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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Rague, John Francis
(March 24, 1799–September 1877)

–architect—was a talented and ambitious man when he arrived in the Midwest from New York City in 1831. Born in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, Rague was the youngest of six children born to Hannah (Bonnel) Rague and Dr. John Rague, a surgeon. Rague's parents married in 1781 near the end of the Revolutionary War and relocated to New York City in 1804, where Dr. Rague died of war injuries. The family is thought to have lived among the merchants and middle-class residents of Lower Manhattan.

    In 1820 John married Eliza Vandyke. During the 1820s, he worked as a builder/ carpenter. Sometime after 1828 it is thought he worked for Minard Lafever. Also a builder/carpenter, Lafever published the first in a series of architectural plan books in 1829, enabling him to enter the architectural pro fession. Lafever would become one of the country's leading designers in the Greek Revival style.

    Armed with years of practical building experience and likely a copy of his mentor's Young Builder's General Instructor, Rague relocated with Eliza to the growing town of Springfield, Illinois. Springfield became the Sangamon County seat in 1825, but was not yet the state capital. Upon their arrival, the Ragues joined the First Presbyterian Church. The next year John opened a bakery shop, advertising as a wholesaler and barterer. In 1833 he served as Springfield's market master and was elected church trustee, both signs that he was climbing in the community's social and business ranks. Soon after, however, the Ragues and others left their church to establish the Second Presbyterian Church, an early indicator of the free-thinking approach Rague assumed in later years.

    Professionally, 1836 proved a pivotal year. He was serving as town trustee, and agitation to relocate the state's capital from Vandalia to Springfield was in the air. In 1834 Sangamon voters had sent Abraham Lincoln to the state legislature, and he pushed hard for the relocation. Rague spotted his opportunity to become an architect, but surmised that shop owning was unacceptable preparation. His mentor, Lafever, had grown in stature since Rague's departure, so Rague resigned as town trustee and moved to New York for an extended stay. Upon his return, Rague won the 1837 competition for the new Springfield capitol over Town and Davis, a leading eastern firm. Rague's Greek Revival design, completed between 1837 and 1853, was his first and among his best civic commissions. He was dismissed, however, as supervising architect in 1841, along with the oversight commissioners, for financial irregularities.

    Fresh from his success in Illinois, in 1839 Rague secured the commission for the new Iowa territorial capitol in Iowa City, with another Greek Revival design. The blufftop chosen by Chauncey Swan and 12 acres of surrounding oak savanna promised a dramatic landscape setting and secured the building's position as a future landmark. With ceremonial pomp, the cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1840. Almost immediately, Rague and the building committee parted ways, and Rague returned to Springfield, where he was still supervising the Illinois capitol's construction. Swan assumed supervision over the Iowa construction while Rague continued to supply detailed plans. When legislators occupied the Iowa capitol in 1842, it was unfinished and remained so until 1855. Its west-facing portico was not completed until 1921.

    Rague's work in Iowa in 1839-1840 presaged a longer residency in Dubuque by the 1850s. During the interim, John and Eliza lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His termination in Springfield prompted the move and proved a professional setback. His next significant commission was in 1850, when the University of Wisconsin approved plans for several campus buildings. A single design for a dormitory with a utilitarian plan and classical proportions was used in two identical buildings. Also that year, the Italianate Phoenix building in Milwaukee was constructed, marking both a change in Rague's style and a move away from institutional commissions.

    With his personal life in turmoil (Eliza divorced him in 1851, and he soon remarried 22-year-old Chestina Scales), Rague moved one last time to Dubuque in 1854. There he designed opulent homes in eclectic designs for the city's well-to-do, including the 1856- 1857 octagonal Langworthy residence, in spired by a personal visit by Orson Fowler. He also designed several schools and the extant city hall. His 1856 Egyptian Revival jail, modeled after the "Tombs" in New York City, marks the last notable example of Rague's work. Nearly blind, Rague saw his professional career come to an end in 1857 when financial panic swept the country. He died in 1877, survived by only one known child, Louise (b. 1835).
Sources Rague left no known papers or collection of plans. Information about his life can be found in Betsy H. Woodman, "John Francis Rague: Mid-Nineteenth Century Revivalist Architect" (master's thesis, University of Iowa, 1969); Benjamin F. Shambaugh, The Old Stone Capitol Remembers (1939); and Wesley I. Shank, Iowa's Historic Architects (1999). Rague's obituary appeared in the Dubuque Daily Herald, 9/26/1877.
Contributor: Jan Olive Nash

Cite as: Nash, Jan Olive. "Rague, John Francis" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 11 December 2017