City Hall

City Hall

The history of Dubuque’s City Hall building is as rich and varied as the history of the city in which it resides.

In February 1857, plans were submitted and approved by the city council for the present City Hall. The land at 13th and Iowa streets was purchased for $20,000 and was built at a cost of $50,000.

State of Iowa Governor Stephen Hempstead recruited architect John F. Rague to design the building. Rague, who designed Dubuque’s City Hall after Boston’s Faneuil Hall and the Fulton Street Market in New York City, also designed the old Dubuque County Jail (now the Old Jail Museum), the “Octagon House” at 3rd and Alpine, as well as the State of Iowa capitol building (now at the University of Iowa). A gala held on January 8, 1858, celebrated the official opening of the building.
The first floor of the building was intended to be used as a market with small stalls that were rented to vendors to display and sell their products. The 11 ft. windows were designed specific to the height of wagons so they were able to back up to unload their produce and goods. The second floor served as the main City offices, court room, and City Council chamber. The third floor was considered the “Town Hall” where the public had a place to gather. It was used for dances and later as an archery range, a pistol range for the police department, a bowling alley, and a horseshoe pitching area. And the basement of the building was the home of the City Jail, police offices, and two saloons. Rague’s design also included a belfry.

Placed into the tower in 1858, was a 2,800-pound bell, cast by the Meneely Bell Company of Troy, New York, at a cost of $1,352. That bell was rung to indicate the victory of the Civil War, the destruction of the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, the Armistice of World War I and V-J Day, ending World War II. In other years it was rang to indicate the location of any fire by striking from one to five for each of the five wards of the City or to declare the 9 p.m. curfew which would signal juveniles to return to their homes.

In 1879, the market housed in City Hall’s first floor moved outside and encompassed over 16 city blocks. The former indoor central market was then idle for 50 years before being renovated into office space.

The newspaper proclaimed City Hall an “eyesore” in 1895 and called for it to be remodeled as it was structurally unsound. Fireproof vaults were proposed to be installed to ensure the safety of the public records, but insufficient funds halted this plan.

In 1920, discussion was centered on moving City offices to the top floor of the Courthouse, but it was not accomplished. In 1921, $330 was appropriated for the installation of electricity, since gas lighting at $140 per month was too expensive.

With the building on decline, it was hoped City Hall could relocate. In 1941, a special election was held to purchase the Post Office Building at 9th and Locust streets at a cost of $120,000. The proposition failed and City Hall remained at 13th and Iowa.

In 1973, a study to renovate City Hall was made. The $8,000 study was undertaken by a Dubuque architectural firm which included the presentation of 250 detailed booklets showing the possible “new majestic look” for City Hall. The elaborate plan included wainscoting, drapes, carpeting and chandeliers, all reminiscent of the stately history of the building. The project was not adopted since the estimated cost was $750,000.

The original wooden belfry was removed and positioned in a planter area on the Central Avenue side of City Hall in 1968. In 1988, a $100,000 fund-raising effort was held by a group of citizens to restore the bell tower. A 44-foot aluminum replica of the original wooden Italiante tower was placed on the top of the east side of City Hall in 1990. The names of contributors to this project are listed on a plaque near the City Clerk’s Office.

City Hall has undergone several exterior and interior remodels since the early 90s. As the organization has grown, storage areas have been remodeled for office space, more restrooms have been added, and the building has become accessible to persons with disabilities with the inclusion of a ramp entrance. In 2001, a snow melt system was added in which heat tubes were placed within the sidewalks to thaw snow and ice. 

Though there have been many changes since its opening in 1858, one detail has never changed: the area around City Hall is still home to farmer’s market every Saturday from 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon, May 1 through October 30.