white clouds banner
An Interview with historian Arthur Hart
Arthur Hart is Director Emeritus of the Idaho State Historical Society. He is the author of many books and articles on western history and architecture. This interview took place in the autumn of 2003.

arthur hart

What does it mean to have a building on the National Register of Historic Places?

The National Register of Historic Places was established by the National Parks Service many, many years ago, and people from the National Parks Service came to Idaho trying to identify buildings of national significance. The US Assay building and Cataldo Mission are good examples of those kinds of buildings. The next level of significance is state significance and beyond that, local significance.

So it doesn't keep people from a very small town in Idaho from recognizing that they have buildings that are locally important. It might not be an important building architecturally, but if it's important to the people of that community, it's eligible for the National Register.

Being on the National Register for local significance means that people in a very small town can recognize that this is what makes Nampa different from Caldwell. A good example of that is the Oregon Short line Depot in Nampa. It's different so that is a landmark important to that town.

building in idaho city

Being on the National Register does not prevent owners from doing whatever they want to do with their property. There has been an unreasonable fear that having your building listed on the Register is going to say that you can't paint it a certain color and so on. Those kinds of restrictions only apply if you have a local government that establishes an historic district. If you establish a local ordinance, then owners do have some restrictions.

These kinds of listings increase the value of your property. That's what has helped save districts all across the country -- like Beacon Hill in Boston, like Old New Orleans, for example.

What is the significance of the Idaho City buildings?

In Idaho City we have some of the earliest, most important architecture in the state, despite the fact that Idaho City had serious fires in the 1860's. The owners of buildings rebuilt, and they rebuilt in brick, and they took precautions from future fires by importing iron doors from San Francisco. These are considered important enough that the Historic American Building Survey hired a team from the University of Idaho to come make measured drawings of these buildings.

Not all of them are brick, of course. The Masonic Hall is 1865, one of the earliest Masonic Halls west of the Mississippi. The Masonic Temple is an example of the Greek revival. Now, it's not a Greek temple in the classic sense, but it has the Greek hallmarks in that the gable end faces the street, and you have columns. They are very similar to the Idaho Hotel in Silver City, which is also a Greek revival building. Square columns with a little bit of molding that makes them look like capitols.

And we have lithographs of mining camps all over the west that show that Greek revival buildings were still going strong in the 1860's.There are a whole lot of buildings that are not brick, but the brick ones are among the earliest brick buildings left standing in Idaho.

cataldo mission

What about Idaho's oldest building, the Cataldo Mission?

The Cataldo Mission is one of our really great landmarks. Not only is it Idaho's oldest building, but it symbolizes an important era in the state's history, and that's the era of missionaries. In this case, the Jesuits were the very first missionaries to come into Idaho to work with the Indians and convert them to Christianity. The Presbyterians got here early also. In 1836 Spaulding established the mission at Lapwai.

The Cataldo Mission, built in the 1850's, is an example really of a Jesuit style, because Father Antonio Ravalli, who designed it, was from Italy, and as a member of the Jesuit order was influenced by his Mother Church in Rome.

The feature that Ravalli carried into the Cataldo Mission is the false gable that is baroque in character, curving lines in the gable so that it disguises the true shape of the building and makes it look something much more dramatic. The classical columns across the front are made of single tree trunks. That's another feature you will find in Roman buildings as well as Greek.

The mission was built by the Indians under Ravalli's supervision with a few lay brothers who were there as well. The most wonderful feature to me of the Cataldo Mission is that it is decorated in the interior with Ravalli's own personal handiwork. There's Ravalli's woodcarving, his sculpture, his scroll-sawed decoration on the ceiling. There are even a couple of oil paintings, so he was a most remarkable man.

egyptian theater at night

One of the features about 19th century and early 20th century architecture in America and in Idaho is that it is eclectic. We were looking back all of the time to earlier styles. Just as Ravalli looked back to the High Renaissance, we were looking back at the Greek temples, to the gothic churches. In fact, almost every early church in Idaho was built in the gothic style except for Cataldo Mission.

What's the story behind saving Boise's Egyptian Theater?

The Egyptian Theater is an example of going back to ancient history. What brought that about was the discovery of the tomb of King Tut. His tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922 and that kicked off a new revival of the Egyptian style.

The people working for urban renewal did not have a clue that they were required by law to identify historic properties. They told me, "what historic buildings?" They didn't think Boise had anything that ought to be saved. In fact one member of one of the major firms that was working on redevelopment said, "you know how all this started? I looked out the window one day and said this place stinks. Let's tear it all down and start over."

That was the prevailing attitude except for a small minority of people who cared. Well, the Egyptian theater was an obvious masterpiece that needed to be saved. Not only because it was a landmark in Boise, but because it fit into American history as a whole and the Greek revival as a whole.

Earl Hardy was persuaded that this would be a good thing for him to do. He was sympathetic to the idea so he bought the property from the redevelopment agency. So that was the first step in getting it preserved and a major one.

And in those days, in the late '60's, there were federal funds available to acquire properties. I think Earl Hardy got matching money to buy that building. It quickly dried up and of course there was a lot to be done besides just buying the building. So the Egyptian Foundation was formed, and volunteers raised money. We showed silent movies, did all kinds of
things to raise the money necessary to begin the restoration of that building.

There were a lot of local people interested for various reasons. The Oppenheimer family, for example. They had owned the building. Jane Oppenheimer's father, Leo J Falk, was one of the major original investors in building the Egyptian.

We identified a lot of historic buildings that were in the urban renewal district, and we put a bunch of them on the National Register of Historic Places, but it did not prevent urban renewal from tearing them down, unfortunately. The original plan was to level downtown and start over, and the big mall that we have now would have been downtown.

And the great argument for saving these buildings is that they tell you you're in Boise instead of any place else in the country. Other cities have made the mistake of giving up their history, wiping it out.

I often think of one of Gertrude Stein's more eloquent remarks, "when we got there, there was no there, there". That describes what happens to cities that don't preserve their architectural heritage.