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Listen Up, Taxpayers!

By Royce Williams

Capitol Commissioner and State Treasury
Secretary Orien V. Allen was singled out
in Arthur L. Folts' "Letter to Voters."
Photo courtesy: 1913 Capitol Souvenir Booklet

Me thinks he doth protest too much.

— William Shakespeare

Any public building, especially one as central, visible and historic as a state capitol, draws controversies like a magnet in a bucket of metal shavings.

The charges and counter-charges play out like a love triangle on a cruise ship. Sometimes there's an obvious smoking gun complete with fingerprints, but more often there's just the prolonged grating sound of axes grinding. And getting to the bottom of one can cost as much or more than the amount claimed to have been misspent. Investigations are never cheap. Any time you announce that you want to build a capitol and you want to do it with human beings, it's like opening a floodgate in the middle of the rainy season.

Anybody who isn't next door to the site is sure it's in the wrong place. Occupied by two, sometimes three, political parties, the site becomes the center of great effort to sway public opinion to and from the party in power. Those who bid on the project - and there were 19 bidding on the Capitol in 1905 - is among the good places to find a sore loser. The best laid plans and designs are bound to miss a few details, and the details that are there can get lost in translation anywhere between the architect and a subcontractor. Make restoration a part of the project, and you can find a spendy or time-eating surprise under every pried plank. The humans who are doing the work or watching it are real people with a plethora of agendas. In other words, the Capitol has been a controversy minefield.

The Motherlode Controversy

His name was John W. Smith, and he was a Boise architect who had bid on the contract to design the Capitol. He wasn't awarded the contract, and his actions following the rejection make him the top-ranking sore loser of the entire project. Only one of his buildings, one that shows he had talent, still stands in Boise at the corner of 8th and Idaho and is called the Fidelity Building. It is not hard to see why there's only one of his buildings still around. What is hard to see is when he would have had time to design any more, being so busy challenging nearly every aspect of the Capitol's construction.

If anyone in the new capitol complained about the furniture,
the complaint wasn't uttered for quoting. These chairs were
in the Supreme Court Chambers, currently JFAC.
Photo courtesy: 1913 Souvenir Booklet

Boise's Capitol News managed to cram most of the charges into an article appearing on October 22, 1912. Apparently without checking into any of the allegations, the paper published Smith's list:

“Grand Jury is probing into alleged scandals in the Capitol Construction.”
Following this headline is a long list including “reckless and unwarranted disbursement of funds, conversion of state property to private use, failure to advertise the bonds for the new state capitol according to the law….
“Now being probed by the Ada County Grand Jury, it is said, (are charges involving) allowing extras with no provisions having been made by law, changes in the terms of the contract and in the specifications unfairly made, alterations in the plans and diagrams authorized without proper protection of the state, and other things having been done by the commission and the architect in direct and positive violation of the express provisions of the contract.”

Then Smith gets personal. “We intend to demand of the (Capitol) commission and the architect what has been done with every cent of money that has been expended, how each and every allowance was made, why the changes in the specifications were allowed, what has become of several thousand feet of lumber that the state bought, what has become of the material and other goods that was bought by the state with no accounting… (W)e charge absolute incompetency and inability on the part of the architect in the management of the construction of the Capitol….”

Named in Smith's barrage were Gov. James H. Hawley, O.V. Allen, state treasurer, D.C. McDougall, attorney general, and John E. Tourtellotte, supervising architect. One allegation made earlier by Smith - that the marble stairs winding up from the first to second floors were insufficient in strength - backfired on him. A widely circulated picture of the same steps loaded with 30,000 pounds of cement took the wind out of that sail.

Grand jury deliberations are not public. If the grand jury did consider any of the charges, there was no mention of it in any of the public indictments announced at the end of its session. Also, the Capital News and The Idaho Statesman were competitive newspapers in Boise, the Statesman being generally supportive of the commission and the construction, with the News looking to scoop its competition.

The State Senate took up the issue, with the Republicans submitting a majority report that exonerated the accused and said other charges were not proved. Democrats had submitted a minority report that said the major charges had been proved by the investigation, and the grand jury should look at them.

The great furniture flap

It's the spring of 1912, and State Treasurer Orien V. Allen, a member of the Capitol Commission, runs a furniture store in Boise called Allen-Wright Furniture Company. His wholesale supplier is Wollaeger Manufacturing Co. of Milwaukee. Wollaeger is chosen among several bidders to supply furniture for the new Capitol. The specs said the state would pay no more than $45,500 for all the chairs, desks, couches, drapes, etc.

