This historic Downtown Boise building will get a new life this summer

One of Boise’s grand historic Downtown buildings is about to be reborn.

The Carnegie Public Library, built in 1905 with money from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation, served as Boise’s main library for nearly 70 years. A vibrant hub of community connection and learning, it briefly fell silent in 1973, when the current main library building opened on Capitol Boulevard in a renovated warehouse. Then it was renovated into private law offices.

Now, the two-story, brick-and-sandstone building will get a second lease on public life. Boise developer Ken Howell plans to transform it in June into the Carnegie Studios, a place for artists to create. Howell, a developer, is known for projects that preserved historic Downtown buildings such as the Alaska, Idaho, Idanha and Union Block buildings.

The repurposing is a boon for Downtown Boise, says Dan Everhart, former director of Preservation Idaho and a freelance architectural historian. The building was, and still is, an important civic asset, Everhart said.

“It’s easy to forget how small Boise was at the time,” Everhart said. (The 1900 census said Boise had just 5,957 people.) “It was this tiny enclave, and the library was at its heart. It became a hub of social interaction. It’s difficult for a modern person to understand what a building like that could mean to a community like this at that time.”

A Tourtellotte & Hummel building

The neoclassical building is quietly elegant — and easy to miss. It is set back on all sides on Washington Street between 8th and 9th streets.

The city grew up around its stately facade. It was designed by Boise’s Tourtellotte & Hummel Architects (now Hummel Architects), the team that also designed many of Boise’s landmark buildings, including the Capitol and Boise High School.

It was completed one year before construction started on the Statehouse, and before Boise High was completed. It remains a testament to the sense of hope that spurred much of Boise’s early growth, said Paula Benson, head of the Preservation Idaho board.

“It was an investment in the future of the city,” she said.

Andrew Carnegie built more than 2,500 libraries across the country. He contributed $20,000, the equivalent of more than $500,000 today. Boise was required to match his contribution. Led by the Columbian Club, a women’s service organization that still exists, Boiseans raised the funds to maintain and furnish the building and to buy the books that filled its shelves.

Carnegie also helped build libraries in Caldwell, Nampa, Mountain Home, Weiser, Twin Falls, Moscow, Pocatello, Preston and Wallace. Nampa’s burned down in 1966.

0410 carnegie Howell Huntley
Boise developer Ken Howell, right, talks with Christopher Huntley, owner of Huntley Law Firm, which previously occupied the historic Carnegie Public Library building. Katherine Jones kjones@idahostatesman.com

Artists in residence

Howell will repurpose the library through the Alexa Rose Foundation, named for his first wife, an artist who died in 2013. Her passion was encouraging and nurturing young artists.

The foundation will offer one-year fellowships for use of 18 studios in the Carnegie to artists needing a place to work. This is a new direction, says Anne Wescott, who heads Alexa Rose.

The building also will contain an office for Global Lounge, a Boise nonprofit that uses music and other activities to educate people about cultural diversity; and eventually for Wingtip Press, a community printmaking studio.

It’s a quick turnaround. Wescott and Howell take possession of the building on May 1 and plan to open the Carnegie Studios in June, when the foundation also will announce its next round of grants.

The building is in good shape, Howell said, so he plans no renovation. The current tenant on the main level is the Huntley Law Firm, founded by former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Robert Huntley. It is moving to another Downtown location. Once it moves out, the artists can start moving in.

The Carnegie fellowship application process is happening now. For this first round, because of the fast time frame, they will select applications from artists who have previously received an Alexa Rose grant. Next year, it will be an open application process.

carnegie library donation
This Idaho Statesman report in 1905 said Andrew Carnegie increased his donation to the Boise library after being asked.

Lasting legacy

Boise is lucky that the Carnegie building exists, Everhart said. “In the 1970s urban renewal was rampant in Downtown, and many of its historic treasures were lost,” he said.

A group of lawyers bought it in 1973 and created more individual offices in the building to accommodate their needs using the same wood and style as the original interior.

Ten years ago, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, about two and a half blocks away at 518 N 8th St, Boise, bought it as an investment.

The Huntley firm’s departure prompted the church to rethink the space.

“We always wanted to use it to support our ministry and the community,” said Rich Demarest, who heads the Downtown church. “But we ended up with just income-producing tenants, and we’ve been looking for another use for it. We didn’t buy it just to be landlords.”

Demarest turned to Howell for advice. Though not a member of the parish, Howell has been involved with the building as an adviser since the church bought it. Howell’s intention to use foundation money to lease the space and help artists meets the church’s goals for the building, and Howell’s for the arts community, they said.

carnegie original drawing
The original architect’s drawing of the Carnegie Public Library, built in the early 1900s. It opened in May 1905 with a fund-raising gala to help pay for furniture. Provided by Hummel Architects

Author Tony Doerr gets to stay

Howell said it’s important to give old buildings new life because they tell our story, “and people feel connected.” He took on the building with a 10-year lease with a five-year renewal option, and with a plan to retire the the debt of the church’s mortgage at the end of that term.

Howell, 75, has pledged his estate to the foundation, said Wescott, who married Howell three years ago.

“Why wait? When the need is now. Here’s this building he loves as a preservationist,” she said. “He can help the church with its finances, and here’s this need in the community that we can fill.”

Allies Linked for the Prevention of HIV and AIDS will continue to occupy its offices at the east end of the building through the term of its lease, which ends in August. And Pulitzer Prize-winning Boise author Tony Doerr can keep his office on the basement level indefinitely, Wescott said.

Everhart said Howell is a reliable protector of historic places.

“There couldn’t be a better steward for that building’s legacy than Ken,” he said.

Dana Oland: 208-377-6442, @DanaOland

About Alexa Rose Howell

An artist, arts supporter, writer, organizer and teacher, Alexa Rose Howell came to Boise with her husband in the 1970s. She was an painter with a quirky, whimsical style. She served as the managing director of the Boise Philharmonic in the mid-1970s, ran a street puppet theater and taught art and cooking classes at the Howells’ home.

She died in 2013 after a 12-year battle with lymphoma. Howell created the foundation to continue her support of artists through mid-career grants of between $250 and $5,000 for education, equipment and career development. The foundation has awarded $240,000 so far.

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