There was something of a consistent historical trend in Boise right up until very recently–that trend being that development, ranging from financial and social to technological, always arrived in Boise approximately five to ten years late, from a national perspective. Hence, Boise didn’t experience the full extent of the post-Civil War industrial boom of the Gilded Age until around the turn of the century, the early 1900’s. These years mark the true expansion of Boise’s industrial wing as vast commercial revitalization called for production and storage on a scale not previously seen in the nation; the West, especially, responded to this call resoundingly, having the space and the resources to grow at unprecedented rates and to unprecedented levels. It was out of this impressive trend that the O.W. Smith Warehouse was born in 1902 (U.S. Dept. of Interior).
Also known as the Boise Fruit and Produce Building, this warehouse was crafted to house–you guessed it–fruit and produce, which was just being readily marketed to the growing Western populace (US Dept. of Interior). A true example of function over form, this no-nonsense, strictly-for-profit brick-and-sandstone block of a building was built without the artistic direction of any notable architects (US Dept. of Interior) and lacks a distinctive style (for lack of a better term, I will call it “industrial”, with a touch of Chicago style fenestration and American brick bonding throw in in to keep it from being complete tedium to behold). It is built, originally, from brick and timber, as well as the readily available and ever-reliable Boise sandstone (one supposes it wouldn’t be a Boise building without a little sandstone).
A utilitarian warehouse that weathered many a financial panic, the O.W. Smith building eventually, over the course of time, fell into disrepair. When the company that owned it was unable to hold onto it, the building simply remained and atrophied, slowly decaying as years of neglect steadily pooled into decades. As the town grew and changed, the warehouse became a place to garner a shadowy, unattractive reputation not unlike the previously unoccupied Boise Linen Building. It was derelict, squalid, and had most of its windows broken or crumbling. “It´s never been used since we’ve been here,” said Dan Henderson of Blackfin Technology, which neighbored the building at the time. “It’s been boarded up … Look at the condition of the outside, with the bricks falling down. I think it´s good that they tear it down and rebuild it, as long as it fits the look” (Oshodi).
However, the warehouse was spared the fate of the broken down warehouse supposedly crawling with ghosts by the ambitious architect Robert Gray Kaylor, who planned to refurbish and remodel the building with a modern look, featuring dark red bricks, vaguely Romanesque arches for the windows, and steel framing while still holding onto a parcel of history by keeping the faded red brick facade of the original building. This proved to be far from an easy task for the architect; in fact, his plans were nearly foiled by the 2007 recession (Talbutt) and by abundant criticism by a coalition of preservationists who felt that the conversion was too complete to do the historic aspect of the warehouse any justice (Poe). This was a debate that hardly resonated with most Boiseans, but was very relevant to historians–it was, and is, often debated just how much of history being preserved can be credited to a simple facade or decorative garnish, and where the meat of a building’s history is actually located.
From 2005 to 2008, the halting remodeling process continued on, until, finally, in that last year of work, the alterations were complete, and, indeed, the concerned historians were right: very little remained of the original structure. This was comeback few could have predicted for the building, particularly in the wake of such financial turmoil in the wake of the burst housing bubble, but to many it symbolized the return of Boise’s commercial success. The building was an eclectic fusion of old and new that proved surprisingly successful, with the building finding itself host to the swanky R. Grey Lofts, the stylish R. Grey Art Gallery, and the ever-popular Mac Life Store within the space of a few years.
Though the debate has largely faded to a dull whisper, particularly in light of more recent architectural controversies such as the Zions Bank Building Spire Fiasco, but there is certainly some meat to the claims of those concerned preservationists. It would be very easy to claim that those old warehouses, which were never all that artfully constructed to begin with, would be ideal for a modern makeover, but doing so would truly displace us from a time that was very relevant for our town–a time when, galvanized by the Homestead Act and its familiars, the West was experiencing a massive level of development and adaptation, and the warehouse was a direct result of that growth. To discredit the value of such a building is a disservice to the time period from whence it came.