Top 50 Stories: 1930s - New Deal in Idaho

Flood of post-Depression projects brought Treasure Valley new Ada courthouse, much more

krodine@idahostatesman.comJuly 2, 2014 

Photos of the new courthouse from a story published in Feb. 1939.


Much is made of Idahoans' anti-federal leanings. But as the nation clawed its way back from the Great Depression, all levels of Gem State government embraced federal programs that created jobs and edifices through a staggering array of public projects.

The evidence is, literally, all around. In the Treasure Valley, you can see the fruits of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal at Canyon County's Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge, Boise's North Junior High, The Cabin literary center and the Sergeant City housing complex near Gowen Field.

"We really can't overstate the significance of the New Deal in Idaho," said Dan Everhart, of Preservation Idaho, which offers a self-guided tour brochure on its website featuring some of the most notable local projects. "The federal government spent millions and millions in the state ... just the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in the forests alone did thousands of projects and millions of dollars."

In addition to courthouses, schools, ranger stations and bridges, there were myriad smaller projects administered by an alphabet soup of federal agencies - CCC, WPA, PWA.

"The New Deal opened up sewing classrooms and places for you to can fruits and vegetables," Everhart said. Plus, it boosted sanitation by erecting thousands of rural outhouses and aided the arts through murals and a federally funded "Guide to Idaho."

"Almost no part of the state was untouched by the New Deal," he said. "That investment in the state of Idaho in the 1930s has continued with us and has meant something to Idahoans for every decade since that time."

One such project is the "old" Ada County Courthouse, built in 1938-39 on the site of the earlier courthouse next door to the Capitol. Vacated in 2002 and the subject of a fervent preservation campaign, the massive limestone-veneer building's fate was in limbo until 2010, when the University of Idaho chose 514 W. Jefferson St. as the home of its new Idaho Law Justice and Learning Center in Boise.

Idaho's Legislature operated out of the old courthouse in 2008 and 2009 while the Statehouse was being renovated. Now it's the old courthouse that's under construction, its windows and interior architectural features masked by particleboard. The University of Idaho reported in June that the work is slated for completion in 2015.

The Idaho Statesman has tracked the structure's story from the beginning, chronicling the Public Works Administration handing over the estimated $370,000 structure to Ada County during an understated ceremony in February 1939. Much of the coverage of the then-new courthouse focused on its jail, described as "escape-proof" with "$27,000 worth of locks and bars" supplied by the same firm that outfitted Alcatraz.

With 17 searchlights, the structure at night "gleamed like a huge lighthouse," the Statesman stated. The reporter described "imposing courtrooms, with judge's benches nearly as big as a garage" and noted that "housewives admired the (jail's) gleaming, spacious kitchen."

Arguably the courthouse's leading conversation piece came in the form of Works Progress Administration murals portraying Idaho pioneer life and the evolution of justice in the state. "Well, what do YOU think about the murals? is a question guaranteed to enliven anybody's dinner party," the Statesman reported.

One set of images, depicting two white men about to hang a Native American, proved so controversial that a state judge in the 1990s ordered it concealed by large flags. A decade or so later, with lawmakers about to occupy the space, officials decided to uncover the artwork with interpretive signs.

Kristin Rodine: 377-6447

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