Today Boise is on the verge of being among the 100 most populous cities in America, the largest metropolitan area between Salt Lake City and Portland and the third most peopled region in the Pacific Northwest. All impressive statistics for a town, despite being the state capital, that entered the 20th century with scarcely 5,000 people and no rail service that left it isolated and accessible only on rutted wagon roads.

Thousands of emigrants moving along the Oregon Trail knew “les bois” as the wooded area so designated by French Canadian trappers from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Gold hunters began reporting strikes in the area in the 1860s and the United States Army constructed Fort Boise in 1863. A town was quickly laid out and by 1865 Boise had snatched the territorial capital from Lewiston up north.

Despite its status as Territorial capital the population dwindled as the gold played out but some determined Boiseians were not ready to see their town wither away. They began digging irrigation systems and cultivating fields and reinventing the region as an a agricultural valley. The town began booming after 1900, so much so that when famed lawyer Clarence Darrow came in 1907 to argue one of the country’s most sensational cases in the dynamite assassination of Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, he called Boise, “the Athens of the West.” Darrow, by the way, got labor leader William “Big Bill” Haywood off on the charge of ordering the murder.

Although Boise was an aggressive player in the urban renewal craze of the third quarter of the 1900s, our walking tour of downtown Boise will encounter some of those buildings that so impressed Clarence Darrow and we will start at the landmark that was just getting constructed at that time...  

Idaho State Capitol
Jefferson Street between 6th Street and 8th Street

John Everett Tourtelotte unpacked his bags in Boise in 1890, just months after Idaho had achieved statehood and Boise was designated capital. Tourtelotte hailed from an old French Huguenot family in Connecticut and he left the family farm at the age of 17 in 1886 to begin an apprenticeship with a Massachusetts architecture firm. After two years he began working his way west, finally staking out a practice in Boise. Tourtelotte would become Idaho’s star architect, doing more to shape the streetscape of Boise than any other designer, even after his firm’s headquarters were moved to Portland in 1913. The Idaho State Capitol, created with partner Charles Hummel, was the crowning achievement of Tourtelotte’s career. Inspired by some of the world’s classical domed structures, including the United States Capitol, construction was begun in 1905 and completed in 1912; wings were added in 1920 to bring the final price tag for the State Capitol to a few gold bars over $2,000,000. The dome soars 208 feet high and is topped by a bronze eagle. Tourtellotte and Hummel imported four different types of marble to construct the building: red marble from Georgia, gray marble from Alaska, green marble from Vermont, and black marble from Italy. But most of the Capitol’s 219 pillars are constructed of scagliola (Italian for “chips) that is a mixture of granite, marble dust, gypsum and animal glue that is dyed to resemble marble.


Ada County Courthouse/Capitol Annex
500 West Jefferson Street

This has been the site of the Ada County house of justice since 1881. With federal Works Progress Administration stimulus money during the Great Depression of the 1930s the original courthouse was demolished and this one raised in its place in 1939. Government buildings of the era favored the stripped down classicism of the Art Deco style and local architecture firms Tourtellotte & Hummel and Wayland & Fennell followed suit with this building. Their nine-story composition, featuring stepped setbacks on the way up, was crafted with reinforced concrete and dressed in high-grade Indiana limestone. The building is now owned by the State of Idaho.

Idaho Supreme Court Building
451 West State Street

In 1969 the Idaho Supreme Court, with four Associate Justices and a Chief Justice, made the jump from the Statehouse two blocks away into its own building. Architect Victor Hosford designed the modern structure to look as if it were carved from a single block of stone. Using Continental Buff Travertine, it was one of the first stone-faced precast buildings in the United States. Each of the window units required 72 pieces of stone. 

Idaho Commission for Libraries
325 West State Street

The first books lent in Idaho were delivered by stagecoaches, depositing wooden boxes stuffed with books in fledgling towns and mining camps. During the Legislative Session of 1901 the State Library was created with an operating budget of $3,000. The core of the current State Library & Archives Building was completed in 1970 on plans drawn by Boise architect Bradford P. Shaw. 


