150 Boise icons: Old Ada County Courthouse

Idaho StatesmanJuly 5, 2013 

Did you know? Officials unveiled a new memorial to Idaho’s fallen soldiers on the front lawn of the old courthouse on Sept. 11, 2010. The memorial lists the names of the men and women who have died in service since the 9/11 terror attacks.

FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION

Sometimes, one's affection for something is directly proportional to its vulnerability.

The old courthouse, vacated by the county in 2002, has stood despite proposals to demolish it for state office space. Community members and preservationists have rallied to save it.

After more than a decade of uncertainty, the University of Idaho is working with the State Board of Education and the Idaho Supreme Court to renovate the courthouse as the Boise home of U of I's law school and the state's law library.

For many people, the building is a manifestation of resilience - not just for its escape from the wrecking ball, but for the era of American history it represents.

Built in the late 1930s after a Wayland and Fennell and Tourtellotte and Hummel design, the courthouse was a New Deal project - part of President Franklin Roosevelt's plan to put Americans back to work during the Great Depression.

It's one of seven county courthouses built in Idaho between 1936 and 1940 with the help of federal funds.

The building's imposing appearance was meant to communicate confidence that the U.S. would move through a difficult era and into better times, say historians.

Construction company Jordan-Wilcomb contracted workers for the project. Tim Wilcomb, current company president, said the company still keeps remnants of the job - a security spotlight like the ones that shone on the courthouse roof, and the metal forms used to shape the concrete for the building's decorative spires. Old company records list workers' names and their pay: $1 an hour for carpenters, 50 cents an hour for other laborers.

Structurally, the old courthouse is unlike other buildings in Boise, where sandstone is so predominant. A skin of white Indiana limestone covers its first four stories.

A rooftop jail boasts hardware made by the same company that made the hardware for Alcatraz.

The jail was unique, wrote historian Arthur Hart in his book, "Echoes from the Ada County Courthouse." It was mere floors away from the courtrooms where the prisoners were tried. The jail also had its Hollywood moment. Clint Eastwood shot his 1980 film "Bronco Billy" in Boise. He needed a jail setting, but the jail on Barrister Street was too modern for him. He liked the look of the jail in the old courthouse.

The building's most famous feature may be its 26 interior murals. They represent one of the largest collections of New Deal art in Idaho. Workers installed them in 1940. They were immediately controversial.

A group of California artists painted them after the Idaho artist hired for the project dropped out. Many said that the landscapes they portray look more like California than Idaho's sagebrush steppe. One image of men preparing to hang an Indian man who's on his knees offended modern sensibilities. For a time, the courts placed a large flagpole in front of it.

The murals are rife with quirks and curiosities. Someone hung them in the wrong order and one woman is painted with three arms. A stylized city skyline depicts none of the buildings that actually stood in Boise in 1939.

Still, even with their many flaws, the murals represent an era in city history that was more admirable than not. Like the rest of the project, they put people to work. They've inspired conversation and strong opinions ever since.

514 W. Jefferson St.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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