8th and Main building's spire inspires buzz

Some say the new Downtown Boise tower has the features of a Mormon temple.

sberg@idahostatesman.comOctober 22, 2013 

The mayor's office has received three complaints about the spire atop the 8th and Main building in Downtown Boise.

The Gardner Co., the building's owner, has heard comments about its resemblance to a Mormon temple.

Tommy Ahlquist, Gardner's chief operating officer, said the company wasn't trying to make the new structure look like an LDS landmark. He said the building's design — including the spire — was meant to emphasize the corner of 8th and Main streets.

"The last thing on our minds was that this thing was going to look like anything to do with a religious anything," Ahlquist said. "I'm not sure where the comments are coming from."

Architect Wes Baker, who helped design the exterior, said his team had no instructions or intentions to incorporate a resemblance to Mormon buildings.

Baker said his company, Salt Lake City-based Babcock Design Group, has never designed a temple for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Baker himself has worked on a project for the Catholic Church, he said.

STORIED PAST

The conversation about the 8th and Main building is tame compared to the history of the corner. A man named Billy Fong cursed the ground after the Boise Redevelopment Agency bought the Eastman Building in the 1970s and evicted everyone in it. The building sat vacant until it burned in a suspicious fire in 1987.

After the fire, several plans to put a new building on the property fell through, including the proposed 25-story Boise Tower, which stalled soon after a pit was excavated for its foundation.

The Gardner Co. broke ground on the new 8th and Main building last July and is scheduled to officially open it in January.

Tenants have signed leases for most of the building's space. A parapet at the top of the building reaches 270 feet — three feet higher than Idaho's second-tallest building, U.S. Bank Plaza on the other side of Main Street.

ORIGINS OF THE SPIRE

Talk of whether the 8th and Main building looks like a Mormon beacon began in earnest when crews built the 45-foot spire on top of the building.

Social media comments included "I'm surprised they don't have a gold-leafed Moroni up there," to "I wonder if Zion's Bank plans on putting a gold statue of Moroni on the top of this thing?" Those references were to the Mormon prophet who revealed the location of golden plates that Joseph Smith, the religion's founder, translated into scripture. Gold-colored statues of Moroni face east from the top of most LDS temples.

The spire wasn't part of the building's original plans. In 2011, Babcock submitted plans that envisioned a feature resembling the roof of a family home on top of the tower.

Brian Garrett, then a member of the Boise's Design Review Committee, didn't like the feature.

"It is inconsequential and honestly a little silly looking," Garrett said in November 2011, according to minutes of the meeting. "It seems to me that it is a little hat sitting on top of a building that is out of scale and doesn't really add anything to it."

Efforts to contact Garrett were unsuccessful.

Six months later, the spire was part of a new 8th and Main design. Babcock architect T.J. Winger said the change was in response to Garrett's wish for "a powerful element."

"We're being very sensitive to the comments we got from the chair and the committee last time we were here," Winger told the committee. "This reflects that and it helps pull that vertical emphasis back in."

WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL ANYWAY?

Many buildings have spires and don't elicit complaints about looking like Mormon structures. But those buildings aren't located in Idaho, a state where the church claims 410,000 members.

"You might expect to hear it in Idaho or in northern Arizona or northern New Mexico, but you certainly wouldn't hear it in, say, Indiana," said Jan Shipps, who's writing a book about the history of Mormons since World War II. "It's just an area where a lot of Mormons live, so it might be a bias and it might be just, 'Gosh, isn't that interesting?' "

Ahlquist is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as is the Gardner family.

Also, the top level of the 8th and Main building bears the name of Zions Bank, which financed the building and is its anchor tenant. Mormon patriarch Brigham Young incorporated Zions Bank in 1873, and the church held majority ownership of the bank until 1960. The church has no ownership stake today.

On the other hand, why should anyone care? It was a representative of Boise, not Babcock, Gardner or the church, who suggested a change to the building's original design. And, as city spokesman Adam Park pointed out, "There is no provision in city code to reject a design element simply because it is reminiscent of a style used by other institutions."

Park said city staff will review the spire once it's complete to make sure it conforms to the approved plan.

Ahlquist said comparisons to LDS temples and other buildings don't offend him.

"I understand that people have different perspectives and come from different points and different biases in their life and can have their own opinions about things," he said.

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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