IDAHO HISTORY: Building a City Hall for Boise turned out to be an adventure

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANApril 13, 2014 

Relatively few people living in Boise today can remember the city's first real City Hall, a big red brick and stone castle that stood at the northwest corner of 8th and Idaho streets. The Idaho Statesman ran a picture of the new building as it would look when finished on April 10, 1892, an architect's ink and wash rendering that includes the tiny image of a couple in a one-horse carriage in the lower right-hand corner.

The architect was a former German army officer from Helena, Mont., named John C. Paulsen. He had come to America on leave of absence from his duties as a military engineer working on the building of the Berlin to Bagdad railroad. It later appeared that he had never intended to go back to Germany once he got established as an architect, first in Texas and then in Helena.

Construction on the Romanesque Revival building, a style made popular by Boston architect H.H. Richardson, with characteristic round-arched openings, proceeded by fits and starts. By mid-summer of 1892 it was half finished, and despite rumors that the bricklayers had gone on strike, the Statesman told its readers on July 3, 1892, that there was no strike but that the men had just taken time off to prepare for the Fourth of July celebration. By the end of the month, however, some 20 union stone cutters had "laid down their chisels" because they had not been paid. Only one or two men were working where there once had been 50. On Aug. 3, work on the building - and on Mayor James Pinney's new Columbia Theater - had come to a complete halt.

Alexander McPherson, the contractor, blamed a subcontractor for the strike because it was he who had not paid his men. Faced with financial disaster if the work did not proceed, McPherson hired two nonunion stonecutters; the strikers immediately said they were not competent. On Aug. 20 the Statesman noted, "The stonecutters strike has not proven a success, but the union men, true to their principles, are leaving the city rather than surrender." Work on the new City Hall did continue, however, presumably with nonunion labor.

On Sept. 28, McPherson told the Statesman that architect Paulsen had so misrepresented things that to carry the project to completion meant bankruptcy. Mayor Pinney telegraphed Paulsen to come to Boise to straighten things out but received no reply. When work did resume a few days later, Paulsen was "out in the cold," said the paper, the city having dismissed him because the terms of his contract had not been fulfilled.

The City Hall building did get finished in the spring of 1893, with the help of some prominent people. W.H. Ridenbaugh took over the construction contract and multi-millionaire mining magnate Captain J.R. DeLamar held $90,000 worth of bonds on the hall and the modest beginnings of a city sewer system. The City Hall, projected to cost about $35,000, had cost $50,000, despite alterations to Paulsen's plans. The impressive building, when finished by contractor Ridenbaugh at the end of April 1893, stood five stories high with a corner tower 75 feet high.

The City Council met officially for the first time in its new chamber on May 24, 1893, and on June 4, 1893, the Statesman reported, "After today the doors of the new City Hall will be thrown wide open to the public. The janitors will be in readiness at all times to show visitors through the beautiful building."

Paulsen's City Hall was demolished in 1953. He himself died in disgrace after his involvement in a scandal over the building of the Montana state capitol.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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