Alexander House
304 West State Street at northwest corner of 3rd Street

Moses Alexander emigrated from his native Bavaria in the 1860s and, like many of his fellow Germans, settled in the American heartland where he became a partner in a clothing shop. Also like many midwesterners Alexander kept an eye cocked further west and in 1891, when he was 38 years of age, he packed up his family and pointed towards Alaska. On the way he was smitten with Boise and lopped off the remaining 1,500 miles or so of his planned journey. Alexander established the first of several clothing stores on the corner of 9th and Main. The business would last some 90 years. A fervent believer in moral issues such as the banning of gambling and alcohol, Alexander entered politics and won two terms as mayor of Boise and two terms as governor of Idaho. He built this eclectic Queen Anne frame house in 1897, during his first term as Boise mayor. Guided by architectural plans in the local newspaper, the house was constructed for $3,200. Owned by the State of Idaho since 1977, the renovated Alexander House features many of the traits of a Victorian showpiece: irregular massing, wrap-around, porch, corner tower, multiple textures and jig-sawn woodwork.


Idaho Commission For The Blind
341 West Washington Street at southeast corner of 4th Street

This splash of Colonial Revival architecture in downtown Boise appeared on the streetscape in 1921. With five stories and some 20,000 square feet of space the brick building was raised for St. Luke’s Hospital but since 1967 it has contained the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired which houses students during skills training. 


Carnegie Library
815 West Washington Street at southwest corner of 8th Street

The first books were lent in Boise in 1895 from a subscription library set up by the women of the Columbian Club in a room in City Hall. In 1901 Scottish-born industrialist Andrew Carnegie sold his steel company for $400 million and became the world’s richest man. He set out to give away all his money and one of his pet projects was public libraries. He funded over 2,500 of them around the world, including 11 in Idaho, most of which were in communities that had no existing public library. Such was the case in Boise, which received the state’s first, and largest, Carnegie grant in 1903. With $40,000, the Columbian Club hired John Tourtellotte and Charles Hummel who delivered a Renaissance Revival design executed in pale brick and trimmed with local sandstone from Table Rock quarries southeast of town. The building did duty as the town library until 1973 when the collection moved into a renovated Salt Lake Hardware building on South Capitol Boulevard. 


Capital City Christian Church
615 North 9th Street at southwest corner of Franklin Street

George W. Kramer was an American architect who specialized in designing churches, so much so that he wrote the book on the subject in 1897 - The what, how and why of church building. In 1910 Kramer, working out of New York City, was summoned by the Capital City congregation that had organized in 1887 to construct a new house of worship. Kramer tapped the Romanesque style for the brick corner structure and laid out the interior in the so-called Akron Plan which featured an auditorium-styled sanctuary.


Elks Temple/Jefferson Place
310 North 9th Street at southeast corner of Jefferson Street 

The Benevolent Protective Order of Elks were founded in New York City in 1868 in the theater district. At first they referred to themselves as the Jolly Corks. The Boise Lodge, BPOE #310, commissioned go-to Boise architects John Tourtellotte and Charles Hummel to design their lodge in 1913. The duo created the eye-catching lodge building in the image of an Italian palazzo; look up to see elaborate stone ornamentation dripping over the red brick facade.  


Empire Building
205 North 10th Street at northwest corner of Idaho Street

Pittsburgh-born Benjamin Morgan Nisbet and Frank H. Paradice, a Canadian, teamed up in 1909 after working in the office of Idaho’s leading architectural firm, Tourtellotte & Hummel. One of their first projects was the six-story Empire Building which they created in the convention of the day that formed high-rise structures in the image of a classical column with a base (the decorative ground floor), a shaft (the unadorned central stories) and a capital (the ornate terra cotta cornice). When it was completed at the end of 1910 the Idaho Statesman was moved to gush that the Empire Building, which took its name from the Empire Hardware Company on the ground floor, “is reckoned by students of architecture as the handsomest building in the entire northwest.” The pairing of Nisbet and Paradice was short-lived - by 1914 Nisbet had moved on to Twin Falls to become that town’s leading architect and Paradice had settled in Pocatello.


First National Bank of Idaho/U.S. Bank
205 North 10th Street

The First National Bank of Idaho took its first deposits from miners in 1867; it would become the second oldest national bank west of Denver. This Neoclassical vault was added to the “Wall Street of Boise” in 1927 on plans overseen from the shop of Albert Ernest Doyle, the leading architect of Portland, Oregon. Doyle sent 27-year old Pietro Belluschi to review the design from Tourtellotte and Hummel, the first advisory assignment for the Italian draftsman who would go on to create over 1,000 buildings as the leader of the Modern Movement in architecture. 


