When Boise State’s Honors College opens in 2017, it will provide undeniable benefits to the university’s campus, including classrooms and lodging for 656 students — half of them honors students who will be able to study and live in the same space.
But construction of that new 236,000-square-foot building on University Drive, across from the Student Union, will mean the destruction of the former University Christian Church built between 1959 and 1965. The demolition is a defeat for local historians and preservationists who believe the church complex represents a significant midcentury architectural style.
When characterizing that style, think “Mad Men.” Think clean brick and angular roof lines, golden wood, a restrained use of ornament and open, airy spaces with lots of room for people and cars. This was a post-war era of prosperity and Space Age speed.
University Christian Church has stained glass windows of an abstract, geometric design. Architect Glen Cline dropped smaller square panes of bright glass into brick walls here and there, suggesting randomness, abstraction and surprise, maybe even modern jazz.
The university plans to break ground for the new honors college in early 2016, so demolition of the church complex is imminent. In an era that saw some preservation victories, including the recent move of several historic houses from Boise’s Central Addition neighborhood north of Julia Davis Park, historians want to pay tribute to the building before it’s gone and raise public awareness of what will be lost.
Before the university bought the site from the church in 2013, Preservation Idaho sent in a photographer to document the entire complex. The organization will keep the photos in its archives and use them for educational purposes.
“The building represents a fairly rare type of church architecture in Boise,” said Dan Everhart of Preservation Idaho. “Many established congregations had larger, older churches in the Downtown core, so the move of the First Christian Church (which became University Christian Church) out to what might have been called ‘the suburbs’ and to design in a midcentury style that related to the car culture, distinguishes this building from others in the city.”
Its closest contemporary in era and style may be the First United Methodist Church, or Cathedral of the Rockies, built between 1958 and 1960.
The First Christian congregation registered with the secretary of state in 1887 as The Christian Church. It was located for several decades in the building now occupied by the Capitol City Christian Church on 9th Street. In 1958, Everhart said, the congregation decided to move south to a spot across from then-Boise Junior College. Congregants hired the architectural firm Wayland and Cline, a well-established Boise firm that had been known by other names through the years and eventually became CSHQA.
The church complex was built in three phases for $400,000. The university paid $5.9 million for the 4-acre site in 2013. The University Christian congregation relocated to Ustick Road in Meridian and changed its name to Parkview Christian Church to reflect its proximity to Settler’s Park.
Impending demolition of the former University Christian Church hasn’t inspired much of a public outcry. This isn’t surprising, Everhart said. The building falls into a kind of limbo zone when it comes to historic preservation.
“Because of its relatively recent construction, buildings of this style, type and time period, barely 50 years old, elicit far less sympathy and interest on the part of the public,” Everhart said. “For many people, buildings of this era are part of their life span. It can be difficult to associate something constructed within one’s own life span with historic significance.”
Buildings in the 35- to 65-year-old range will always be the most vulnerable to demolition, Everhart said. If they’re newer than 35 years old, chances are they’re still being used. If they’re older than 65, they seem “officially old, or even stylish again in a retro way.”
“If the church complex were designed in 1900 instead of 1959, there would probably be a much greater public sentiment against the demolition,” Everhart said.
It’s unclear whether any elements from the building, including period light fixtures and windows, will be salvaged. University officials were not available for comment.
What’s the future for Campus Elementary School?
Phase 1 of the university’s expected expansion over the next decade includes the eventual replacement of the Campus Elementary School building, now used as a fine arts building, with a new academic building.
“Boise State has no current plans to demolish Campus School, and has no timeline for when such a decision would be made,” said Greg Hahn, the university’s associate vice president for communications and marketing.
Hahn said that the consultants who designed the long-range expansion plan believe that if Boise State continues to grow, the old school will be at the heart of the expanded campus within 25 years. The 1953 building, he said, would not likely be able to support the university’s demands for space and state-of-the-art classrooms.
Boise architectural firm Tourtellotte and Hummel, known for its designs of the Idaho Capitol, St. John’s Cathedral and other iconic buildings, designed Campus Elementary. It served as a school for children in the neighborhood while offering training classrooms for college students in the process of becoming teachers. The old school has been on Preservation Idaho’s radar since 2006, after the university released a comprehensive plan that included the replacement of Campus Elementary with a new academic building. Everhart said the building, designed in the same collegiate Gothic style as the administration building and others on campus, contributes to Boise State’s historical character and attests to the longevity of the campus.
Boise State will consider all of that at some point. The university’s long-term master plan can and does change over time as needs and direction change, Hahn said.
“When university leaders eventually begin to discuss the future Campus School sometime down the line, they will have to weigh the historical attributes of the building and others nearby and elsewhere on campus — as well as the potential uses of the building — with the needs of the students and the community the university serves,” Hahn said.
The university expansion plan also calls for the removal of Riverfront Hall (formerly the College of Business and Economics Building) in the next decade.
In 20 to 30 years the school plans to remove Towers Hall, also known as Barnes Tower, one of the first residence halls on campus, built in 1969.