It’s hard to visualize today, but in the early days of Boise, very few people lived on the Bench. It was desert. There was no water there until the Ridenbaugh Canal began to supply the area in the late 1800s.
“Suddenly, the Bench could be used for agriculture,” said architectural historian Dan Everhart.
The Bench changed from dry sagebrush land to an agrarian landscape of orchards, farms, dairies and homesteads. There was a reason behind the naming of Orchard Street. By 1912, nearly 165,000 acres had been claimed from the desert and were now capable of producing a variety of crops — apples, prunes, peaches, cherries, asparagus and hay. Some of those products were shipped across the country, and even to Europe. Some of the first home sites sat on 5-acre plots. It was rural, but it was growing.
But at the same time, it wasn’t really Boise yet. The train track went Downtown along the river, and it was a spur that only went to Nampa and back. The main line didn’t come to Boise in those days.
That finally changed in 1924 when the Boise Main Line (also known as the Boise Cut-Off) was finished atop the Bench. When the now iconic Boise Depot was finished in 1925, people were unimpressed with Union Pacific’s location choice. It sat up there overlooking the city and its hotels, and the muddy, uphill road to get there could be frustrating. Even the airport was closer to town. (The airport was then where Boise State University now stands.)
Then things changed: paved roads and motor vehicles.
“All of a sudden, the Bench is a lot closer,” Everhart said. “There are even street car lines going up to the Bench.”
The Bench — with the Kootenai Street area sometimes referred to as the Whitney Bench — was now accessible, and it started to develop as one of the city’s early suburbs. It was not like the elitist urban neighborhoods of Warm Springs, East Boise or Harrison Boulevard, but it was a pleasant commute with large, comfortable lots. From the beginning, it was generally platted with elbow room and large yards in mind, something not found in the North End, for example. There was an upper middle class feel to much of the Bench area that would attract many of the city’s movers and shakers of the time.
The 1930s and ’40s would see an explosion of population growth here. Many people moved west during the Great Depression or because of the Dust Bowl. The construction of Gowen Field in 1939 brought more people. By the 1950s, nearly half the population was living south of the river in an idyllic post-war suburbia. Americana Boulevard was also built in the ’50s, allowing another route to the Bench.
There were brick homes, spacious front and rear lawns, single- and double-car garages, family rooms — and closet space. Vista Village, reportedly the nation’s first strip mall, was built in 1949. It included a movie theater and an A&W Drive-In.
Meanwhile, the country — and the Bench — was in architectural flux. There was no set popular design. It was a revival era in home styles — Tudors, Ranch, Cape Cod, Colonial Revival, Spanish Revival and so on.
“Everything old was new again,” Everhart said.