Hitchcock Building
1105 West Idaho Street at southwest corner of 11th Street

The core of this low-slung brick building was constructed in 1919 as space for Oakley & Sons Western Ignition & Battery Company. Charles V. Wayland and James A. Fennel provided the design. In 1977 the Record Exchange moved in and the building came to be known for a large painted mural on the sides that depicted scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. The art was updated by Oliver Russell, focusing on a whimsical homage to Hitchcock’s The Birds and has ignited national acclaim.


Owyhee Plaza Hotel
1109 West Main Street at southwest corner of 11th Street

The name Owyhee is of Hawaiian derivation, an anglicization of the islanders encountered by James Cook’s exploration in 1778. Three “Owyhees” joined a Canadian fur-trading expedition along the Snake River in the 1819 and broke away on a separate trapping adventure. They were never seen again. The river, the mountains and Idaho’s second-largest county all adopted the name of the doomed Hawaiians. Boise’s second hotel with big-city aspirations took the name as well when it opened in 1910. John E. Tourtelotte, with a design assist from Chicago hotel specialist Robert T. Newberry, shepherded the classically-flavored hotel to completion. Boise merchant and builder Leo Joshua Falk was the money man. Today it is Boise’s oldest operating hotel, although its fabled roof garden restaurant did not complete the journey through the first 100 years. 


Alaska Center
1020 West Main Street

Known as the Mercantile Block, each side of the street was stuffed with hotels, theaters and shops all served by a bustling trolley system. The wrecking ball of Boise’s aggressive urban renewal of the 1970s stopped swinging long enough here to leave standing commercial buildings from the earliest years of the 20th century. Most along the north side of the street sprung from the drawing board of John E. Tourtelotte. The Alaska Center today contains the Boise State University College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs. 

Smith Block
1015 West Main Street

Although the street level has been completely compromised look up to see the fine brickwork and stone window trim of this commercial block constructed for prominent pharmacist Roscoe W. Smith in 1905. It stands on the footprint of one of the town’s earliest structures that was raised by Ephraim Smith, a Boise mayor, in 1866.

Gem and Noble Building
1002 West Main Street at northwest corner of 10th Street 

Recent renovations have wedded three separate Romanesque-styled buildings designed by John E. Tourtellotte in 1902. The commercial properties were intended to stand as complements to the town’s showpiece hotel, the Idanha, across the street. High quality Tenino sandstone was shipped in from Puget Sound, Washington to augment the buff-colored brick and pinnacles and a corner turret mimicked its stylish neighbor. The Gem Block harboreda livery and harness operation conducted by James Gibbons and Charles Knight while John Noble’s block featured shops, offices and a boarding house on the second floor.

Idanha Hotel
928 West Main Street at northeast corner of 10th Street

Scotsman William S. Campbell was trained at the School of Architecture in Edinburgh before sailing for America and settling in Boise in 1889 and setting up practice in a one-room office. When the commission came to design a first class hotel to greet disembarking passengers from the new train depot Campbell took the assignment so seriously he is said to have visited every big-city hotel between New York City and Boise. He brought the French Chateauesque style to Boise for the city’s tallest building with four corner turrets gracing the exterior. Completed in 1901, the Idanha boasted the town’s first elevator that whisked guests to the 140 rooms, the barber shop or the billiard room in the basement. For seventy years the Idanha was the hotel where Presidents, captains of industry and power brokers signed the guest register while in Boise and today it trundles on as apartment space. 


Boise City National Bank
805 West Idaho Street at southwest corner of 8th Street

The Boise City National Bank organized in 1886 and by 1891 the enterprise was successful enough to move into this massive banking house. Architect James King created one of the finest examples of Romanesque Revival styling in the West. The directors sent a message to wary would-be depositors by demanding 20-inch thick walls from rough-faced local Table Rock sandstone and anchoring a 15-ton cash vault to an enormous stone foundation. Inside the vault was another five-ton safe. John E. Tourtelotte and Frederic C. Hummel showed up for remodelings in 1904 and 1913. The Boise City National Bank did not make it out of the Great Depression in 1932 and the burly building has been put to a parade of commercial uses ever since. 