Another bidder was one Arthur F. Folts, who ran another furniture store in Boise, one his stationery said sold “furniture worth while.” Folts was quick to say he smelled a rat. In a “letter to the voters of Idaho,” Folts wrote that Allen took advantage of other members of the Commission's Purchasing Committee, men who didn't know the difference between mohair plush and silk plush drapes, selling them on Wollaegers.

Folts' allegations strongly suggested the furniture contract was really with Allen-Wright Furniture, and Wollaegers was just listed as a blind. He said the state was getting second-rate furniture with price tags that didn't say cheap, even though the total reached $45,500, giving somebody about $15,000.

The original Capitol building was once the tallest building in downtown Boise.
Photo courtesy: The Hummel Collection

In a letter to architect John E. Tourtellotte, then in Milwaukee checking out the furniture, Construction Supervisor Herbert E. Quigley said there had been one error in the spec sheets given to bidders. He said a circular desk and fewer filing cabinets than needed went to bidders, but this set was later revised to more filing cabinets and a square desk. The error was that Wollaegers did not receive the revised specs with additions. Folts did get the revised specs with additional filing cabinets and a square desk. The square desk saved about $267. His letter doesn't indicate how much extra the additional filing cabinets cost for the Pure Food Inspector, who said he needed them after the first specs were printed.

After Folts circulated his letter, reporters began to ask questions. Allen, worried about what the scandal would do to his bid for another term as state treasurer, convinced the commission chairman that he benefited in no way by the contract with his furniture supplier, said his employees would help in no way with installing anything in the contract, and offered to resign from the commission. Quigley said the error on Page 11 of the specs was being blown out of proportion; they would just have to take their lumps on that one, and should simply negotiate with Wollaegers to get the best they could for the state - furniture that no one would question on quality.

Gov. James H. Hawley must have had his ear to the ground on the issue, for there is a letter to him from Tourtellotte & Hummel telling him what the state was getting. The letter says that after intense negotiations, the total cost of the contract was $35,000, with the state getting some furniture more expensive than the specs called for and some cheaper, but all of it “very excellent in construction and beautiful in appearance.” Wollaegers was described as being cooperative, since the firm was concerned about its business reputation.

“The right has been reserved in the specifications for us to take to pieces any one piece of furniture of each type... if we wish, and the company must stand the expense of replacing the same. This penalty is made more severe by the power of the architects to reject every piece of furniture of the same type if the piece destroyed is not up to specifications,” the letter said.

As Quigley said they would do, any savings in the furniture budget ($10,500 in this case) would be transferred to other budget items nearing or in the red ink category.


No political party can resist the slightest opportunity to advocate saving taxpayer money, and both parties have come to agree that accepting the lowest bid on any public project is the way to go.

While it does save money, the low-bid philosophy has its negative side. For example, a state agency can save money with low bid but can also spend a lot of money training an employee for years, then risk it all by sending that employee to North Idaho in a plane with a low-bid pilot. In recent years, exceptions have been allowed in the bidding process to solve this problem.

This photograph answered the charge that the stairs in the Capitol were inadequate
in strength, a charge brought by Boise Architect John W. Smith. Photo courtesy: ISHS

However, low-bid was king when the central portion of the Capitol was just off the drafting table and foundations were being poured. There was a rush to get the building done and the legislative sessions into it, and there was a move afoot to save $75,000 at the same time. That was the cost of the dome on the building. Leading the no-dome contingent was a member of the Capitol Commission, Secretary of State Wilfred L. Gifford (later secretary of the commission).

The controversy boiled down to who had the most or the most prominent advisory architects. Tourtellotte found the dome critical to his design around the use of skylights for interior lighting and to give the Capitol the artistic impression of solemn aspirations of good government. Along with Commissioner Orien V. Allen, he traveled to the national Capitol.

The trip was covered this way in the Statesman: “After conference with the supervising architect of the treasury and other eminent eastern architects, they have concluded that the exterior plan of the building shall not be changed in any material respect and the dome will go on as originally planned.”

The next day's edition, however, had Gifford's response to the report: “You may quote me as saying that I am opposed to putting so much money in a portion of the Capitol which is purely ornamental, and which some of the best architects of the country consider poor architecture.

