150 Boise icons: The Bench

May 19, 2013 

0519 local icon bench.JPG

Did you know? By the 1950s, 30,000 Boiseans, or half the city's population, lived south of the Boise River in 'post-war suburbia.' Sergeant City was the predecessor of developments like Buena Vista and Crescent Rim. The military decommissioned Sergeant City in 1946. In 2011, the Boise Architecture Project included Sergeant City in its list of the most endangered historic sites in the city.

A homestead built in 1887 near what's now Curtis Road was one of the Bench's first residences, according to city historians. Morris Hill Cemetery, now a Bench institution, had been open just five years at that point.

Canals and irrigation brought more homesteaders to the Boise Bench after the turn of the century, along with the railway and the splendid Union Pacific depot built in 1925.

But the area's character really began to shift in the 1940s. The establishment of Gowen Field as a military airfield meant thousands of new residents for Boise. In 1941, the Works Progress Administration built Sergeant City, a housing complex for 62 military families north of Overland Road and off Latah Avenue.

The development - whose main streets, Pershing and Cushing, hint at its military origins - included a mix of small houses, apartments and playgrounds. It is partially intact today, though it is no longer a military complex.

Sergeant City was one of Boise's first "modern" residential suburban developments. It was also a harbinger of the kinds of developments that would proliferate on the Bench, according to city historians.

In the boom years after the war, Boiseans, like Americans everywhere, fell in love with their cars and the mobility those cars offered. Car ownership meant people could live far from where they worked. Suburban life, with its airy homes, carports and big yards, was born. The Bench, with its open expanses of land near - but not too near - the city, was the perfect place for this new sensibility.

It's appropriate, considering growing car culture, that Boise's first McDonald's drive-through opened on the Bench on Orchard in the 1950s.

The Day family, who arrived in Boise in 1915 and opened a real estate development company, capitalized on the city's growing interest in suburban life. The firm developed Vista Village in 1949. It was Idaho's first planned residential and shopping district outside the city's core. The street-side parking lot offered plenty of spaces for drivers.

The firm also developed a number of suburban enclaves on the Bench in the 1950s, including Mesa Vista, Hillcrest Terrace and others. Today, architectural historians love the Bench for its many examples of mid-century design.

The city annexed the area in the early 1960s.

Long before people arrived, the Bench was all about geology.

Because Boise is such a big bike town, people tend to be aware of geology in a way they might not have to be in other cities, said Sam Matson, lecturer in the Department of Geosciences at Boise State University.

"Every time you ride up onto the Bench, up Prospect or Americana, or Broadway onto Federal Way, you definitely know that you're on a hill," Matson said.

Geologically speaking, the Bench is a river terrace, a "stair step" formation left by the Boise River as it cut through the Treasure Valley a few hundred thousand years ago, he said.

The Downtown core and Boise State campus are technically on a bench as well - just a lower, newer bench cut during the last ice age, between 13,000 and 25,000 years ago.

All of this happened long after Lake Idaho, the shallow body of water that filled the valley 5 million to 8 million years ago, had drained away through Hells Canyon.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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