Union Block Building
720 Idaho Street

A group of five investors who still identified as Northern supporters 35 years after the Civil War ended pooled $35,000 to finance this impressive commercial block in 1899. Architect John E. Tourtelotte spanned the 125 feet of street frontage with five bold Romanesque arches. The town’s favorite local building material, Table Rock sandstone, was used for Union Block, which was finished in 1902. Upstairs, above the retail space, is a large open space that in the past has done duty as a roller rink, a dance studio, a bowling alley and now as the Rose Room, a renovated ballroom.  

Adelmann Building
204 North Capitol Boulevard at northeast corner of Idaho Street 

German-born Richard C. Adelmann came to the United States as a child and enlisted in the Union Army to fight in the Civil War when he was 16. After suffering a gunshot wound to the head he was discharged and migrated west, opening a saloon on Boise’s Main Street in 1872. He started this project in 1902 with the intention of developing a single story building; instead it morphed into two stories and four sections. Look up above the modernized street level to see Colonial Revival-styled Palladian windows and German-influenced detailing at the roofline. The pagoda-style corner turret was a 1937 addition that played to the many Chinese tenants that rented here.  


City Hall
150 North Capitol Boulevard between Main and Idaho streets

Boise’s grandest City Hall was constructed in 1893 with soaring towers and imposing arches. The government outgrew that brick building and it was torn down in the 1950s while City Hall hunkered down for a generation in the Givens Pursley Building. This dark brick modern home came along in the 1970s.

Egyptian Theater
700 West Main Street at northwest corner of Capitol Boulevard

The Egyptian began life in 1927 with a screening of Don Juan, the first Hollywood feature with a completely synchronized soundtrack. Architects John E. Tourtelotte and Frederic C. Hummel drew their inspiration for the building from the recently uncovered tomb of King Tutankhamun - inspiration insisted upon by investor Leo Falk who championed the Egyptian style over the architects’ preferred Spanish flavor. The Egyptian followed a similar arc to its fellow downtown movie theater cousins across the United States and was done in by suburban malls and television in the 1960s and 1970s. It was one of the lucky ones, however, and dodged demolition long enough to receive a preservationist makeover. Hollywood movie producer Frank Marshall escapes to Boise whenever he can and favors premiering his movies in Idaho. All of the four Jason Bourne sagas enjoyed their world premiere at the Egyptian.

U.S. Bank Plaza
101 South Capitol Boulevard at southwest corner of Main Street

If you don’t count the control tower at the Boise Airport this is the tallest building in Idaho, clocking in at 20 stories and 267 feet. It was completed in 1978 and was only the second - and last building - to climb higher than the Idaho State Capitol, although there are plans for more to eclipse the capitol dome. 

Perrault-Fritchman Building
625 West Main Street at southeast corner of South Capitol Boulevard

This is the oldest commercial building in downtown Boise, crafted of local sandstone in 1879. Joseph Perrault was born and educated in Montreal, Canada but took off for the American West as soon as he graduated at the age of 20 in 1864. After several stops he landed in Boise in 1872 as an assistant editor for his father-in-law on the Idaho Statesman. Perrault left the newspaper game to launch a saddle and harness business with his partners here. Perrault would go on to hold several U.S. government posts in Idaho Territory and organized the Boise City National Bank which took deposits here beginning in 1886.  


Anduiza Hotel and Fronton
619 Grove Street

This building was raised in 1912 for Juan Cruz Anduiza to board Basque sheepherders from Treasure Valley while they wintered in Boise. Living quarters lined the front and sides of the brick structure and the dining area was downstairs. The hub of the building, however, was a space 35 feet by 105 feet used as a pelota court where players could indulge in the traditional Basque sport of jai alai. It was the largest covered fronton in the Northwest and doubled as a dance floor.   

Basque Center
601 Grove Street at southwest corner of 6th Street

The Basque Center was built in 1949 and is a gathering place for Boise’s community of 15,000 Basque people, the largest community of descendants from the western slopes of the Pyrenees mountains straddling the border between Spain and France outside their homeland. The community formed Euzkaldunak, Inc. and sold bonds to finance the construction of the community house that is fashioned in a traditional farmhouse style known as baserri.

