Urban archaeology: Excavation will uncover secrets of building at Old Fort Boise

A major restoration — a partnership between Preservation Idaho and the VA Medical Center, the building's current owner — is marking the building's sesquicentennial.

awebb@idahostatesman.comJune 11, 2014 

  • SEE URBAN ARCHAEOLOGY IN ACTION

    The excavation takes place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily through Friday at Building 4, the Surgeons' Quarters. Building 4 is on the east end of Officer's Row at Old Fort Boise, now the Veterans Affairs grounds, at Fort and 5th streets in Boise.

    The public is welcome to watch the excavation. Students, professors and archaeology volunteers will be on site to answer questions.

Building 4, built between 1863 and 1864 on Officer's Row, is not only one of the oldest buildings at the fort - it's also one of the oldest buildings in all of Boise.

For many years, it was the home of the military surgeons who lived on-site with their families. Photos hanging inside the building include one of a 1950s-era family sitting down to a holiday meal in the house. The women have on cat's-eye glasses. Everyone has Ozzie and Harriet grins.

A major restoration — a partnership between Preservation Idaho and the VA Medical Center, the building's current owner — is marking the building's sesquicentennial.

The restoration will include a new cedar roof, interior work, repointing masonry (repairing the mortar between the sandstones on the building's exterior), restoring the front porch (keeping as many as the original materials as possible) and much more.

Removal of the old porch created an opportunity for University of Idaho archaeologists to excavate the ground beneath.

"It is an exploration into the unknown," said Mark Warner, a U of I professor leading the dig. He's not sure what treasures, if any, will turn up.

"But when you have the opportunity to excavate one of the oldest structures in Boise and get your hands in the ground, you don't pass that up," he said.

Warner calls the dig another example of "archaeology under your feet."

The same U of I crew, working with local volunteers from the Idaho Archaeological Society, excavated an old well - also, it happens, found under a porch - at the Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga House on Boise's Basque Block.

That 2012 dig produced 16,000 items, some of which will eventually go on display in Boise.

A PROMISING START

Crews, including U of I students, started work Monday, using screens to sift through dirt from beneath the porch.

By midmorning, they had found a big blue marble, tiny buttons, an ossified pair of scissors and a ruler. The generations of children who lived in the house most likely dropped them, along with a doll plate and rusty jack.

"Maybe that blue marble will be the 'face' of this dig," said Tracy Schwartz. She was referring to a Basque Block find that attracted a lot of attention - an undeniably creepy, eyeless doll's head that came out of the Jacobs' well.

Schwartz recently finished her master's in archaeology and is handling public outreach and fielding questions at the VA dig. One of the unique aspects of the project is that it's open to the public. Warner, Schwartz and others welcome questions from passers-by.

On Monday, the excavators dropped anything of interest - metal shards, paper with writing on it, flathead nails - into paper bags for later inspection. Plumes of silt rose around them, mixing with the distinct and appropriate aroma of syringa, the state flower blooming nearby.

The project "highlights the history that Boise has, not just in books but in the ground," said Warner.

The VA dig is a fitting follow-up to the dig on the Basque Block, he said.

"There, you had a prominent frontier settler, Cyrus Jacobs, who came to make a name for himself in Boise," said Warner.

"Fort Boise protected settlers like Jacobs. It offers another chapter of the same story."

Many groups are supporting the VA dig, including the John Calhoun Smith fund at U of I - a fund that supports historic research in Western states - Preservation Idaho, the VA and the Idaho Archaeological Society. Boise National Forest is providing equipment.

Warner doesn't know what will be done with any unearthed relics. "It depends on what we find," he said.

BUILDING A RELATIONSHIP

Josh Callihan, spokesman for the VA Medical Center, said the organization is glad to be building a rapport with Preservation Idaho and other interest groups.

Conflict has existed over the question of preserving historic military structures on the VA grounds. The medical center's mission is medicine, not architecture.

"Our missions are different. There are areas where we overlay with historic preservation, but not many," said Callihan. "The VA can only put money into buildings we can use."

As old military buildings decay and become more obsolete, the land on which they sit becomes more valuable than the buildings themselves, said Callihan.

That was the case with Building 13.

Preservation Idaho gave an "Onion Award" (a designation for groups PI deems insensitive to local culture and history) to the VA in 2011 after it tore down the 1885 building. Two new long-term care facilities are now under construction at the site, just west of the Idaho State Veterans Home.

Callihan credits Preservation Idaho head John Bertram with approaching the Boise hospital and proposing a different future for Building 4. It, too, has suffered from neglect and disuse. Preservation Idaho has had it in its restoration sights for a long time.

"We offered to take over the building and lead the renovation," said Bertram.

The medical center agreed and, through the offices of Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, got approval from the national VA secretary to proceed with the partnership.

Preservation Idaho has raised $30,000 for the project, including labor. The fundraising goal is $85,000.

"Everyone was disappointed when Building 13 was demolished. We would love to be able to save the buildings," said Callihan.

After the Building 4 renovation is done - the building's interior will be restored next year - it will be open to the public with exhibitions. Preservation Idaho will then return the building to the VA.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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