Guest Opinions

The case for The Cabin: Keep this historic building in its historic site on the river

“A glorious view 356 days a year,” Milt Williams said of his time in the 1939 cabin, when it was the Keep Idaho Green program office. “It changed every day: fall colors, winter fog, sun and green in summer — glorious every day.”
“A glorious view 356 days a year,” Milt Williams said of his time in the 1939 cabin, when it was the Keep Idaho Green program office. “It changed every day: fall colors, winter fog, sun and green in summer — glorious every day.”

The Log Cabin Literary Center (now The Cabin) came into being more than 20 years ago when Gaetha Pace alerted a group of writers and preservationists that the historic structure was in danger of either being razed or moved. Serendipitously, I suggested to a writers group meeting at the late Ruth Wright’s house that The Cabin would make an excellent literary center. Shortly, an ad hoc board came together taking the name Snake River Writers, and the process of saving and repurposing the historic building began.

Soon planner John Bertram developed a long-range plan — including classes, meetings and workshops, a center for readers and writers — for how the building was to be used. We lobbied then-Mayor Carolyn Terteling and the City Council, and an extremely advantageous lease was drawn up that benefits The Cabin to this day. The one catch was that The Cabin board would have to raise a substantial sum to be used for renovating the 1939 building. Within a year, 700 people joined as members, substantial grants were received from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Idaho Heritage Trust, and renovations ensued.

Jump to the present: The Cabin is now, thanks in no small part to the city’s commitment to its upkeep and favorable lease terms, a premier arts institution in Boise and Idaho. Cabin writers teach as Writers in the Schools, lead summer citywide camp programs, and its Readings and Conversations program brings America’s leading authors to Boise, where they usually read and talk in another of the city’s iconic buildings, the Egyptian Theatre.

The historic Cabin, built for the state forester in 1939 to commemorate the state’s 50th anniversary, with donations of Idaho woods from forest products companies around the state, again appears threatened. Not one of the proposed plans for the exciting new library includes The Cabin as a given in the design – ignoring that it is an authentic part of the city’s heritage.

Buildings develop in specific places, and people experience them there. It is not an accident that the National Register of Historic Places frowns on placing moved structures. The Cabin is on the register in its current historic location. The proposal to relocate it to the museum of castaway old buildings at Julia Davis Park seems pre-emptive.

The city’s history with building moves doesn’t provide good optics. The historic Beth Israel Temple now sits out of sight and mind by Morris Hill Cemetery; the Bishop’s House move to the Old Pen maintained its life but tilted its historic place away from the city center. A building’s history in place matters. One successful local endeavor makes this point dramatically. Today an educational showplace in Southeast Boise, the Bown House was threatened with removal too. Thanks to Sheri Freemuth and Preservation Idaho, the Boise sandstone stopover on the Oregon Trail did not have to be razed or picked up and transplanted. It remains in place and serves as a living history space where annually hundreds of Boise students get to learn about our past.

The Cabin’s use and usefulness are not in question. Its site is. Few would argue against having a famous architect’s team design a remarkable public building for our growing capital. But it seems unfortunate at best that he and his team were not encouraged to go inside The Cabin and do a plan that kept that structure in place. And ironic that a new library dedicated to arts, history and reading can’t make room for a symbolic piece of local architecture. Reading and writing adjacent to each other seems a natural fit. It is not too late, and concerned citizens should be asking why not.

Alan Minskoff, the founding board chair of the Log Cabin Literary Center, directs the journalism minor at The College of Idaho. He is a longtime historic preservation activist.