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What’s behind ’60s-era paneling at El Korah Shrine? A ballroom’s worth of ’20s art.

See the murals uncovered at the El Korah Shrine in Downtown Boise

Leaders at Boise's El Korah Shrine Temple want their ballroom's famous murals restored. In the process, artwork by Boise set and sign painter Harry Hopffgarten was discovered. Now El Korah is raising money to save it all.
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Leaders at Boise's El Korah Shrine Temple want their ballroom's famous murals restored. In the process, artwork by Boise set and sign painter Harry Hopffgarten was discovered. Now El Korah is raising money to save it all.

The ghosts that haunt Boise's El Korah Shrine Temple are about as predictable as specters get.

For those lucky enough to see her, the woman in the Victorian-era frock materializes at the same spot in the venerable sandstone building — the far, dark end of a long hallway. The second, larger ghost has hidden in the temple’s historic ballroom for more than half a century.

No one knows the back story of the woman down the hallway, or when she will show up next. The building that houses the temple started life as a livery stable but was gutted by fire in 1913. Some posit that the silent apparition with the Gibson Girl hair is the spirit of the 55 horses that perished on that terrible day.

But all of Boise may soon get to see the second ghost of El Korah. That is, if temple history buffs can raise $500,000 to bring this different kind of phantasm completely into the light.

This ghost is not human. It's a ballroom’s worth of delicate flowers and gold scroll-work painted on the temple’s plaster walls. The painting was done near the beginning of the 20th century as an elaborate way to frame the temple's 11 famous murals. Although the murals remained, the intricate work that covered the walls around them was secreted behind 1960s paneling nailed up in a fit of midcentury modernization.

Ray Westmoreland, co-chairman of the 12th and Idaho Ballroom Restoration Committee, calls the work “hidden art.”

Because, over the past five decades, it has shown up sporadically, usually in black-and-white photographs of celebrations from the temple’s heyday, when the El Korah Shrine had 3,000 members, when Nobles in fezzes and tuxedos danced with Ladies in shimmering ballgowns.

The most recent sighting happened within the past six months or so, when Karen Jennings was clearing out old belongings and came upon a clutch of 1961 photos depicting her parents at a grand Shriners ball. Jennings is a member of a Shriners auxiliary called Daughters of the Nile. She is, in fact, its former Queen. Her father was a Shriner and member of El Korah and its former potentate.

The El Korah ballroom was a glittering social center in the 1940s and later; it’s now a favorite venue of the Treefort set. But it may be best known for a series of 11 murals painted in 1921 by a famous set and sign painter named Harry Hopffgarten.

Hopffgarten, who was also a Shriner, painted desert palms and Greek columns, ancient Egyptian ruins, a Sphinx, women carrying water, a mysterious mosque.

Today, his murals are framed by strips of prosaic wooden molding. Homely oatmeal-colored curtains can be pulled over the paintings’ elegant pastel tones. The ballroom’s high ceiling has been obscured by acoustic tile. The murals are threaded through with cracks.

But in the black-and-white photos that Jennings found, the walls around the murals are decorated with elaborate paint and fronted by faux marble columns, compliments of Hopffgarten’s brush.

Jennings’ photos show "the columns that were here before and all the decorative artwork surrounding all the murals,” Westmoreland said during a temple tour last week. “There were valances above, and the lights were different. So that’s when we started realizing what a real gem we had here.”

In recent years, Westmoreland said, various El Korah Shrine leaders talked about fixing the occasional crack that would show up in this or that mural. In the process, they discovered that the paintings were not hung on the walls but were part of the walls themselves.

“It would get bantered about, and then nothing ever happened,” said Westmoreland, who served as potentate — the shrine's highest official — in 2011. “Then last year the potentate at the time, Illustrious Sir Mike Yavno, and the recorder at the time, Max Bearden, formed a committee to look into the restoration and hired a plaster expert to do a study on this.”

That plaster expert is Greg Marsters, whose Boise company provides conservation and historic restoration services. Custom Plaster has repaired the scagliola (aka imitation marble) inside the Idaho state Capitol and restored the ornamental plasterwork in the former, Art Deco-style Ada County Courthouse, now the University of Idaho's law school and the state's law library.

Marsters said he’s wanted to work on the El Korah Shrine Temple for the past five years. Once the ballroom is restored to its original glory, he said, “it will be one of the top three decorative spaces in the [Treasure] Valley. ... The other two are the Egyptian Theatre and the Ada County Courthouse.”

The temple is important, he said, because “we don’t have a lot of gems left here after urban renewal. And we don’t have a lot of decorated spaces. ... It will be quite fantastic when it’s done.”

Marsters said the committee to restore the ballroom at first only wanted the murals conserved. But he told the members that “we’d have to expose all the walls or we’d do untold damage.”

When he pulled back the paneling in a small quadrant of the ballroom, Marsters discovered the elegant, pale green surface with intricate gold brushwork and delicate pink flowers framing a mural's desert scene.

A swath of the fancy paint job has been covered in clear plexiglass. It was featured in a public tour for the first time on July 5, and the committee plans to invite the public back to see the temple and Hopffgarten’s work every first Thursday for the foreseeable future.

That plexiglass patch is the heart of the committee’s half-million-dollar fundraising effort. Westmoreland’s group hopes to raise the entire amount through grants and donations before restoration begins.

The Shriners are a national fraternal organization that dates back to 1870 New York. That’s when a group of Masons realized their society just wasn’t enough fun and formed a splinter group dedicated to laughter and good works.

Fifty years later, the national Shriners organization decided to focus its charitable work on child welfare and opened the first Shriners hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana. Today there are 22 Shriners hospitals, and the group’s chapters raise money to keep them operating.

“Shrine hospitals are the main focus of the Shriners, and we want to keep it that way,” Westmoreland said.

His message to donors? If you already give to the Shriners, keep that money coming; the hospitals need you. But if you want to help renovate the El Korah ballroom, give Westmoreland a call, don't go online, because the organization’s website is sorely lacking.

“Call down here," said Westmoreland, who can be reached at 208-371-3833. “We want to restore the ballroom. Give us money. Write us a check.”

Maria L. La Ganga: 208-377-6431, @marialaganga
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