New owners restoring a South Boise icon

Century-old Hopffgarten House has many original features intact — and possibly even lost murals.

awebb@idahostatesman.comJanuary 20, 2014 

  • THE HOPFFGARTEN HOUSE: A HISTORY

    Dan Everhart from Preservation Idaho researched the Hopffgarten property near Broadway and Boise Avenue.

    He found that an early settler, Morgan Payne, settled the site around 1879. Payne grew fruit and ran a dairy. He sold the property, then about 320 acres, to a real estate company in 1890. The Idaho Statesman referred to it as “one of the finest farms we ever saw.”

    In 1898 — about the time the original structure was built — Albin DeMary, a Statesman reporter who later worked for the U.S. Assay Office on Main Street, settled on what came to be known as Payne Ranch.

    In 1900, DeMary married his wife, Elizabeth. The two became active in the civic life of South Boise. The DeMarys left Boise in 1905. Emma Van Buskirk, whose husband, William, ran a gun and bicycle shop on 9th Street, bought the DeMary house. Emma filed for divorce in 1912 and sold the house and grounds to Harry and Anna Hopffgarten in 1915.

    Harry Hopffgarten had learned the art of sign-making when he was just a teenager in Georgia. He came to Boise in 1904 and opened Hopffgarten Advertising Sign Co. He expanded to billboards and advertisements painted on building walls. He was also known for his elaborate murals on the curtains of Boise theaters. He became grand potentate of the Shriners, and his 1920s murals of desert landscapes still adorn the walls of the Shrine Center in Downtown Boise.

    Not long after buying the property, the Hopffgartens donated the triangular piece of land on the west side of their home to the city. Their stipulation: the parcel could be used only as a park. The triangle of land, bordered by Williams Street and Boise Avenue, features an Oregon Trail marker today.

    The Hopffgartens remodeled the house in 1919, working with the architectural firm of Wayland and Fennel (the firm that designed Idaho Power’s headquarters on Idaho Street and partnered with Tourtellotte and Hummel to design the Old Ada County Courthouse).

    It’s likely that the 1919 remodel was responsible for the addition of the columns and the central portico that gives the house its distinct Georgian Revival character.

    Hopffgarten had often worked with Wayland and Fennel. He’d hired the firm to design an earlier house, his office and shop on Capitol Boulevard, and even a “deluxe” bulletin board.

    The Hopffgartens lived in the house until 1975, when the Salvation Army bought it and used it for a time as a halfway house. It became a private residence again, and owner Lana Hale had the property listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

The house on Boise Avenue, partly hidden by tall hedges, has always had a bit of mystery about it.

“It’s like a jewel that’s been forgotten in South Boise,” said John Bertram, president of Preservation Idaho.

The Hopffgarten House, not far from Broadway, has new owners, John Van Lith, an account broker, and Meg White, a nursing student.

The historic house is notable for its grand columns, expansive porch, river rock columns and an unusual “eyelid” window on its facade.

The house has gone through expansions over the years. It’s likely that some portion of the current house dates to 1898, said Dan Everhart of Preservation Idaho. Other portions were added in 1905 and 1919.

Well-known signmaker and muralist Harry Hopffgarten (usually pronounced HOFF-garden) and his wife, Anna, were not the first owners of the house, but they lived there the longest, from 1915 until 1975.

Van Lith and White intend to use the house as office space for Van Lith. But additional purposes may be in the works as well. Bed-and-breakfast or guest quarters are among the possibilities. The house is zoned for limited office and residential use.

By the time all the restoration is done — getting rid of outdated carpet, shoring up the sagging front porch, removing the less-than-attractive baseboard heating and uncovering Hopffgarten’s murals that purportedly remain, under the parlor wallpaper — “We may end up living here ourselves,” said White.

A certificate near the front door confirms the house’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. According to the application for the designation, the house “is significant to Boise’s architectural heritage in that it is one of the last of the large, fine dwellings which once distinguished Boise Avenue in the village of South Boise.”

RIVER ROCK AND WAVY GLASS

White has been charmed by the house’s proportions and details — high ceilings and two back-to-back fireplaces that warm the front parlor and smoking room.

In between her studies and caring for her young daughter, White has been doing architectural detective work to learn the house’s history. She’s trying to identify the people pictured in a score of old, framed portraits left behind by previous residents.

Van Lith and White ended up owners almost by fluke. They had been looking for office space for Van Lith. They couldn’t find anything they liked until they happened to pass the Hopffgarten House.

“Wouldn’t that be a fun office?” said White. They took a look, and contacted the real estate agent “just for kicks.”

The house was beyond their budget, but they worked with the owner to get a good deal — with enough money left for what they believe will be a three-year restoration project.

In the next couple of weeks they’ll start removing carpet and incongruous bathroom fixtures.

“There’s nothing so bad that we can’t fix it,” said White.

Their building inspector had good news, too. The house is solid.

“He told us he often sees new houses with twice as many structural problems,” said White. “This house was built to last.”

ARCHITECTURAL GEMS

A tour reveals intact architectural elements likely to make the lovers of old houses swoon: original wood windows (with wood storm windows) and wavy glass panes; radiators and vents with sunburst designs; a tiny closet hidden under the staircase; massive pocket doors; a boiler room that resembles something from the Titanic; a master bedroom with a balcony; a little chute near the fireplace that sends ashes to the basement; remnants of two fish ponds; and original light fixtures.

White and Van Lith also plan to uncover the walls — handpainted by Hopffgarten to resemble marble — that they believe remain under the dining room wallpaper.

One missing piece of evidence: the original blueprints for the Wayland and Fennel expansion of 1919.

White is still hopeful they’ll turn up.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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