By Maria and Michael Smith
The Idaho Building was one of half-a-dozen six-story buildings to debut at that time. Thanks to preservationists in Boise, as well as legislation at the state and federal levels, the building remains an actively used anchor in downtown Boise today. We are featuring the Idaho Building to recognize its centennial in 2010.
While working on the Idaho Building, Walter E. Pierce lived on Harrison Boulevard in the house currently occupied by Dave and Sharon Oster. The beautifully restored house was featured on Preservation Idaho’s Heritage Homes Tour in 2006.
By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Boise was nearing a population of 18,000, up from about 6,000 on New Year’s Day 1900. Boise was booming, and the business community was optimistic about the future. One such entrepreneur, Walter Edgar Pierce, was particularly active in the city. He had arrived in Boise in 1890 with two partners, (John Haines and L.H. Cox) and founded a successful real estate business in the area. The partners platted many of the city’s neighborhoods. Walter Pierce had the highest profile of the partners; he served as mayor of Boise from 1895 to 1897, founded the Bank of Star, and organized the Boise and Interurban system. And of most interest to us, he built the Idaho Building—a symbol of the urban aspirations of the young city one hundred years ago.
Pierce chose to have the building designed by a firm outside of Boise and selected Henry John Schlacks, a prominent Chicago architect who had trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He apprenticed under German-born Dankmar Adler and his partner Louis Sullivan who was an icon in the development of modern architecture. Curiously, Schlacks specialized in church design, and in a recent article in the Idaho Statesman, Historian Arthur Hart suggested that the Idaho Building could be Schlacks’ only tall commercial building. Schlacks’ plans evidenced his belief that a skyscraper should be a series of functional units—a basement for mechanical services, a first and second floor for stores and shops, and the remaining floors for identical offices.
If the architecture firm of Tourtellotte and Hummel sounds familiar, it should; they designed Idaho’s state capitol building in Boise.
Schlacks employed the Boise architectural firm of J.E.Tourtellotte and Company (later Tourtellotte & Hummel) as his local representative to see the project through to completion. This type of professional arrangement was quite common when an out-of-town architect won a local commission. It was a matter of both convenience and economics to utilize local architects to handle day-to-day aspects of the project.
The building is U-shaped, with one side each on Eighth Street, Bannock Street, and the side alley that connects Capitol and Eighth Streets. It is six stories tall and was designed for retail and offices.
The Idaho Building is a prime example of the Second Renaissance Revival style. The six-story structure boasted a terra cotta first floor with large plate-glass windows and Doric columns. Each of the sides was seven windows wide, and the upper stories offered double-hung sash windows. Banded brick “pilasters” demarcated the bays and gave the building a sense of verticality. These pilasters rose from terra cotta bases and ended at “egg and dart” molding at the top of the fifth floor. The panels above and below the windows were terra cotta. The ornate sixth floor, like icing on a tall cake, featured contrasting cream-colored terra cotta and dark red brick bands. At the very top were terra cotta modillion-like brackets and a large denticulated (finely serrated) galvanized iron cornice with a plain frieze. In simple language, the Idaho Building was distinctive, artistic, and a bold architectural statement for its time. At the time it opened, it was called the finest office space in Boise.
Most of the existing design features are still in place today and are clearly visible from the street or sidewalk.
The interior featured some beautiful details: a high-ceilinged lobby and arched entryway with crown moldings; floors in the lobby and hallways of small hexagonal tiles in a green and white pattern; marble baseboards in the hallways. The moldings were oak, as were the window frames and door jambs. The offices had transom windows to the patios that climbed the south side of the building, and windows lined the hallways at ceiling level. The interior staircase was also oak, curved from floor to floor and lighted by a series of curved, one-over-one double-hung sash windows. All of these, including the classic elevators, are preserved in the building and are plainly visible to the casual visitor.
In an article before the building opened, and much aware of the recent San Francisco earthquake and fire, the Idaho Daily Statesman wrote about the special construction of the Idaho Building. It was called an excellent example of a “class B” structure, made of steel and cast iron with each column and beam wrapper with a heavy layer of fireproofing. In short, it was as safe a building as could be constructed at that time.
