150 Boise icons: Intermountain Gas

awebb@idahostatesman.comJune 26, 2013 

0626 local icon intermounta.JPG

Did you know? The “roundhouse” pictured is the company’s mechanical room, housing its heating and cooling operations. Originally, the roundhouse included a natural-gas-fired turbine to generate electricity. It powered the complex, allowing it to be independent of other local power sources. Repair costs in the 1970s were prohibitive, so the complex hooked up to the electric grid.

PROVIDED BY PRESERVATION IDAHO

The Idaho Statesman ran an article in 1950 about the El Paso Natural Gas Company's plans to build a pipeline through Southeast Idaho. As the story goes, a Boise couple, Nat and Myrtis Campbell, read the story. They saw the new pipeline as an opportunity to start a local natural gas distribution company.

Nat Campbell pulled a group of investors, bankers and business people together. They named themselves Intermountain Gas.

"The Campbells were not the only ones with the idea," said Byron Defenbach, a company spokesman.

Their group had to compete with others who wanted the franchise to tap in to the pipeline. The Idaho Legislature had the task of deciding who should get it, and decided on the Campbell group. Competitors appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court, but the court backed the Legislature.

Intermountain Gas opened in 1955, operating out of a plumbing contractor's office Downtown. The company's first customer was Farmer Dell, an applesauce company in New Plymouth near the pipeline route.

The first Boise natural gas customer was a barber shop on Main Street not far from the Egyptian Theater. A photo shows Intermountain staffers crowded into a tiny alleyway amongst garbage cans to see the natural gas valve turned on for the first time. By the end of 1955, Intermountain Gas had five customers, including the Green Giant plant in Buhl, the Payette Creamery and the private home of the mayor of New Plymouth.

Intermountain Gas opened a showroom on Idaho Street to demonstrate the wonders of natural gas, including the efficacy of cooking Simplot french fries with gas.

"Everyone had been cooking with electricity, so this was a brave, new world," said Defenbach.

In that spirit, the company bought farmland, roughly 10 acres, on Cole Road in 1959 for $45,000. The plan was to build a state-of-art headquarters.

The company hired Spokane architect Kenneth Brooks to design the complex. Longtime Boise construction company Jordan-Wilcomb began construction in 1964. The building won a national design award from the American Institute of Architects. The company is now restoring the exterior bricks, which are various hues of green, gray, blue and purple.

"This was meant to be a showplace, looking to the future," said Defenbach.

Today, it looks like a stage set from "Mad Men." Much of the original complex, along with its furniture, is intact. That includes a lounge chair and ottoman designed in 1956 by Charles and Ray Eames for Herman Miller. The company bought it new in 1964 for $600 (it still has the receipt). Today, the set, made with Brazilian rosewood and stuffed with goose down, is appraised at $5,000.

The Intermountain Gas complex is office space and is not open to the public, but frequently hosts community events and benefits.

555 S. Cole Rd.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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