Boise’s Union Block ‘elegant though not elaborate’

J.E. Tourtellotte’s Union Block is a landmark still with us.
J.E. Tourtellotte’s Union Block is a landmark still with us. Provided by Arthur Hart

The arrival of the 20th century on Jan. 1, 1901, was the occasion for traditional celebrations on New Year’s Eve, but there was something special about saying goodbye to not just the old year but to the 19th century as well. Boiseans were delighted with the big new Idanha Hotel at 10th and Main that opened that day, and there was a general spirit of optimism about what the new century might bring.

In Washington, D.C., that day more than 5,300 members of the general public visited the White House between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. for an open house that had become an annual tradition. President William McKinley shook hands with nearly all who came, and in the final half-hour, by actual count, shook hands with visitors at the rate of 65 a minute. That September, McKinley was fatally shot by an anarchist as he shook hands with members of the public at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, N.Y.

Plans for the erection of an important building in Downtown Boise were announced in the Idaho Statesman on July 27, 1901. The paper showed the architect’s drawing for the Union Block, to be built on Idaho Street between Seventh and Eighth. John E. Tourtellotte, its architect, had arrived in Boise in 1890. In 1893 he was partner in a contracting business, during which time he built the new Presbyterian Church. In March 1896, he designed the Moses Alexander house at Fourth and Jefferson, a landmark building still standing.

From that time forward, Tourtellotte’s career prospered, as he, in partnership with German-born Karl Friedrich Hummel, designed scores of important buildings across the Pacific Northwest, including Idaho’s Capitol, the Overland (Eastman) building, Boise City National Bank, Carnegie Library, the Administration Building at the University of Idaho, and enough work in Oregon that the firm opened an office in Portland.

Of plans for Boise’s Union Block, the Statesman said, “The building will be one of the handsomest and most substantial in the city. Fronting on Idaho Street 125 feet, its elegant, though not elaborate architecture will give that thoroughfare a striking appearance. The lower story of the building is to be occupied by stores, the space being already engaged. The basement will be used as a storage room. The second floor may be a general public hall, though this question has not yet been determined. Several lodges have figured on getting this portion of the building for fraternal meeting purposes.”

A notable feature of the building was the consortium of five Boise men who had it designed and built. They came from a variety of backgrounds, including one who had been awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism in the Indian Wars. A biography of German-born Lt. Col. John Green, describes him as “one of our truly famous men” for a military career that included service in the Mexican War and the Civil War, and notes that in Boise he was much admired and universally known as “General Green.” For many of his years in Boise he was the commandant of Boise Barracks.

Clothing merchant Moses Alexander, like Green, was also a native of Germany. He was elected mayor of Boise for the second time in July 1901 and would be elected governor of Idaho in 1915.

Robert Noble, born in England, came to Idaho in 1870, and after working for Thomas Jefferson Davis for four years, made his fortune raising sheep in Owyhee County. After moving to Boise he became a bank president and investor in real estate and electric railroads.

James R. Lusk, a native of Missouri, was vice president of the Carlton-Lusk Hardware Co., largest of its kind in Idaho. He received a degree from what was then known as Blue Mountain University in La Grande, Ore.

Of C.A. Clark, the fifth investor in the group that built the Union Block, we have been unable to find any biographical information.

Happily, the landmark Union Block, completed in 1902, is still with us, and is well worth a visit.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.