The Idaho Historical Museum got its start in the winter of 1881 where at the time it was in a single room in city hall, housing different documents and artifacts that dealt with Idaho’s past. In 1893 the museum moved to the basement level of the capitol building where it remained until the new building was completed. In the 1930’s plans for the museum were being created and in April 15, 1941 the WPA funded $105,000 for the building and started construction in Julia Davis Park. It was to be 200 feet long and 52 feet wide, and built to hold their entire archives. The builders finished construction of the basement level before World War 2 halted the progress. The basement would see seven years and even the murder of a teenage boy before construction was to start again. Architects Wayland and Fennel received $138,000 to resume the project in October of 1949 and completed the building in the summer of 1950.
In 1980 the Idaho Historical Society started construction of an addition which was completed in 1983, after which no major renovations or additions have been constructed. The addition to the building covers the original entrance to the building and includes the museums gift shop. Part of the renovation was taking the original stained glass dome from the Historical Owyhee Hotel and placing it on the ceiling. The current director of the building, Mz. Jody Ochoa, stated that the walls are so thin that you could put a fist through them, and in five to ten years the museum hopes to start construction of an addition that will take the place of the current entrance and wrap around the building.
The style of the building is a new deal federal ziggurat. It is a cream color and has almost no windows, except for those on the basement. Though not officially a split level style, functionally it is. It has exits on both ends of the building, but the most significant opening is the original entrance. The original entrance is covered with windows and features pseudo- neoclassical columns. They’re more for flair than decoration. An important part of the original entrance is the green and yellow stained glass triangles in between the columns. They were originally placed there to signify Idaho’s economic strengths – agriculture (yellow) and foresting (green). They match well with the later renovation from the Historic Owyhee Hotel.
The new entrance swings towards a more modernistic style of architecture, though is still built strictly with stone. The material is darker than that of the original building, and stands out much more. The actual entrance is all glass (including the doors) but the most striking feature is the giant stone sign that juts off of the building. It hangs over the entrance and then forms a large wall on which the letters “Idaho Historical Museum” are placed. Ochea says that though it must have been stylish when it was built in the 1980’s, she and most of the employee’s don’t like it because it’s an affront to the original architecture of the building.
Part of the museum includes for houses next to the building itself which gives visitors the museum a look of different types of houses constructed in Idaho’s early history. The houses by the museum include the Coston Cabin, the Lewis and Clark Discovery Center, the Mayor Logan Adobe, and the Richard C. Adelmann house. All of these houses were once resting in various parts of Julia Davis Park, but were being vandalized so severely that the museum felt the need to protect these historical monuments. They put them all into Pioneer Village, a tour-able educational center for the public.
Before the building was completed, in the spring of 1947, police found a male murder victim in the basement (where the offices now reside). It was one of the factors that convinced the city to complete the building, but was kept very quiet. The murder was never solved. Today the boy rests in peace, as none of the employees have ever reported a ghost or haunting.
In 1976 three men broke into the museum and stole several important artifacts. All were recovered but the most important piece, a silver platter received from the U.S.S. Idaho after it was discharged. Though the museum has faced several thefts, this one is the most significant because of the platter. A reward of $2,500 was issued but the platter was never returned and is believed to have been melted down. The thieves were never caught.
The Idaho Historical Museum is a wonderful building that not only holds history, but embodies history and the passing of time. Because of the contrast between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ parts of the building, the public can get a great look of the changing styles – this will be even greater if Jody’s dreams come true and another renovation is added to the museum. It has a rich history itself, and would be an excellent addition to any city. Boise is lucky to have such a wonderful building.