Houses that burned in Boise had historical value

The buildings destroyed in a blaze Friday were more than 100 years old.

kterhune@idahostatesman.comNovember 9, 2013 

Boise lost an irreplaceable piece of history Friday morning when a fire tore through two historic houses on South 4th Street, according to Preservation Idaho President John Bertram.

"I'm just really disappointed," he said.

The houses - 416 and 420 S. 4th St. - were built around the turn of the century. The house at 420 S. 4th was badly damaged Oct. 16 when a Jeep crashed into the corner, taking out a wall. Bertram said Preservation Idaho had been hoping to acquire the house before the crash. The owners announced plans to raze it and sell the land after it was damaged.

But it was the house next door, at 416 S. 4th, that Bertram said was the jewel of the Central Addition.

"It's a French Empire style and it's very unique: It's the one with the wonderful brackets and decorative shingles," he said. "That was the most valuable, in my review, because it was one-of-a-kind."

Idaho Secretary of State Charles J. Bassett lived in the home at one point. Bassett was named secretary of state in 1901 and served two terms.

Fire officials believe flames spread to that house after the one next door ignited around 4:30 a.m. Both of the buildings were destroyed. The house at 420 S. 4th is slated to be torn down Saturday after a structural engineer said it is in danger of collapsing onto the road.

Preservation Idaho hoped to find a buyer who would keep the houses intact, but it had been an uphill battle.

"We've been struggling as a preservation effort here to find potential buyers to purchase the buildings. The price is pretty high," Bertram said.

After the fire, it will be even harder if the home at 416 S. 4th St. survives. Usually, homes like the two on South 4th Street are already in poor condition and need extensive work. Add in catastrophic damage, and it would be virtually impossible to rebuild what is lost.

"It's an unfortunate disaster," Bertram said. "The hope was to keep a piece of the history of the Central Addition."

Platted in 1890, the Central Addition neighborhood lagged the original Boise townsite by just 17 years. It was highly sought-after real estate, home to Idaho Supreme Justice George Stewart, Surveyor General of Idaho Joseph Straughan and U.S. Marshal Frank Ramsey, among others.

Originally surrounded by orchards, the Central Addition plunged into a decline when the railroad came through a block from the neighborhood at the turn of the century. Many occupants of the grand homes moved out.

Today, with newer houses and commercial buildings encroaching on the neighborhood-that-was from every side, the houses that are left face a constant threat, Bertram said.

He found it odd that the houses ignited.

"There was no power in those buildings, so it would be strange that they would catch on fire," he said. "I'll let the fire department determine the cause of the fire but it seems suspicious to get so engulfed so quickly, and at 4:30 in the morning when there's no one around."

But Fire Chief Dennis Doan said Friday the blaze is not being investigated as an arson or anything suspicious.

"It's just a normal investigation," he said.

Bertram said houses like the 4th Street pair meet with tragic ends all too often if they are not inhabited.

"Often this is a problem of a historical building. When it sits vacant and empty, the chances of further demise increase significantly," he said. "Empty historic buildings are vulnerable."

Now, Preservation Idaho has its sights set on several other houses in the Central Addition neighborhood, and 416 and 420 S. 4th will slip back into history.

"We hadn't given up on those buildings," Bertram said. "Once you lose something, it's easily forgotten. People forget what was there."

Katie Terhune: 377-6219

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