Tear down these Boise homes, historian says, and their unique Idaho stories may die too

The houses are old and graceful and stately, sporting lots of Boise sandstone and wavy leaded-glass windows. Architectural historian Dan Everhart wants Boise to approve new protections that would make it hard to tear them down.

The Eoff-Brady house at the corner of Main and Second streets is the heart of the proposed historic district. Fears that it would be demolished sparked the current rush to preservation. The City Council passed an emergency ordinance Aug. 7 to prohibit the owner from tearing it down.

But the 10 grand houses, one medical office and 11 assorted outbuildings are not the most important factor behind the proposed historic district, which the Boise Planning and Zoning Commission is set to consider Monday.

It’s what happened inside the houses that’s of greatest value, Everhart said while leading a walking tour of the area on Thursday: the stories of their flesh-and-blood owners and the celebrated men who designed them. (Yes, just men. Think 1892-1911.)

Stories of murder and corruption, pyromania and adultery, scandal and politics and social striving. Of rich and powerful men and women and the quirks that shaped the houses they commissioned.

All in a couple of square blocks. In short, history. Boise’s history.

And without the buildings, Everhart fears the tales, those particular Gem State stories, will fade away, swallowed whole by whatever modern structures replace the Queen Annes and Colonial Revivals lining Main and Idaho streets.

“I try to tell stories that bring the places to life in some way,” he said when the 90-minute tour ended and the 25 or so history lovers scattered to make sure they hadn’t gotten parking tickets. “I could just talk about the architecture. It’s sandstone and it’s brick, and it’s cool and I like it, and fish-scale shingles.

“But I prefer to talk about the stories of the people who lived there or the people who built them. And I can’t even tell you all the stories we skipped over.”

He launches into one anyway, about the former Charles Cavanah house, a clapboard, two-story Colonial Revival at 107 E. Idaho St. that’s now home to the House of Flowers. It was designed by the famed Boise architecture firm Tourtellotte & Hummel. It’s included in a 1982 listing of the architects’ properties in the National Register of Historic Places.

And it once was home to a woman who did historical preservation no favors.

“In the 1970s, a woman was renting an apartment there, and she systematically set fire to a number of Downtown landmarks, including the old Saint Alphonsus Hospital, which was on the cusp of being renovated for state offices,” Everhart said. “It was this huge preservation win for the city, and she torched it.

“I think she was a pyromaniac,” he said. “I don’t think it was an anti-preservation issue. I think it was an ‘I really like fire’ kind of thing. She set fire to several other buildings Downtown. There’s stories, layer on layer of story. … When we lose those places, then we lose the ability to tell the story, at least as fully as we want to.”

The Cavanah house is just outside of the proposed historic district, which would provide permanent restrictions on demolition or changes to the buildings. It is one of two homes on the National Register of Historic Places that are in the neighborhood but excluded from proposed protections.

And then there is 100 West Main Street. The green clapboard structure is a mish-mash of styles. Everhart said it was originally built in 1892 as a one-story, Queen Anne cottage for a man named Thomas Kerr. In 1904, its new owner, a wool grower named George Leighton, hired a firm to add a dramatic second story in the Colonial Revival style.

The reason was the Regan mansion next door, a Tourtellotte & Hummel number designed at the same time the famed architects were working on the state Capitol. The Regan House had features similar to the Capitol: grand columns, Boise sandstone, a hefty price tag. Leighton caught a bad case of house envy.

“He needed a grandiose house,” Everhart said. “No one-story cottage would do.”

But social-striving Boise style wasn’t the juiciest element of the Kerr-Leighton house. It seems, Everhart said, that Kerr was having an affair. It was 1898, and “you can imagine the scandal.” His lover’s husband shot and killed him at the home’s front gate in broad daylight, as several witnesses watched.

And who was the murderer’s attorney? None other than one William Borah, who went on to become a U.S. senator and whose name graces a high school, a park, a pool, a post office, a landmark building, a street, and Idaho’s highest mountain.

“William Borah was said to have brought eight of the 12 jurors to tears with his impassioned plea for the man’s acquittal,” Everhart said. Borah’s defense was basically that “’God himself would murder this man if it had not been done by his client.’ [The murderer] was acquitted. Walked scot-free.”

The walking tour of the proposed historic district was a news-driven change to the Preservation Idaho’s schedule of regular summer architectural and historical excursions. Everhart had originally planned to take the group of history lovers on a stroll through a neighborhood on the west end of Downtown.

“As soon as this happened, he said, ‘let’s switch it up’,” said Preservation Idaho President Paula Benson, as the group walked from one grand house to the next.

Benson and Everhart exhorted participants to reach out to Mayor David Bieter and the City Council to show support for protecting Boise’s built history and the stories those structures tell.

So far, city officials have received more than 700 letters and emails. But live bodies at coming hearings will be crucial, Benson said.

Monday’s hearing is at 6 p.m. at City Hall. If P&Z gives the district the thumbs up, the Historic Preservation Commission will weigh in. That hearing has yet to be scheduled. The City Council is the final arbiter and could consider the district’s fate sometime in late November or early December, Benson said.

“History can be very current,” she said. “We wanted to stay topical, and this is an important topic for people to understand.”

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