Turning this old church into an arts school has taken 10 years and isn’t done. Why?

1907 church is renovated in Boise's North End

Treasure Valley Institute for Children's Arts, better known as TRICA, is hopefully nearing the end of a decade-long fundraiser to renovate a 1907 church building in Boise's North End into a top-flight children's art school. Director Jon Swarthout,
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Treasure Valley Institute for Children's Arts, better known as TRICA, is hopefully nearing the end of a decade-long fundraiser to renovate a 1907 church building in Boise's North End into a top-flight children's art school. Director Jon Swarthout,

For six decades, North End Methodists gathered on Sundays at the Immanuel Methodist Episcopal Church at 14th and Eastman streets. After services ended in the mid-1960s, the stone-and-stucco church fell into disrepair. In 2007, the church’s 100th year, Jon Swarthout set about to renovate it.

Ten years later, Swarthout’s vision of a children’s arts school inside the church remains unfulfilled. The renovation is unfinished.

Will it ever get done?

Swarthout says yes, though he acknowledges the project has taken longer than he expected when he set out in August 2007 to transform the 1907 Tourtelotte & Hummel building.

“I’ve heard of some talk, of people wondering … ‘You guys started this 10 years ago?’ But I can’t let that affect me,” Swarthout said. “If I did, I would probably want to give up. Instead I say: ‘We’re going to keep going.’ 

Swarthout, 48, is the founder and artistic/managing director of the Treasure Valley Institute for Children’s Arts, or TRICA. He leads a staff of four and a network of 70 instructors who teach 2- to- 12-year-olds dance, theater, music and art. The old church is his labor of love.

He has raised $3.5 million so far to renovate it. He said he still needs $1.5 million more.

Help is on the way. Despite the slow progress, he has persuaded FUNDSY, the venerable Boise fundraising auction that helps nonprofits make capital improvements, to make TRICA the beneficiary of its biennial gala next May.

“I know everyone would like the project to be done faster,” said Monica Walker, a Boise loan officer and FUNDSY board member. “But knowing the magnitude of the project and that TRICA is a nonprofit — they didn’t want to do the project piecemeal. … This project is something where you have to go slow and make sure you’re building the right way, not with Band-Aids.”

Help from neighbors and City Hall

The 12,000-square-foot church needed a lot of work. Swarthout also had to contend with unpleasant surprises.

After the Methodists sold the church, an owner removed corner brackets, damaging its structure. After TRICA acquired it, inspectors found evidence of meth throughout the church’s porous interior surfaces. Those parts of the building had to be removed and a new steel support skeleton installed in their place. That all cost TRICA $527,000.

The building also required a new roof, insulating glass for its massive cathedral windows, and outside stairwells.

The Great Recession hurt donations for several years. So far, TRICA has raised the $3.5 million through grants and donations. That total included a $700,000 grant from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, which paid off TRICA’s mortgage. (The site also includes the old church’s rectory, a house that sits just north of the church on 14th Street.) Repairs are now underway on the building’s sandstone facade.

In 2009, TRICA also faced opposition from a group, Save 14th Street, concerned about increased traffic and commercial development in the area. But the Boise City Council unanimously gave TRICA the go-ahead and approved an exemption from the city’s parking requirements.

Relations with neighbors have since settled.

“In general, we remain supportive of the TRICA project,” said Stephen Miller, spokesman for the North End Neighborhood Association. “We recognize the difficulty of putting together something like this and hope for its ultimate success.”

The association recently donated $10,000 to help with window repairs, Swarthout said.

With the additional $1.5 million, Swarthout said the church would get new heating and air conditioning, plumbing, and eight parking spaces behind the rectory house.

TRICA gets another hand

FUNDSY (originally “funds serving the Y”) hopes to raise $250,000 from the upcoming gala.

About 20 nonprofits asked to be FUNDSY’s beneficiary. Walker said the board was impressed by TRICA’s request.

“Out of the final four, they had a full plan,” she said. “All of their architectural plans, their financial information. They knew exactly how the money would be spent. They showed us what they’ve raised in the past, and it’s significant.”

In the meantime, TRICA seeks additional donations from large donors before the gala and has an online campaign for smaller donors, “for anyone to give at any capacity,” Swarthout said. The online campaign has raised about $4,600 so far.

Those campaigns will wrap up in May, the same month as the gala. That month, TRICA also expects to learn whether its application for a $450,000 grant from the M.J. Murdoch Charitable Trust is successful.

“May is the moon or bust,” Swarthout quipped.

The goal: Teaching more children

Swarthout is a Boise native and a fourth-generation Idahoan. He trained as a dancer in Texas and danced professionally in New York City and in Portland before returning to Boise and founding TRICA 23 years ago.

Swarthout has won numerous awards for his work, including a mayor’s award for excellence in arts education in 2007.

TRICA is a school-based program that teaches everything from jug-band music to letterpress classes and offers summer arts camps. The programs serve about 2,000 children each year, he said — a number he expects to triple once the renovation is done and he can add after-school classes and more programs.

Swarthout looks forward to the day when he can stop raising money for the building and focus on programming. He hopes TRICA will welcome its first students in December 2018.

“Yes, the building is awesome,” Swarthout said, “but again, it’s what’s going to happen inside, when there’s a teacher there with children. That’s one of the most valuable things on the planet.”

Anna Webb: 208-377-6431, @IDS_Anna_Webb_Boise