Idaho History

Boise’s Natatorium captivated the young city in prosperous 1890s

The Natatorium in Boise opened in May 1892.
The Natatorium in Boise opened in May 1892. Idaho State Historical Society

If you lived in Boise in 1891, you had reason to be proud of your little city. Your growing hometown now had an electric streetcar line and a few months ago had become capital of the 43rd state in the union.

Unique among American cities was Boise’s access to and development of a geothermal hot water system for heating homes and businesses. Its recreational possibilities were also being developed with the construction of the Natatorium, a great pleasure palace in a style labeled “Moorish.”

The Idaho Statesman reported on September 7, 1891: “It is confidently expected that a contract will shortly be let for the construction of the great natatorium building on Warm Springs Avenue. The foundation walls are all laid, the mammoth plunge complete, and the tall rock grotto at the south end was finished Saturday. The shingles and other materials are already on the ground and the work of construction will occupy about four months.”

A week later it was revealed that the architect of the big building was John C. Paulsen of Helena, Montana, who had designed that city’s Broadwater Natatorium. Daniel P. Wortman, also of Helena, was awarded the $50,000 contract and was given five months in which to complete it.

The roof over the warm-water pool was made up of 13 wooden arches, each with a span of 80 feet. The paper reported on Sept. 25, 1891: “The first arch of the Natatorium was raised on Wednesday last. The men were all the afternoon about it. Being very heavy, weighing 7500 pounds and the wind blowing strong at the time, it fell against the rock pile over which the water is made to fall and was broken in two at the very top of the arch. It was soon mended, but it was 7 o’clock in the evening before it was gotten into place. There are thirteen of these arches to be constructed and placed as soon as possible. They are forty feet high and eighty feet span.

“The eleventh span of the Natatorium was raised yesterday. An idea of the size of the building may now be formed. Many persons are going out on the cars having no other object but to take a view of the improvements now going on in that suburb. The crowd of people at the Natatorium on Sunday afternoon last was immense.”

On Oct. 14, 1891, the Statesman listed the Natatorium’s facilities: “1- plunge 2-ladies parlor 3-general reception room 4- wine and smoking rooms for gentlemen 5- office for getting keys to dressing rooms and bathing suits 6- tank 7- grotto with waterfalls 8- vapor and Turkish baths 9- central hall 10- billiard room 11-card room 12- reading room 13- parlor 14-dining room 15- kitchen 16- servants rooms 17- dancing pavilion 18- galleries on four floors overlooking plunge.”

“The Natatorium shows up finely,” commented the Statesman on Nov. 20, 1891. “Two towers in its front add greatly to its appearance. It probably covers more ground than any other building in the state.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email