The six-story Empire Building is an example of the Chicago School architectural style. Built between 1909 and 1911, it was designed by the firm of Nisbet & Paradice, and was one of the tallest structures in Idaho until the 1930s. Active in Boise from 1909-1914, the firm also designed the Gooding School for the Blind, Sterry Hall at the College of Idaho, and several private residences in Idaho.
The Empire Building boasts a Boise sandstone entablature supported by distinctive Ionic columns. The cornice and friezes have elegant detailing, and each upper-story bay contains a pair of one-over-one double-hung sashes. Interior columns of white marble and the sandstone exterior columns reflect a classical style that conveys solidarity and permanence. Upon completion, The Idaho Statesman reported that the Empire was considered the “handsomest building in the entire northwest” by students of architecture. Given that pedigree, it may seem surprising that the Empire building would ever have been in danger of demolition.
Upon completion, The Idaho Statesman reported that the Empire was considered the “handsomest building in the entire northwest” by students of architecture.
The Empire was originally built for the Kerr Hardware and Implement Company, which occupied the first three floors of the building until 1920. Due to the completion of the Idaho Building at 8th & Bannock just prior to completion of the Empire, the owners had difficulty finding enough tenants and filed for bankruptcy in 1919. First National Bank of Idaho purchased the property at public auction and moved into the first floor. As Boise grew as a business center, First National Bank of Idaho purchased the property adjacent to the building on the west and built a two-and-a-half story neo-classical building on the site.
Tourtellotte & Hummel designed the newer structure in 1927, along with Pietro Belluschi, then a junior with the firm of A.E. Doyle in Portland, and the two buildings complement each other in style. In 1989, the banking corporation was renamed West One Bancorp to reflect a change in ownership. In April 1995, West One announced plans to demolish the Empire Building and replace it with a public plaza.
The bank considered the older building obsolete and unsound; however, preservation groups like Preservation Idaho, and even the bank’s own engineer, felt that the building had not deteriorated significantly and could be readily renovated and rented. Preservation Idaho worked with the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) to raise awareness of the impending demolition. Richard Moe, President of the NTHP, visited Boise, bringing positive press and helping to increase pressure on the bank to change its plans.
The Empire Building stands today as a result of the collaboration between businesses and preservationists who agreed that maintaining the historic past of Boise is an important part of planning its future.
A local developer, Ken Howell, who had completed other successful historic renovations in the area (including the Idaho Building), proposed a renovation plan that would allow the bank to rent space in the existing building and limit its cost and liability. He pointed out that renovation would cost about the same as demolition, with a much better historic and economic outcome, but it was only when US Bank bought West One that the positive alternative of renovation, rather than demolition, was heard and supported. In 1999, Tomlinson & Associates bought the building from US Bank and renovated it to include first-floor retail space and office space above. Their efforts were recognized with an Orchid Award from Preservation Idaho in 2001.
The Empire Building stands today as a result of the collaboration between businesses and preservationists who agreed that maintaining the historic past of Boise is an important part of planning its future. Groups like Preservation Idaho serve as a stabilizing influence in times of economic boom and decline. By reminding property owners, public and private, that there is value in maintaining ties to our collective past, we assist them by bringing resources and people together to help create alternatives to demolition.