The first time Rita Rodriguez saw Cornelia Hart Farrer was in 1971. Farrer was seated. She was serving tea. A Chinese bridal veil covered her face. Farrer was 74.
The occasion was a meeting of the Idaho State Historical Museum Auxiliary at a home in the Boise Highlands. The topic: creating a new exhibit of relics saved from the recent demolition of Boise's Chinatown.
Farrer's father, Irving Hart, an attorney, was an advocate and sometimes benefactor of the Chinese community that thrived in Boise in the first half of the 20th century. Farrer inherited her father's sympathies and embraced Chinese style.
Farrer became a consultant for the Chinese exhibition that remains a cornerstone of the historical museum and one of its oldest exhibits.
Rodriguez was new to Boise in 1971, recently arriving from Virginia. After that particular auxiliary meeting, she had the task of giving Farrer a ride home.
"Cornelia got in the car and asked me why someone from Virginia was so interested in Idaho history," said Rodriguez.
"I told her that all Southerners love history, that we are always visiting cemeteries and battlegrounds."
Farrer's mother was from Kentucky. She understood the elegiac sensibility of cemeteries and battlegrounds. The two became fast friends.
What Rodriguez would soon learn was that her new friend was one of the most significant figures in Boise's cultural history.
Rodriguez's just-released book, "The Blue Doorknob: The Artistic Life of Cornelia Hart Farrer," details the life of this Boise culture maven.
The tale, said Rodriguez, isn't just about the woman who played a key role in founding the Boise Art Museum, who instigated Art in the Park, who created a heart of culture in South Boise, who hosted painting salons and who presided over the Downtown Mode department store's art department in an era when department stores had art departments.
Farrer's story, which began with her birth in 1897 and ended with her death nearly a century later, intertwines with the evolution of the capital city.
Farrer's family was among the early settlers in South Boise. Her father, a Yale graduate, was clerk of the Idaho Supreme Court. Her brother, Irving Warren Hart Jr., was editor of The Idaho Statesman for many years. He even named his son Calvin, after Statesman publisher Calvin Cobb.
Farrer died more than 20 years ago on Rodriguez's birthday, in fact but even in her absence she remained a vibrant presence in Rodriguez's life. Writing her book became a yearslong endeavor.
Rodriguez, a founding member of the board of The Cabin literary center, wrote eight versions of "The Blue Doorknob" before settling on the version that's now available.
The book began shortly after Farrer's death in 1991, originally intended as a brief memoir. Rodriguez interviewed more than a dozen people who knew Farrer, and traveled to New Jersey and Chicago to interview Farrer's surviving relatives.
"I'm grateful that the writing took so long, because what more perfect year to tell the story of Cornelia than the sesquicentennial?" said Rodriguez, referring to the 150th birthday in 2013 of Farrer's hometown.
GIRLISH HANDS AND THE COLOR BLUE
The book's title refers to Farrer's art studio, which she kept in the 700 block of Main Street in the 1920s. The studio had a blue doorknob. Farrer's business card was shaped like the studio door. It included a tiny enameled doorknob blue, of course.
Rodriguez said that when Farrer opened her studio for the first time, a friend brought doughnuts, each wrapped in blue paper.
"Cornelia was all drama and costume; even little children were fascinated by her," said Rodriguez.
Farrer was tall and carried herself in an elegant fashion. Her voice was unusual, "with a certain timbre," said Rodriguez.
"She had beautiful artist's hands."
Those expressive hands never aged, but remained girlish, even into Farrer's ninth decade, said Rodriguez. She can still remember Farrer's joie de vivre and vibrance.
"For Cornelia, there was always something to laugh about, something to wonder about," said Rodriguez.
At the same time, Farrer experienced tragedies. She had disappointments in love. Two siblings died as children.
"She saw that tragedies deepen the joys of life. That lent her an aura that made her such good company," said Rodriguez.
Farrer loved a line from Alfred Lord Tennyson, which she had written in calligraphy: "I myself must mix with action, lest I wither by despair." She gave a framed copy to each of the women in her art group, including Rodriguez.
"For Cornelia, that meant that despite of everything, you always rose above," said Rodriguez.
SOME SHAPE OF BEAUTY
Around 1907, when Farrer was a girl, the Harts left their home on Bannock Street and ventured south.
In an era when most well-heeled Boiseans built mansions north of the river, the residents of South Boise had to defend their choices to live outside the core of the city, said Rodriguez.
The family bought 10 acres on what's now Garfield Street. They raised chickens and a succession of dogs. They kept orchards and gardens. Farrer's mother Frances hosted "open gardens" every Tuesday. Neighbors were welcome to stroll the Hart family grounds, known as Dilkoosha, at their leisure, said Rodriguez.
"Dilkoosha," which means "heart's delight" in Sanskrit, was a play on the family's name. Farrer's father had studied the language at a university.
With such a romantic background, it is perhaps not surprising that Farrer became an artist. She studied art in Chicago and Paris before returning home to Boise.
Historian Arthur Hart knew Farrer. They called each other "cousin," though they were not related. Farrer wrote a style column for The Idaho Statesman.
"She would have had the assignment, I am sure, even if brother Irving hadn't been editor, for such was her prestige as an artist and personality," Hart wrote.
One of her columns from 1938 offered advice on living room decor and human nature:
"Rooms are like people. They have definite personalities of their own. Charm in a person is often something intangible at the first meeting, but always in the analysis there are definite reasons for that charm. And like the clothes you wear, or should wear, your house should above all reflect you. It must be a background against which you and yours show up to the best possible advantage."
Farrer left South Boise in the early 1960s to take up residence in a small bungalow just north of Downtown, not far from the home where she was born.
"Cornelia, from the beginning, was responsible for a sense of culture. This was not from any snobbish viewpoint, but from wanting to see beauty, make beauty and elevate life wherever she was," said Rodriguez.
When Rodriguez thinks of Farrer, she thinks of a line from John Keats' poem "Endymion" - and the hopefulness and lifesaving qualities of art.
"Some shape of beauty moves away the pall from our dark spirits."
For Rodriguez, her own shape of beauty will come through more writing. She has deep family roots in Appalachia. She wants to tell those stories.
And when boxes of her long-awaited book arrive at her door?
"After all of this, my heart will skip a beat or two," she said.
Anna Webb: 377-6431