10 reasons to save the old Ada County Courthouse
History repeats itself. Four years ago, in March, 2001, Boise Weekly put its publishing power behind the effort to save the Old Ada County Courthouse, which faced destruction then–as it does now–at the hands of Idaho legislators without regard to the pleas of the community wherein its majestic art deco halls sits. This week, we call on our readers to do the same thing they did four years ago and get involved.
Last Monday’s sunny but cold and windy afternoon saw over 200 local residents gather on the Statehouse steps to protest the proposed bill to demolish the courthouse after a bill to remodel it failed on the Senate floor. The rally featured a parade of local figures dedicated to preserving Idaho’s past including Preservation Idaho’s Nancy Richardson, Boise historian Arthur Hart, architect Charles Hummell, former Ada County Prosecutor David Leroy, Boise City Councilman Alan Shealy and Idaho State Historical Society director Steve Gerber. They spoke of protecting the building, presenting efforts by organizations and the Boise City Council to urge legislators to reconsider remodeling it over demolishing it. Each call to action raised applause and nods of approval.
“It was built as a symbol of recovery in bad times,” Steve Gerber said through the loudspeakers. How ironic, then, that as Idaho and the rest of the U.S. is coming out of a post-9/11 recession, the modern equivalent of the symbolism of progress and hope for the future is to tear down the building and rebuild a new one, even though it costs more to do so.
The following 10 reasons to save the Ada County Courthouse were written four years ago by BW staff, including editor Sara Kuhl, Anna Webb, Cynthia Sewell and Mindy Kay Bricker. The reasons have been updated and abridged for length. Please visit www.boiseweekly.com for the full version of the March, 2001 feature.
1. If we can renovate the Capitol then we can certainly do the same for the old Ada County Courthouse
Boise Mayor David Bieter said four years ago while a state rep. that the private sector–not the Idaho state government–has done an excellent job of recognizing the value of historic buildings in Boise. Just look at some of the downtown buildings: the Egyptian Theater, the Idanha, the Union Block building, The Mode and the Empire Building.
Jerry Lowe, the project architect on the Capitol building project, said that replacing historic buildings with a new one is like building a new, modern church to replace the Vatican. Amen.
2. Boise has lost enough of its historic buildings already
Boiseans can rattle off the names of razed, irreplaceable buildings–old City Hall, Pinney Theater, the Hip-Sing building (and the rest of Chinatown) DeLamar House and more–like others rattle off the names of dead relatives. We’ve had ample time to reflect on what we’ve lost and now have the chance to keep the Courthouse off the list of the dearly departed. If we lost the courthouse, we’d lose another chunk of what little visual history we have left.
3. Boise needs to maintain local control of its own urban landscape
It’s Boiseans who will have to live with the results of any decision concerning the old courthouse–not legislators from Soda Springs, Pocatello or Idaho Falls. Imagine the havoc that would take place if we decided to invade another city and demand a historic building be torn down. No other community would stand for such an intrusion, so why should Boise be subjected to it simply because state government is headquartered here?
4. They cannot make buildings like they used to
The Ada County Courthouse was built between March 1938 and July 1939 for $370,000. Adjusted for inflation that would be roughly $4.7 million today. Workers who built it were paid one dollar per hour. Their fine craftsmanship, a rarity today, helps it to still stand strong 60 years later, and could for at least another couple hundred years.
“When historic buildings are torn down, a part of our past disappears forever. When that happens, we lose connections with history that help define us,” says Mike Buhler from National Trust for Historic Preservation Western Office located in San Francisco. “The Ada County Courthouse is just such a link to the past. Its quality of design and craftsmanship defied the austerity of the Great Depression. Once lost, this proud symbol of Idaho history can never be replaced.”
5. The courthouse is a classic example of WPA architecture
Our courthouse was built in1938-39, one of 10 built in Idaho under President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA provided work for American builders, artists and craftsmen during the Great Depression. The building is an irreplaceable example of sleek, machine-savvy art deco design.
6. Not just any old building can join this elite group
Getting on the National Register of Historic Places is no easy feat. Today’s prefab, synthetic stucco-over-plywood structures don’t stand a chance. They are under-designed and not built to last. Created under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, this registry is the nation’s official “Who’s who” of cultural resources worthy of preservation. On May 5, 1976, the Ada County Courthouse–then a mere 37 years old–met the standards of historically significance and was placed on the National Register. Membership on the list makes the courthouse eligible for federal projects, tax breaks and funding–a perk instantly lost when the wrecking ball swings.
7. Newness trumps logic
Legislators need more offices. Fine. They need larger hearing rooms. Reasonable. But what isn’t fine or reasonable is to circumvent the advice of architects, who clearly advise to save the existing building and make additions. It will also cost less to renovate than to demolish a $600,000 asset and rebuild–$1.8 million less.
8. The courthouse is filled with public art, a key building element, say the state and city
Saving the historic Courthouse is a completely modern, up-to-the moment idea. Here’s why: Boise City and the Idaho House and Senate approved Percent for Art programs. This means whenever the city or state begins a building project, a percentage of the project’s budget will be devoted to public art. The inclusion of art elements, say the majority of your state leaders, is key to the success of public buildings and spaces. In the case of the courthouse, the hard work is already done. The building is filled, and its exterior covered, with public art.
If the building is razed, the murals will be removed, like those disembodied parts lying around C.W. Moore Park–the stone arch and sandstone signs salvaged from dead Boise buildings. This is a consolation prize.
9. We shouldn’t give in to the greed of the legislature
The arrogance and greed of some members of the Idaho Legislature is simply appalling. The idea of replacing the courthouse to make room for new swanky offices for legislators–legislators who are in Boise just three months–is simply wrong. Especially when the same means can be accomplished by remodeling the courthouse.
10. The fight could end up in court
We could spend even more money by preservationists taking the battle to court–a boon for lawyers, but a boondoggle for the taxpayers.
While the Senate has postponed the vote on the bill authorizing the destruction of the Ada County Courthouse one week, there is still time to contact Senators to urge them to vote no. Even if the bill does pass the Senate, it must survive the House committee and a vote on the House floor to proceed. Then the Governor must sign it for the bill to take effect.
We recommend you contact those Senators who voted against remodelling and urge them to vote no on demolishing as well:
John Andreason, 332-1333, firstname.lastname@example.org
Hal Bunderson, 332-1319, email@example.com
Tim Corder, 332-1342, firstname.lastname@example.org
Patti Anne Lodge, 332-1325, email@example.com
John McGee, 332-1336, firstname.lastname@example.org
Curt McKenzie, 332-1354, email@example.com
Jack Noble, 332-1340, firstname.lastname@example.org
Monty Pearce, 332-1339, email@example.com
Gerry Sweet, 332-1355, firstname.lastname@example.org
Calling 800-626-0471 or 208-332-1000 will also allow you to leave a brief message for your legislator. Just say you would like to leave the message for your Senator or Representative. Do this for all three in your district.
Preservation Idaho (www.preservationidaho.org) also has a wealth of information you can reference including calls to action and talking points.
The Idaho State Historical Society is online (www.idahohistory.net) with information about Idaho’s historic places.
Organizers of the rally advise concerned Boiseans to speak with friends, neighbors, media contacts–anyone and everyone who may be able to put pressure on the legislators responsible for voting for the demolition of the courthouse.