When the restoration of the James Castle homesite in West Boise is complete, the house and grounds will look much like they did when Castle, Idaho’s celebrated self-taught artist, lived and worked there.
That was for nearly 50 years, between 1931 and 1977. The landscape surrounding the house, grown up with subdivisions, schools and churches, has changed considerably since Castle’s time, but the modest main house’s exterior will look as it did decades ago, offering a bit of instant time travel. The old wooden bunkhouse where Castle did much of his work will be there, too, as will the Cozy Cottage brand tiny house that became Castle’s home on the property in 1965.
The city of Boise is buying the Castle property on Castle Drive — named for the family, connecting Pierce Park Lane and Hill Road in Northwest Boise — and will spend the next year and a half transforming the compound into studio space, a place for a permanent exhibition of Castle’s work and a residence for visiting artists who will act as property caretakers.
Terri Schorzman, director of the Boise Department of Arts and History that is heading the restoration, said the Castle project is the city’s first large cultural investment in the neighborhood.
“The project has to do with Castle, but it is also about the larger picture of Pierce Park,” Schorzman said.
A century ago, the Pierce Park/Collister area was known as an easy escape from urban Boise. It was home to orchards and a grand park, Pierce Park, complete with ponds and gazebos, where Plantation Golf Course is today. The neighborhood was also home to the Ada County Poor Farm near the current site of Cynthia Mann Elementary. It was home to wealthy Boiseans who built grand mansions, and to farming families like the Castles.
The James Castle homesite, which is expected to open to the public in 2017, will be the first heritage homesite in Idaho, Schorzman said. The only site similar is the Ernest Hemingway home in Ketchum, but that’s owned by the Nature Conservancy and is not open to visitors.
Public outreach is central to the Castle project. Cheryl Oestreicher, head of Special Collections and Archives at Boise State University, is part of the stakeholder team that will help guide the project. The archives hold the research of professor Tom Trusky, who became an expert on Castle and helped raise public awareness of Castle’s work through his writings and contributions to a Castle documentary. Trusky died in 2009.
“What I see, this is a way to bring all the parties together, collectors, educators, students, the community, to continue to learn about Castle and see the impact he made on art and on Idaho as well,” Oestreicher said.
“When you look at the house and look at his work, you’ll be able to make the connection between the site, what he saw, what has and what hasn’t changed over time.”
Kathleen Keys, professor of art education at Boise State, is also part of the project team. Keys is developing a Castle-based art curriculum for K-12 students. She anticipates the home will inspire partnerships between the university, the museum and community. She is on the board of the Boise Art Museum, whose collection includes 90 works by Castle. The museum, too, offers an art education program based on Castle that’s available to teachers.
“Even if Castle’s work isn’t up on the wall, he still has a presence,” said Keys.
The homesite, she said, will be an invaluable asset, a tangible place for students who may be learning about Castle, an iconic Idahoan, for the first time.
AN IDAHO ARTIST WITH INTERNATIONAL REACH
Jacqueline Crist, managing partner of the James Castle Collection and Archive in Boise, is also on the stakeholder team. Crist routinely receives visitors from around the world, including collectors and curators interested in Castle’s work and inspired by him as a self-sufficient, self-sustainable, Western artist. She takes them on road trips to Garden Valley and other locations where Castle lived and to landscapes that influenced his artistic eye. The property on Castle Drive is the place where Castle lived the longest. He even died close by, in the Good Samaritan nursing home.
His work included visual references to Castle Drive and the family house. Some of his works integrated imagery from all of his former homes in a single piece, Crist said.
“The more we can introduce the people who are interested in his work, the scholars, writers, curators, to the actual sites where he lived, they’ll be able to understand him more. They’ll bring their own context and open more clues to the work,” said Crist.
The city is buying the property from its current owner for $200,000 from the city’s general fund.
Rachel Reichert, community relations coordinator with the Boise Department of Arts and History, said it’s too soon to know the eventual cost of the restoration and improvements. The city is hosting a community meeting on July 29 and will have those budgets in place by then.
The Boise City Council voted unanimously in favor of the city buying the property.
“One of the reasons we’re putting resources into arts and history is because of the way they help us highlight how unique we are as a city,” said Mike Journee, spokesman for Mayor Dave Bieter. Castle and his self-taught, idiosyncratic aesthetic embody that uniqueness.
“We talk a lot about livability in our office. ... Culture, art and history all speak to people who have lived here all their lives, but also to people who are considering moving here to start new careers, or moving their companies here.”
Journee said the mayor’s office sees the Castle project as a long-term investment for the city.
Ongoing restoration costs will also come from the city’s general fund.
Future plans for the site could include the creation of a James Castle interpretive art trail that would take visitors from the Boise Art Museum, to the Castle Collection and Archive, to the homesite. City staffers have also been in discussions with curators at the Smithsonian about possible future partnerships and programs at the Castle site.