is the south side of the building.

Close up of a planter.

Close up of a planter.

This is still the south side of the house but a bit close up and from a different angle.

This is still the south side of the house but a bit closer up and from a different angle.

This south side view shows the mass of the building.

This south side view shows the mass of the building. The fence is necessary but it’s an unfortunate element for photographers to deal with.

I like this treatment of the windows.

I like this treatment of these windows.

This a view of the east side of the building.

This is a view of the east side of the building.

This a backside view of the guy frolicking in the water.

A view of the guy frolicking in the water.

Still the east side of the building but from another angle.

Still the east side of the building but from another angle.

This large planter is in the parking court.

This large planter is in the parking court.

One of the Hollyhock house light fixtures. I'm not sure who designed these.

One of the Hollyhock House light fixtures. I’m not sure who designed these.

Even in the 1920s the Hollyhock House was used for exhibits.

Even in the 1920s the Hollyhock House was used for exhibits.

This book is from 1928 but unfortunately I only had access to the French version. The pictures look the same though even in French book.

This book is from 1928. Unfortunately I only had access to the French version of the book yet the photographs are the same even though the book is in French.

What I like best is the emptiness of the images.

What I like best about these photographs is the emptiness in the images.

The population of Hollywood in 1925 was....

Hollywood was still a small town in 1920.

More emptiness.

Regarding the top photo: the approach to Olive Hill doesn’t look like that anymore. That view is very romantic and rual.

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The two following photos show the mantle in the living room. They are from a 1926 book on FLW.

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If you want further information on the Hollyhock House the go-to-book is by Kathryn Smith. It contains everything you would want to know about the Hollyhock House and it is filled with photographs and diagrams.

It's a great book and worth buying.

It’s a great book and worth buying. All the textual information concerning the Hollyhock House, that I used in this post, was gleaned from Smith’s book.

Indoor photography isn’t allowed in the Hollyhock House but there are scores of photographs of the interior on the internet. Just google the Hollyhock House for them.

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Hitchcock, H.-R. (1928). Frank Lloyd Wright. Paris: Cahiers d’art.

McClurg, V. B. (1928, March). An exhibition of architecture and the arts. California Southland, 9(99), 11.

Smith, K. (1992). Frank Lloyd Wright: hollyhock house and olive hill. New York: Rizzoli.

Wright, F. L. (1926). Frank Lloyd Wright: the life work of the American architect. Chicago: A. Kroch.