The Chico Club
117 South 6th Street at northwest corner of Grove Street

This two-story brick building began life in 1935 as the Belaustegui Hotel & Basque Boarding House. With tiled awnings and fine brickwork, including inlaid arched window hoods, the Idaho Statesman heralded its arrival by declaring it “one of the fine new buildings in Boise.” Mrs. Patxa Belaustegui bankrolled the hotel for her children Petra and Angel to manage. Part of the guest house emerged as The Chico Club which became a social hub for the local Basque community.


C.W. Moore Park
northeast corner of Grove Street and 5th Street

Christopher E. Moore’s history in Boise begins the same year as the town, in 1863. He was a 28-year old Canadian who had helped drive his family’s 300 head of cattle across the plains to Oregon back in 1852. Once in Boise, Moore joined the merchant class and one of the services offered in his general stores was banking for his customers. In 1867 he organized the First National Bank of Idaho, one of the first chartered banks in the West. Moore donated this land, which once contained the Grove Street Ditch that provided water to Main Street, in 1916, the year of his death. Grove himself sheltered his family in a grand mansion three blocks to the east, at a time when Grove Street was Boise’s most prestigious residential avenue. The park contains bits of Boise architectural history: the sandstone arch was the main entrance to the 1904 Bush building that once stood on the site of City Hall; the turret came off the Pierce Building that once matched the Idanha Hotel turret for turret at 10th and Main until it was demolished in 1975; and pieces of the iconic sandstone that built so many Boise buildings.   


110 South 5th Street at southeast corner of Main Street

This was Boise’s first apartment building, constructed in 1904 with a medieval Norman Revival vibe, appropriately taking its name from a downtown London, England enclave. The stone walls supporting battlement windows and balconies are up to two feet thick in places. 


Pioneer Tent and Awning Company
598 West Main Street at northeast corner of Main Street

Ira Rohrer began manufacturing tents from cotton duck in 1900. By the time this brick factory and showroom was constructed in 1910 at the cost of $25,000 Pioneer Tent and Awning was Idaho’s largest maker of canvas duck goods. Pioneer operated here until 1972, although its landmark horse sign on the roof was taken down in the 1960s before being brought back. The main way in on 6th Street boasts a classical entranceway topped by a decorative wrought iron balcony.


Johnson Law Office
112 6th Street

They call this the Johnson Law office but attorney was only one of the hats Richard Z. Johnson wore while working here. Born in Akron Ohio in 1837 and educated at Yale University, Johnson worked his way across the country before settling in Silver City, Idaho. He had this narrow, single-story, gabled brick building constructed in 1885, applying a Greek Revival touch to the vernacular structure. In addition to his law practice Johnson tended to his rental property and was one of the original investors in Baxter’s Foundry. Johnson served as trustee of the Boise school district for many years and was a member of the territorial council. He was was twice appointed attorney general of Idaho Territory before his death in 1913.


R.Z. Johnson Block/Davies Reid Building
515 West Idaho Street

John C. Paulsen, a leading architect from Helena, Montana, found several important 19th century commissions in Boise but this is the only surviving example of his work. He tapped several styles of influence for this eclectic Victorian apartment house, including Romanesque and Flemish Revival. Two octagonal towers dominate the composition that is fabricated with red brick walls on a sandstone base and accented with stone trim. The project was begun in 1893 for Richard Z. Johnson but only two of the five intended units were finished after the country spiraled into a financial panic that very year.


Central Fire Station
522 West Idaho Street at northeast corner of 6th Street

The first organized effort to combat fires in Boise started n 1876 with a volunteer force of 28, working out of a wooden firehouse on Main Street. In September 1883 the fire department couldn’t save its own home which burned to the ground and was replaced with the first Central Fire Station built upon the ashes. With the new century Boise began paying its fire department and set out to build a modern firehouse. Architects William S. Campbell and Charles V. Wayland contributed a Romanesque-flavored quarters, constructed of brick and trimmed in sandstone. It served the Boise firefighters until 1980 and then was renovated for use as office and commercial space. The prominent corner bell tower was removed with the coming of electric alarm systems but was rebuilt during the 1980s makeover.

