The Stelle-Sullivan house was built in 1912. The architect and builders are unknown. Intended for widow Emma Stelle, it was a comfortable craftsman bungalow on 819 North 17th Street. She created the Boise King Placers Company after her move from Chicago in 1908, and the house reflected her wealth and opulence. With exposed rafters, an enclosed porch, and a low roofline to emphasize its size, it reflected the simple but stunning beauty of the 1910’s architecture. Only three years later, the original owner of the house moved to California, at which time it was purchased by the Sullivan family. Justice Issac Sullivan, the first Idaho Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and his wife lived there until their deaths in 1940. Several members of the Sullivan family lived in the house until the early 1940s, at which point it passed to the Westcott family. The house went through multiple owners, ending with Mike and Lisa Curtain, who still live there today.
Justice Sullivan became Idaho’s Justice of the Supreme Court in 1890; the year Idaho adopted a state constitution. Originally, the judges of the Idaho Supreme Court would cast lots to determine who would serve the longest terms (Hawley, pg 182). Sullivan secured the shortest term, and because of that, he became chief justice. Interestingly, he was a Republican, but he disagreed on the monetary issues of the early 1890’s (Hawley, pg 182). His house reflected his prestigious position through its luxury. It also held a large library on legal matters as well as the classics (Hawley, pg 183).
Although Justice Sullivan lived here, the house, ironically, has a history of inhabitants who broke the law. This is most strongly emphasized in the basement, where, according to Mrs. Curtain, an underground bar existed during twenties Prohibition. Although further research has proved inconclusive, the hand painted murals, the pool table, and running counter along the wall suggest a history of social usage. The basement, complete with low ceilings and two exits- one supposedly from a staircase leading to the outside, and the other leading into a storage space behind the house- seems to imply illicit activity. Hooks along the entrance, as well as several old lights from the period, also hint at parties. The original horsehair cushion and old piano also suggest a history of entertainment, and Mrs. Curtain claims that an authentic piano from the era also existed. An old pool table, along with several couches, lie in the center of the room. There is also an old billards scoreholder panel along the wall. One of the most telling signs of the existence of the speakeasy are the hinged windows that could have been used to check that the incomers were wets.
Considering the age of the Stelle-Sullivan House, it is a miracle that many of its practical utilities are still in use today. The house is still heated by radiators. Most of its windows have never been replaced, save for the ones in the south end. These had to be releaded due to the heat from the sun causing them to buckle. The windows retain their wooden casings and latches as well. The majority of the floors, made of quarter-sawn oak, have never been replaced either. This woodcut style is rare today because it wastes much of the tree. Most of the original doors from 1912 remain as well. The frescoes on the basement’s walls haven’t been removed either. Many old lighting fixtures from the house’s construction still exist today. Most of the lights in the upper floors, although not originally from the building itself, do date from a similar time period and were selected to blend in with the house’s original lighting.
But there have been a couple notable renovations as well. These renovations were difficult to achieve because the building lies in the Boise Historical District. The Curtains had to get approval from both the Boise Historical Society and the public before renovating- citing their reluctance to encroach on the unmodified historical areas of the building as a chief reason for the outward expansion of their house. The kitchen has been extended by about six feet, allowing for the double doors into the second sun porch. The cook’s quarters were converted into a dining room. An additional three rooms were added to the upstairs. The attic was converted to a large room. Originally, it didn’t have a floor.
The Stelle-Sullivan Building has a rich history. Despite the economic dependence on service to the law, its owners deliberately flaunted regulations on alcohol during Prohibition through their speakeasy. Although it has gone through many renovations, it still retains much of its original utilities. We’d like to thank Mrs. Curtain for her excellent interview.