“As to the artistic features of the plan, that I am not qualified to speak of. I do object to spending $140,000 (unclear where this figure comes from) to finish the dome as is now planned and should think that it might be materially cut down from all I can learn and not injure in the least the architectural effect and at the same time save the state a good large sum,” he continued.

If you have driven down State Street or Capitol Boulevard in the last 10 minutes, you can see who won that round. There were some money-saving changes in the original dome design, but they are not readily visible.

Give it elbow room!

The Capitol grounds - too much or too little - have often been discussed, but the issue has never really risen to the controversy level.

Early on, a member of the Nebraska Capitol Commission came to Boise to look at the state's new Capitol. While he liked the building, he thought it should have been farther north, placed on a hill overlooking the city and surrounded by a large park to include plenty of trees for the City of Trees.

The original Capitol Commission had little money to buy land and still have enough to build the Capitol. By using the lot where the Territorial Capitol had stood, they only had to buy one more lot and close one street. In some ways, the smaller grounds fit well. Boise is a walk-about city, and if you need to get to the Capitol in a hurry, you don't have to walk a quarter-mile running into commemorative trees, thorny rose gardens, and muddy petunia beds. Its small size also cut down on grounds-keeping expenses.

The Capitol Rotunda would look much different today had the no-dome advocates
won that round. Photo courtesy: The Hummel Collection

More recently, some have lamented the fact that the entire Capitol is visible nowhere on Capitol Boulevard. But the dome and ceremonial south entrance are visible. Buildings along Capitol Boulevard had to be designed for height to function, and the height needed a first floor that took all the space available at ground level. If setbacks had been enforced years ago, the mature trees in the small park in front of the Capitol would still have blocked a full view today.

Considerable discussion took place about whether or not to put the expansion above or below ground level. It is difficult to see how an above-ground plan would have worked well. With steps at both ends, the building would have butted against 6th and 8th streets; if the additions had gone higher to give the same space, they would have required entrances behind the House and Senate chambers inside - a design that would have increased traffic around both. And, it is hard to see how the additions could have been designed to prevent them looking like add-on sheds, albeit fancy ones.

The underground additions have skylights over both the main halls and hallways to offices, which keeps Tourtellotte's original and unique use of natural light. There will not, however, be large trees on the east and west sides of the building. The dirt placed over the structure is not deep enough to support anything larger than shrubs. It could be argued that there is a mistake here in the landscaping: the shrubs could have been syringa, the state flower.

If controversies do develop in coming years, they are likely to appear first in the committee assigned to make the impossible decisions about what and where art will go inside the building. Tourtellotte's original design called for white walls with almost nothing on them, better to reflect the natural light coming through the skylights and to make the marble more prominent. The building was designed to be a working capitol. The current renovation, restoration and expansion are carrying that idea into the new century. So, the committee must recognize gifts for display without allowing the building to become a museum or the state's attic.

There have been few controversies like those that plagued the original builders, mostly because citizens have basically understood that a 100-year-old building needs some touch-up work, that the population of the state and the increasing number of legislative bills each year require more people to handle state business, and that the commission early on held meetings around the state to tell people what was happening.

Whether or not Idaho's Capitol fits its downtown location is an argument expected to continue
indefinitely. Photo courtesy: ISHS

The only taxpayers with room to complain are those who use tobacco products. A tax on these products has paid for the renovation and expansion of the Capitol. The best full view of the Capitol today is from the old Union Pacific Train Station.


Anyone who has ever remodeled an old house knows about surprises. The Capitol reconstruction and renovation is no different. There have been two major surprises in the process that we've discovered so far.

One was the paint used on the walls. Tourtellotte wanted the walls white, very white. They used calcimine paint. It coated nearly every paintable surface. It contained water, zinc oxide and glue and looked like whitewash when it dried. It was cheap and easy to use, so it remained popular until the end of World War II.

But when the painting contractor looked at the walls in the Capitol, he said there was no modern paint that would stick to calcimine. He couldn't guarantee his new paint would stay where he put it. There was only one thing to do: remove the old paint. It took 33 days that nobody could have foreseen. As of the end of May 2009, the reconstruction crews had made up 18 of those lost days.

The other surprise was an earthquake in Alaska. The quake had occurred several years earlier, but it buried a marble quarry under many feet of water - the quarry from which Tourtellotte had specified the red marble he used sparingly for trim in the Capitol. After some delaying searches, a red that was pretty close to the original was finally discovered in a Vermont quarry.