I guess I’ve painted Boise as a bit of a wellspring for artists and art lovers. While it is that, to a degree, this is a relatively recent condition.
I arrived in Boise in 1976, two years after Boise State College graduated to Boise State University (BSU), a decade before BSU invested in its distinctive blue turf, and thirty-one years before the Boise State Bronco’s epic Fiesta Bowl Championship win over Oklahoma which put the Orange and Blue team on the map in more ways than one.
When I arrived, the city population was around 98,000. Coming from a college town of 30,000, I felt like I’d hit the big time. There was the Boise Philharmonic, Boise Little Theatre, Boise Opera, Boise Gallery of Art, plus unending guest speakers and artists hosted by BSU. I matured with the town, marveling when our population signs finally shifted to over 100,000 in 1980.
For years, downtown Boise languished while cropland to the south and west got diced into housing, often in developments that included enough acreage to theoretically support gentleman’s farms or a couple of horses for the teenagers. The mayor and city council squabbled over where and how to guide investment for the city’s future retail. One faction wanted to build a large regional mall west of Boise to feed off the growing population between Boise and her sister town of Meridian. The other faction was entrenched in urban renewal and building some form of shopping mall downtown. While Boise bickered, retail defected to suburban strip malls where parking was perfect. Downtown buildings were shuttered. Barren streets grew thick with potholes. If you went downtown after 5 PM or during weekends, you could take a nap on Main Street and not worry about getting run over. The only activity was during the weekend high school cruise that encompassed about a ten-block area, and consisted of souped up cars and hopped up hormones. The city fathers and a few mothers continued to spar. A new mayor was elected in 1986 and in 1987 the final blow came to downtown Boise in the form of a devastating fire.
The Eastman building commanded a noteworthy position on the corner of 8th and Main. The original site of the Overland Hotel and, later, the first telephone exchange in Idaho, the Eastman building was built on this corner in 1906 to house retail and legal, dental and medical offices. The building, designed by Tourtellotte and Company, used local granite and sandstone ornamented with terra cotta lions-heads and arched entries. By the late 1970s, the Renaissance Revival building was in disrepair. It became a focal point in the arguments between historic preservationists and urban renewal planners eager to replace its old school elegance with a bright, fancy new mall. Sitting empty and neglected, it offered shelter to hobos during the icy, cold winter of 1987.
I remember waking up that January 24th Saturday morning to skim the headlines before heading off to work. The Eastman Building was gone! Flames had erupted during the night, and stepping outside, I could smell the Eastman’s sad smoke. After the mess was cleared up, downtown Boise deteriorated even more. The Eastman site earned the nickname of the “The Hole.” I got tired of explaining to my mom when she came to visit, that eventually it would get cleaned up. For years she thought I lived in the remains of a war zone.
A regional mall opened in 1988. With the mall controversy finally off the table, community leaders, and preservationists could finally come together to revision what downtown Boise might become. While the rest of downtown Boise spruced up and nightlife blossomed, The Hole seemed haunted. Several developers dreamed big, but pulled out before completing their projects on the site. The Hole remained a grim reminder of our past. At last, in 2013 Zion’s Bank announced it would build its new Idaho headquarters on the infamous Eastman site. Gardner Company completed the 17-story building in early 2014.
The corner of 8th and Main is once more a focal point for Boise’s thriving downtown scene. Our metropolitan area is now quickly closing in on a half million people. Boise has exploded into a small megalopolis, overtaking outlying towns like Kuna, Meridian and Eagle. There’s more nightlife here, even during the pandemic, than I have the resources or energy to partake in. Boise continues to blossom while I’m beginning to wilt.
Eye on Boise. Spokesman Review, View from the 17th Story, by Betsy Z. Russel. April 24, 2013. https://www.spokesman.com/blogs/boise/2013/apr/24/view-17th-story-proves-it-infamous-boise-hole-finally-has-been-filled/
Historic American Buildings Survey, Creator, John E Tourtellotte, Patricia L Rowse, and C Wayne Hunsucker, Garrett, Duane, photographer. Overland Building, 101-109 North Eighth Street, Boise, Ada County, ID. Ada County Boise Idaho, 1933. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/id0016/.
The Mall Saga – Act 2, Preservation Idaho, The Idaho Historic Preservation Council, Savannah Willits. August 26, 2020. https://mailchi.mp/4a3736862199/the-mall-saga-act-4271122?e=b0d089a455