Property Type: Commercial
Neighborhood: Boise State University  |  County: Ada  |  Building Status: Public  |  Architectural Style: Modern
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The Velma V. Morrison Center in Boise, Idaho has become the center of cultural life in our town but its life hasn�t always been easy. Harry W. Morrison and his second wife, Velma B. Morrison, envisioned the Morrison Center as Boise�s premier performing arts center. Beforehand, Harry Morrison had worked for the U.S. Reclamation Service and subsequently the Boise River Diversion Dam Project, during which he helped clear 155 acres for the Ann Morrison Memorial Park in 1957 named after his first wife. By the 1960s, his major goal was to strengthen the performing arts community in Boise and construct a center in which performing artists could flourish. He reserved 15 acres of the Ann Morrison Memorial Park for the construction of the Morrison Performing Arts Center, which would not be completed until 1981- 24 years after its conception. There is no doubt that Harry Morrison was one of Boise�s most avid philanthropists in the mid-20th century, and equally no doubt that his commitment towards serving and inspiring the public good was successful.

Unfortunately, plans to carry out the construction of the Morrison Center did not become a reality until after his death in 1971. Even then, it took a long time to raise funding for the building as Boiseans weren�t willing to necessarily jump in and pay for it. Velma determinedly sought out government funds, several vital endowments from the Harry B. Morrison Foundation, Jack and Esther Simplot, and generous donations from around the Boise community. She has been quoted as saying about Boisean�s approach “They didn’t want it if they had to pay for it�. as long as they could get it free, they loved it. You can quote me – that’s from my heart.” The project had to endure numerous setbacks and budget limitations with much of the early moneys raised by shows performed at the historic Boise High School auditorium. Sufficient funding did not appear until the early 1980s when the state stepped forward with $5 million to match the foundation�s $6.5 million. State funding came only after a hard pitch was made by the current BSU president at the time that the Center would serve the university community as well as greater Boiseans. The Center opened with My Fair Lady on April 7, 1984.

We interviewed two different people with information about the Morrison Center and received two differing opinions: Robert Marcental, who is primarily a residential and commercial architect who resides in Boise and James Patrick the Executive Director of the Morrison Center. We thank both of them for contributing to our report.

While many folks we have talked with cite the Morrison Center�s acoustics as superior, some are more critical about its architectural presentation. The two biggest criticisms of the Morrison Center�s architecture according to Mr. Marcental are that it was built on a restrictive budget and is not particularly aesthetically pleasing in its sparse modernist style. Some of the most interesting information that he provided was in regard to the reason behind the utilitarian style of the Morrison and the general process behind the creation of theaters comparable to the Morrison. According to Mr. Mercantal, the Morrison Center was conceived for philanthropic reasons, but the original plans for an architecturally creative theater were not carried out due to a very tight, wavering budget. As a result, the architects of the Morrison were not able to carry out beautiful artwork or stunning detail. Instead, the main goal of the architects and most importantly its founders and benefactors, was to construct it as quickly as possible and within budget constraints.
The Lombard-Conrad Architect Firm, established in 1972, was responsible for the design of the Morrison Center. This project launched a series of other public works projects that they would complete throughout Boise, including several school districts, the Ada County Detention facilities, and the Wells Fargo building.

The functionality, which they incorporated into the architecture of the Morrison Center, is the most distinguishing characteristic. The brick exterior can undoubtedly be characterized as sparse and the interior was described by one patron that we asked as looking like a �1980�s Hyatt hotel.� Certainly, the fact that many visitors enter the hall down a back hallway from the parking lot illustrates the awkward presentation the Center has to its visitors. Inside the concert hall, patrons notice the aged look including interesting features like rounded brick towers as walls that reflect the campus� nearby Towers Hall and concrete flying saucer-like seating �boxes� that overhang the floor. Of course, many of these features reflect the Morrison Center�s location in a similarly sparse college campus, and also in part to the modernist period during which it was created. Similar to many publicly financed modernist theaters in the United States today, the Morrison was driven by developers and produced at the minimum as a result of a confined budget and short time-span. According to Mr. Mercantale, the Morrison Center is very emblematic of the way public projects are designed in the United States. Their spare modernist designs almost never receive adequate funding so as to stimulate the aesthetic and the artistic sensibilities of our culture.

