The building behind the battle

Sara Purvis

Editor’s Note: The following story is the fourth in a series of articles that highlights some of Iowa State’s most interesting buildings and structures.

Catt Hall, dedicated to one of Iowa State’s most prominent and controversial graduates, has seen name changes, renovations and threats of demolition, but has always been an important part of Iowa State.

The building, a Queen Anne Revival style, was designed by the same architects who designed Morrill Hall, Josselyn and Taylor, and was built in 1892 by Whiting and Wood. It was built for a cost of a little over $35,000 and named Agriculture Hall upon its completion in 1893.

It was described in the biennial report to the state Board of Regents as one of the finest buildings on campus. Agriculture Hall housed the College of Agriculture and the Department of Horticulture. It included everything from offices and laboratories to student blacksmith shops. One classroom was a livestock room, where animals could actually be brought for classes.

The building was unique in that when supplies were delivered by horse-drawn wagons, the wagons could drive in the east side of the basement and then out the west side after dropping off the farming supplies needed for the professors to conduct class each day.

But only a few years after its completion, the building was already in need of structural repairs.

In 1897, there was noticeable floor settlement and cracked plaster that needed to be repaired. A stone pier and iron column were added at the recommendation of architect George Hallet to fix the structural problems.

In 1928, the building was renamed Botany Hall, when the botany department moved into the building and the agriculture college moved to Curtiss Hall.

The botany department soon outgrew the building and Bessey Hall was built to house the growing department. Botany Hall was set to be demolished in 1967, and the hall came to be known as Old Botany Hall.

However, the psychology department moved into the building from Beardshear Hall in 1968, as more space was needed for the department. The building was again set to be demolished.

There wasn’t a large desire to save Old Botany Hall in 1968, although there were suggestions from students and faculty to make the building into a museum about Iowa State.

Edwin Lewis, now the associate provost of Iowa State, worked in Old Botany for five years, from 1967-1972, in what was the first location for the honors program at Iowa State. The building was slated to be torn down when his office was moved there.

Lewis said at the time he didn’t have strong feelings about the restoration of the building.

“It wasn’t really a great place to have to work, it was cold and drafty, and in generally bad shape,” Lewis said.

The psychology department and several other offices stayed in the building and the demolition was halted because the university was never able to completely vacate it.

In 1983, the failing building saw some short-lived hope.

The regents authorized the university to negotiate for the architectural services to bring Botany up to code, so it could be used as temporary housing.

Although useful as temporary housing of departments and storage, the building was set, once again, to be demolished in 1985.

This time, there was a strong movement to save the building. Two Iowa State architecture professors, Robert Harvey and Wesley Shank, are credited for getting the hall placed on the National Register of Historic Places in June of 1985.

After campaigning for the restoration of the building, Old Botany was granted yet another life, as demolition was delayed until 1995, due to a change in building plans, financial expenses and a desire to save the rare trees that grew nearby.

In 1987, after a study of assets and limitations, the Regents decided renovation was still a possibility.

Finally the hall was saved when the Regents approved $5 million to be used for renovations of the building in May of 1993.

In 1995, the renovation project was completed and dedication ceremonies were held to rename the building Carrie Chapman Catt Hall.

Catt is one of Iowa State’s most distinguished graduates. After working her way through college by washing dishes and working in the library, she was the only female graduate and the valedictorian of the 1880 class.

The Advisory Committee on Naming of Buildings and Streets in 1989 was presented with a petition to name the newly restored Old Botany after Catt, that was signed by members of the Iowa State faculty and staff. The committee passed the petition and it was passed on to President Eaton and the Iowa Board of Regents.

The naming of Catt Hall has been protested by members of the university. These objections are based on accusations that Catt made racist comments while she battled for women’s suffrage. Instrumental in the passage of the 19th Amendment, she remains a heroine to many women.