Property Type: Commercial
Neighborhood: Downtown  |  County: Ada  |  Building Status: Public  |  Year Built: 1938  |  Architectural Style: Tudor Revival
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The Capitol Auto Courts, located at 1121 S. Capitol Boulevard in Boise, Idaho, is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A and C. Under Criterion A, the Capitol Auto Courts is locally significant for it association with the development of Boise’s first auto-
oriented commercial strip which evolved along the Old Oregon Trail Highway/U.S. 30 in the 1930s.

Under Criterion C, the Capitol Auto Courts embodies the architectural characteristics and design typical of the inexpensive motor court, a building type which emerged into popular use in the 1920s and 1930s.

Criterion A
The early part of the 20th Century saw an unprecedented increase in travel by ordinary Americans.  This was generated by the wide-spread use of the automobile as an inexpensive means of travel.  Prior to the automobile, travelers had to travel by train, boat or horse drawn carriage. Both boat
and train travel were expensive and recreational travel was generally the preserve of the wealthy elite. Horse-drawn land travel was much less expensive. However, it was a tediously slow process, limiting travel to within a short radius of home. With the advent of Henry Ford’s Model T in 1919, automobiles moved beyond being a luxury toy for the rich. During the 1920s and 30s, the middle classes were able to afford automobiles and, as such, given the opportunity for inexpensive recreational travel for the first time.

With this new, inexpensive means of travel also emerged a demand for improved highways, automotive services, and inexpensive accommodations. As America mobilized, an entirely new group of commercial enterprises grew up along the ever-expanding highway network. Gasoline stations, garages, roadhouses, diners, drive-in theaters and motor courts began to appear along principal highways all across the country.
In 1925 the City of Boise began the development of a new grand boulevard. This new road, soon named Capitol Boulevard, was designed in the City Beautiful tradition-featuring a wide right-of-way with a broad, landscaped, center median. Capitol Boulevard served to connect the Idaho State
Capitol Building with the imposing new Union Pacific Railroad Depot. Work on the new boulevard continued until the beginning of the 1930s, culminating in 1931 with the opening of the Old Oregon Trail Memorial Bridge over the Boise River.

Capitol Boulevard immediately became the designated route for the Old Oregon Trail Highway (a major regional highway linking Portland, Oregon with the Lincoln Highway at Kemmerer, Wyoming) and of U.S. Route 30 (a major transcontinental highway running from Astoria, Oregon to
Montauk, New York). As a direct result of these designations Capitol Boulevard became part of the region’s major east-west highway and the primary route for all auto travelers passing through Boise. City planners had envisioned Capitol Boulevard as a dignified grand boulevard lined with major cultural, governmental, and economic institutions. Designation as a through-highway route, however, created a far different landscape. Following its completion in 1931, Capitol Boulevard experienced rapid development as an automotive strip. During the 1930s motels, gas stations,
garages, drive-in restaurants and roadhouses sprang up along the new road.

The Capitol Auto Courts were built in 1938 by Ben H. Ellis and were lauded as one of the most modem and up-to-date accommodations in the city. Ellis operated the motel until 1943. Following World War II, its name was changed to the Boulevard Mo-tel and was operated under that name
until 1994 when the property was purchased by the City of Boise and converted into low-income housing. Much of the original 1930s automotive strip development on Capitol Boulevard has been either demolished or severely altered. Capitol Boulevard ceased to function as a major highway
following the construction of Interstate 84 through Boise in the early 1960s. Urban renewal and rapid expansion of the Boise State University campus in the 1960s and 1970s resulted in the loss of many 1930s roadside structures. The Capitol Auto Courts, however, remain as a testament to the early history of the Boulevard and as a reminder of Boise’s automotive heritage.

