150 Boise icons: Empire Building

June 9, 2013 

Did you know? The Empire Building is one in a trio of key Downtown buildings that sprung up around the same time. The Empire, along with the Idaho (1911) and Elks (1913) buildings, represent the beginnings of Boise’s “skyscraper age,” made possible by the advent of elevators a couple of decades earlier.


The Kerr Hardware and Implement Co. built the Empire Building at 10th and Idaho Streets between 1909 and 1913. Upon its completion, the Statesman reported that students of architecture considered the Empire the "handsomest building in the entire Northwest."

With its six stories, it was one of the tallest structures in Idaho until the 1930s, when buildings like the Hotel Boise surpassed it. Historians have noted its resemblance to the Wainright Building in Chicago (1891), considered one of the first skyscrapers in the world.

The firm Nisbet & Paradice designed Boise's Empire Building. The building has cousins - other designs by the same firm, including Sterry Hall at the College of Idaho and a number of private residences.

The Empire features classical elements, like interior marble columns and one of the most striking cornices (the top edge of the building) in town.

Besides that cornice, echoed by the newer 9th and Idaho Center a block away, the most striking feature may be the entryway on the 10th Street side. Braced by Ionic columns, it reaches two full stories. This entryway dares anyone walking through it to not take themselves and their work seriously.

Grand as it was, the Empire hit a snag in 1919 when its owners had trouble finding tenants to occupy it. The Idaho Building on 8th Street attracted more renters, according to Preservation Idaho. The Empire's owners filed for bankruptcy. The First National Bank of Idaho bought the building at public auction. First National Bank grew. In 1927 it hired Tourtellotte & Hummel to build the Empire's smaller, white neo-classical companion that still stands today on its west side.

The Empire faced a new threat in 1989. Then-owner West One Bancorp announced plans to tear it down and replace it with a public plaza. Preservation advocates and groups, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation, rallied to save it. A new owner, Tomlinson & Associates, renovated the building in 1999, earning an Orchid Award from Preservation Idaho. The renovation included reinforcing the building's posts and beams with a steel frame.

Today, the Empire includes shops and offices. The foyer still allows for a little time travel when you step inside, its grandeur intact. It might make you feel like getting your shoes shined and donning a fedora. Check out the painted ceiling and take a sip from the old-style drinking fountain in the corner.

205 N. 10th St.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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