The Idaho Building was an integral part of downtown Boise for almost all of its existence. The building’s occupants provide a glimpse of the economy of a growing and diverse city, reflecting a cross-section of enterprises small and large over the decades. And although the building never moved, the city changed. When in was constructed, the Idaho Building’s street address was 220 North 8th Street; by mid-century, it was 216 North 8th Street; today, the address is 280 North 8th Street. A sampling of tenants provides a look at the building and the city over the intervening century:
- W.E. Pierce and Company (appropriately)
- Bayhouse Floral Company
- Wayland and Fennel, architects
- Republican Party Headquarters
- Harward and Marsh, clothiers
- Carl F. Brandt, optometrist
- Boise Title and Trust Company
- Walker and Walker Investments
- E.P. Barnes, attorney
- Frank S. Herr, dentist
- Shell Oil Company
- U.S. Social Security Board
- Pacific Finance Company of California
- Gordon C. Smith, mining engineer
- Submarine Gold Mining Company Inc.
- J. Reno Numbers, physician
- Eells Personnel Services
- Idaho Potato Processors
- Cargill Inc.
- Idaho Land and Map Services
- Safeway Stores
- Big Sky Athletic Conference
- Idaho State Democratic Party
- Union Pacific Railroad Company
- Idaho Newspaper Association
- J.V. Otter Inc.
- Scottsdale Securities
- Ed Riche Photography
- Idaho State Board of Pharmacy
- Council on Developmental Disabilities
- private residents of the newly converted apartments
- Superb Sushi
- Precious Metal Arts
- Thomas Hammer Coffee Roasting Company
- Idaho State Board of Nursing
- A Minds Eye, tattoos and body art
Namesake companies of either the original builders of Pierce or Cox owned the building until 1964. By the 1970s, the building was a bit out of style. Redevelopment was in vogue, and unfortunately for preservationists everywhere, redevelopment usually meant tearing down huge swaths of existing (and often historic) sections of a city and replacing (or planning to replace) them with new buildings, covered malls, and the like. Boise, too, caught the bug, and many of its historical buildings exist only in memory and in photographs. The buildings that survived the wrecking ball, such as the Idaho Building, were often neglected—still is use, perhaps, but way down on their luck. The Idaho Building had been vacant since 1982, when it was emptied for the infamous downtown covered shopping mall that, fortunately, was never built.
In 1987, the National Parks Service rejected the plans of the first developer for rehabilitating the still-empty building. It was determined that this effort would preserve too little of the still-intact original internal architecture. The challenge was to maintain as much of the original as possible while bringing the building up to then current fire and safety codes.
Later, Parklane Management Company and its president, Ken Howell, came up with their own plan, preserving and restoring much of the original features while making necessary code upgrades. This plan was eventually approved, and $3.6 million in renovations later, the building was restored, the lobby was brought back to its original state, sprinklers and additional fire exits were installed, and perhaps most significant, the top four floors were converted to apartments. The Idaho Building entered its next chapter as a “mixed-use” structure of retail, offices, and apartments. The building has its “green component” too, relying on Boise’s geothermal system for its heating and air conditioning. It is in this form that the building celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
The Idaho Building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is a nominee for designation as part of Boise’s new Landmarks Project, funded by a Preserve America Grant. The program should be finalized and announced formally by the end of 2010.
Today, beginning its 101st year, the Idaho Building is truly the grande dame of 8th Street, but a lady in need of a face-lift, to be sure. Like a once-rich older aunt down on her luck, the building’s unique features could use some TLC. Many of the original oak door jams and window frames are painted over; those still exposed show the long-term effects of too much sunshine and dry air and too little polish. The green and white tiles are damaged in many places, and the most egregiously damaged or missing tiles are covered over with Astroturf. The hardwood floors in the apartments are poorly maintained, and some of those are covered with inexpensive carpeting. Some of the glorious large double-hung windows cannot be opened. One of the two elevators is permanently out of order, and the other is in need of a major facelift. Perhaps when the current economic climate settles and recovery is indeed here, the Idaho Building will see some much-needed more-than-cursory maintenance.
The Idaho Building is just one of the many special and historic buildings in Idaho—buildings that tell stories and open up our state’s history; buildings that deserve to be preserved and shared with future generations.
For their invaluable help with the research for this article, we would like to thank Tricia Canaday, Idaho State Historic Preservation Office; Carolyn Ruby, Idaho State Historical Society Public Archives and Research Library; Barbara Perry Bauer, TAG Historical Research & Consulting; and John Bertram, Planmakers—Planning and Urban Design.