Jeremiah Jones Building/Fraternal Order of the Eagles Building
602 West Idaho Street at northwest corner of 6th Street

Jeremiah D. Jones was the money man and the Idaho architectural team of John Tourtelotte and Charles Hummel were the architects. The five-bay by ten-bay corner structure was rendered completely in red brick, including the small curved parapets and the raised cornice accented by drop pendants. Stone trim was used for lintels under the windows and diminutive keystones on the the second floor. Jones was a day-rate plumber when he arrived in Boise in 1891 and built a prosperous trade with his Idaho Hardware and Plumbing Company. He constructed this three-story commercial block in 1916 , principally for the use of the town’s fraternal organizations. The Knights of Columbus and the Order of the Moose gathered here but the group who put its name on the building in 1917 was the Fraternal Oder of Eagles. The F.O.E. was birthed in 1898 on a pile of lumber in a Seattle shipyard with six theater owners debating a musician’s strike. When they reached an accord they cemented a harmonious future by continuing to meet under the symbol of the Bald Eagle. Within ten years the Eagles had 1,800 lodges scattered throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico, boasting a membership roll that exceeded 350,000. The Boise Eagles Aerie was formed in 1901 with 64 members; they continued to meet here until about 1950.


Givens Pursley Building
601 West Bannock Street

Now carrying the name of a law firm, this crisp, white building with Art Deco detailing began life as a civic project during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Its purpose was to serve Ada County while the courthouse was given a facelift and then in 1948 the City of Boise bought it and moved in the government and City Hall resided here until 1976. The building was only two stories tall when first constructed and you can look up to see the 1991 addition that mimicked the form of the Art Deco original with none of the style. 

Idaho Building280 North 8th Street at southeast corner of Bannock Street

There was a boomlet of sorts of “high-rise” office building construction in downtown Boise in the opening decade of the 1900s with six such projects going on the drawing board. All of the design work was performed by local architects save for this six-story, seven bay-by-seven bay corner structure. For his building developer Walter Edgar Pierce went to the home of the modern skyscraper, Chicago, and returned with plans from Henry John Schlacks who had apprenticed with one of the fathers of the high-rise, Louis Sullivan. Schlacks delivered a Beaux Arts confection highlighted by bands of red brick and creamy terra cotta under a classically-inspired denticulated iron cornice. He carried the banded theme tot he brick pilasters that encase the orderly Chicago style window pattern. The civic-minded Pierce had worked as Boise mayor in the 1890s and was a leading cheerleader for the town’s electric streetcar service.

Federal Building/Borah Building
312 North 8th Street at northeast corner of Bannock Street

There was a time, a hundred years ago, when the average American had no contact with the federal government beyond the post office. Such was the case in Boise in 1890 when there were scarcely 2,000 people in town. But in the following twenty years the population would grow tenfold to almost 20,000 and plans were hatched for a grand new edifice for Boise from the office of James Knox Taylor, Supervising Architect for the United States Treasury. Construction began in 1902 and the bricks and sandstone were arranged into a Neoclassical design with a rusticated first floor over the next three years. To create the steps required the cutting of the largest block of granite ever quarried in southwest Idaho. The building was much smaller in its creation, housing only the post office and a federal courthouse. But it grew in lockstep with the influence of the federal government with additions in 1917 (around the time of the institution of the personal income tax) and 1929 (with the advent of Depression-era stimulus programs). Along the way it picked up the name of William Borah, an Idaho senator, who brought back federal dollars for its expansion. After 100 years of service to the federal government the United States sold its old warrior to the State of Idaho for $1.  

Hotel Boise/Hoff Building
802 West Bannock Street at northwest corner of 8th Street

This was the tallest commercial building in Boise for almost 50 years, raised for the Hotel Boise in 1929. Architect Frank K. Hummel, a son of Charles Hummel of the premier Boise design firm of Tourtelotte and Hummel, infused his Art Deco creation with vertical elements and setbacks on the top floors to emphasize its stature as Boise’s “Sky King.” In 1980 the property was acquired by Hoff Companies which began in 1910 when Hans Hoff arrived in McCall, Idaho from Norway and constructed a sawmill. The top-floor Crystal Ballroom, where elegance and style have collided since its glory days as a destination hotel, continues to offer diners and party-goers the only skyline view in Boise.