Once upon a time in Idaho there were small young towns with a few new wooden business buildings of which all of the people were very proud. It was generally believed that these buildings marked the beginning of an era of growth that would one day make their town a place of importance, and eventually into a large and prosperous city.
If the town was a county seat, the courthouse was sure to be its most impressive building, sometimes having a dome and classical columns flanking the main entrance. It was usually considered necessary for the sake of the dignity and importance of the building's function for this entrance to be at the second floor level, making it necessary to climb a long flight of stairs to reach it. This may have made the building impressive, but it also made it more difficult for older citizens to access, and impossible for the physically handicapped.
There was a mind-set among people and their architects in the 19th and early 20th centuries that a courthouse, a bank or a church should look a certain way. Banks, for example, had to have their main entrance at the corner, and look strong and substantial, suggesting by their very appearance that "your money is safe here." Churches had to have a steeple with a bell, and were nearly always Gothic in style, with pointed arched windows. It was hoped that generous donors would someday fill these openings with stained glass windows.
The building materials that were available also had a significant affect on how buildings looked. If a town was on a dry sagebrush plain, as was Boise in its infancy, a few pioneers built houses of adobe. They mixed mud found at or near the site, formed it into bricks in wooden molds, and dried them in the sun. The 1865 Thomas E. Logan house in Julia Davis Park next to the Idaho Historical Museum is our best surviving example. It owes its preservation to the coats of oil paint it was given regularly through the years.
Although the cottonwood trees along the river could be squared with a broad axe into rough timbers from which a cabin could be built, it was hard work, and the result was primitive. Lumber was needed to make better buildings, and pine and fir trees were cut in the mountains and floated down the Boise River to town to be sawn into boards. Owens's 1864 Directory of Boise City suggests a town being created by listing these members of the building trades: carpenters, 26; stone masons, 7; lumber dealers, 3; brick layers, 3; brick makers, 1; millwright, 1. The presence of a ridge of high-quality sandstone along the hills above the town enabled masons to build Fort Boise and a few structures Downtown.
Boise's first settlers had come from homes in the East or Midwest that were a lot more comfortable and stylish than log cabins. As soon as they could, they built something better in the popular styles of the day. In the 1860s that style was Greek Revival, although in the mountain West, buildings in the style resembled Greek temples only in having a gabled facade facing the street. Idaho City's Masonic Hall of 1865 is a good example. They were surely nothing like the Parthenon. Windows and doors might also have a temple-like pediment at the top, but it was such an eclectic age that Greek and Gothic elements could be combined in the same building, as in the 1866 Christ Chapel, now moved to a site near Bronco Stadium. A lithograph of Silver City made in 1866 shows that nearly every building in town was in a simple Greek Revival style. The Idaho Hotel is the last of these to survive, but its porch columns have lost the simple wooden moldings that suggested Doric capitals.
Three small books of mine where you can read more on today's subject are "Historic Boise," "The Boiseans: at Home," and "Basin of Gold." (Royalties from the sale of these books are donated to the College of Idaho, where I began teaching architectural history 65 years ago this September.)
The time will come when "once upon a time" will refer to our own time. How many of our landmark buildings will remain to tell of the tastes and aspirations of our generation? The National Trust for Historic Preservation reminds us that "Preservation is progress," and more and more Idahoans have come to agree.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.