Criterion C
Motels and motor courts evolved in the 1920s and 1930s as an alternative to traditional hotels. Hotels were typically located in densely developed downtown commercial areas. They catered to the business traveler and the social elite, and as such were too expensive for many auto travelers.
As people of moderate means began to use their cars for recreational travel, demand for inexpensive alternatives to traditional hotels increased tremendously.  Hotels were also inconvenient for motor-vehicle owners. Most traditional hotels had no place to store a vehicle while the owner stayed at the hotel. Although many hotels made accommodations for automobiles, hotels were still located inside congested areas of towns. This made the hotel difficult to reach during peak traffic hours. Thus, auto-tourist accommodations developed on the fringes of a town or city where adequate parking for the vehicles could be provided.  The first inexpensive auto-friendly accommodation was the tourist camp-what we would term today a campground. The tourist camps were, at their most basic, designated places to erect a tent or park an automobile. These camps were often built by local municipalities to prevent campers from arbitrarily picking a spot by the side of the road and pitching a tent. Municipal auto camps often
became matters of civic pride and could be quite elaborate.

The next innovation designed to meet the demand for inexpensive accommodations was the cabin camp. These cabin camps performed the same function as the auto camp, but they provided minimal shelter from the elements and more privacy than tourist camps. Cabin camps were arranged in a variety of patterns: row, row-on-row, L, crescent, and clustered. The cabin camps were generally standardized, and cabins tended to be a simple box built on a rectangular or square floor plan and capped with a simple gabled roof. The first known cabin camp was the Askins’ Cottage Camp in Douglas, Arizona built in 1901.  A variation on the cabin camp was the cottage court. They were similar to cabin camps, although they could be used as year-round accommodations. Cottages were made to look like little suburban houses and were meant to attract middle-class travelers. The individual cottages usually featured more substantial construction methods and materials that cabins and often included full baths and
heat. Both cabin and cottage camps might have a coffee shop, filling station, garage, and even some public spaces. They usually had a manager and space for an office and lodgings for the manager and family.

The motor court evolved out of the cabin and cottage camp form. The defining characteristic of the motor court was integrated or unitary construction rather than separate cabins or cottages. This allowed for greater efficiency in construction and in the provision of services such as electricity, heat, and plumbing. Most motor courts had fewer than twenty units and many retained the look of the separate cottage court through the use of architectural details like varied roof lines and irregular wall plains. As auto-tourist accommodations grew in popularity during the late 1920s, the motor court quickly became a common sight along American highways. In 1926 the word “mo-tel,” a contraction of the phrase “motor hotel,” was used for the first time at The Milestone Mo-tel in San Luis Obispo, California. During the Great Depression of the 1930s motel and cabin camp construction was one of the few building sectors to experience a boom. The number of motels went from approximately 3,000 in 1928 to 9,848 in 1935. This number increased to a staggering 20,000 motels nationwide by 1946 and peaked in 1961, when the industry claimed 60, 951 motels (see Jakle, The Motel in America. p20).

The Capitol Auto Courts is an excellent example of a pre-World War II motor court. The building exhibits all of the features typical of this property type. The building is an integrated 21-unit building. It features architectural elements reminiscent of the cottage camp, such as a series of projecting cross gables, a varied wall plain, and individual exterior unit entrances-all of which work to invoke the feeling of individual cottages. The broad U-shaped footprint of the building with an orientation toward a central landscaped area and parking lot are typical features of motor court design. The use of simplified Tudor styling, as evidenced by the gable siding, brick construction.and multi-paned windows, serves to convey a sense of domestic comfort-an important attribute in attracting passing travelers. The use of neon lighting-both to delineate the gable-ends of the main motel building and in the street-side sign-is also an element typically used by motor courts to attract the attention of a passing motorist.

Capitol Auto Courts is a significant example of a roadside environment now receding from public view and memory. As such, it is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places under Criterion A as a representative survivor of Boise’s automotive and roadside history. The Capitol Auto Courts is also significant as a well-preserved example of an historic architectural type: the motor court. As such, it is also worthy of inclusion in the National Register under Criterion C.


Source: National Register for Historic Places nomination, 1997.