However, the purpose it serves to educate and enlighten the future performers and audience members of Boise is unquestionably more important. Steve Simmons, a current architect at the Lombard-Conrad Architect Firm, is credited for saying in a 2009 article that �public architecture should impart a sense of pride within the community and make a positive impact on society�. LCA definitely accomplished this task with the creation of the Morrison Center. Those who view the Morrison Center from the �back�, or what really should be the �front�, find that the scenery of the Boise River beautifully compliments the design. Fans of the Center note that the upstairs lobby fulfills the architect�s wishes to integrate the natural beauty of Boise with the spacious feel of the Morrison. Also, how fun is it to recognize that when viewed from above, the Morrison Center appears in the shape of Idaho!

The interior of the Morrison exhibits more ingenuity. The spacious and airy lobby area fulfills most theater�s necessity for a comfortable space in which audience members can circulate freely during intermissions which any visitor will note occurs among Boise�s socialites at any Philharmonic concert. A grand floating staircase and two adjacent staircases are adorned with red velvet carpet and gold banisters. The staircases lead up to a more intimate area for conversation and a gorgeous view of the Boise River. Despite the rather large oil painting of Velma Morrison looming over the lobby and the now aging color scheme of the interior, the lobby certainly functions as it should. Furthermore, there are several qualities of the theater itself, including effective acoustics, a clear and roomy seating arrangement consisting of plush chairs, as well as a few ovular box seats extending out from the walls.

According to Mr. Mercantel, many modernist theaters fail in providing a high quality experience for its audience members (especially those seated in the mezzanine or balcony) due to ineffective acoustics. The Morrison Center, by comparison, undoubtedly rises above and fulfills its main purpose in offering an enchanting experience for all audience members. The design of the Morrison Center, though perhaps not incredibly pleasing, is still well-respected by the community of Boise because of what it offers as a performing arts center and the quality of lighting and sound which is provided as well.

A distinguishing facet of the Morrison Center is the dual-purpose it serves to education and performance. Standing as not only a performing arts theater but also as Boise State University�s Department of Music and Theater Arts Department, the Morrison Center has proven to be an indispensable facility for education and entertainment. This dual-purpose aspect of the Morrison Center also provides a clear explanation for its architectural style. When the building was completed in 1984, the ending of a period of modernist, utilitarian architecture- its constructers, and most importantly, its private investors, had evidently little intention of creating a grandiose theater of creative design and imaginative floor plans. However, there are several key elements of grandeur that were implemented. Mr. Patrick, the executive director of the Morrison, made several references in our interview to the previously mentioned upstairs lobby, justifying that its spaciousness is equivalent to theaters in Europe. In all, however, the Morrison Center obviously does not compete in comparison to the top opera houses and music halls of Europe, largely due to inadequate funding and the lack of artistic contribution.

In conclusion, the Morrison was a grand and important addition to Boise�s diverse culture and we couldn�t imagine Boise today without it. The Morrison Center serves as an educational building, as well as a performing arts center for many great events, such as, ballets, musicals, and concerts. It brings together people from all walks of society and connects them. The Morrison Center should be regarded as an integral part of Boise�s culture and a reflection of our appreciation towards arts despite the difficulty in its initial construction and financing. The interviews with Mr. Mercantel and Mr. Patrick gave two important perspectives towards the architectural features of the theater, and interesting insight into the overall demands of creating such an important building.


” Historical Perspective The Velma V. Morrison Center for the Performing Arts: Past and Present.” Morrison Center: Idaho’s Premier Performing Arts Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 May 2011.

Velma Morrison: Grand Dame of arts makes dreams real. Idaho Press Tribune, Michelle Cork, April 2, 2011

Robert Mercantel
James Patrick
BAP staff