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Idaho is a geographically diverse state whose resources, topography, and transportation networks have shaped its economic, urban, and architectural development. The northernmost area, the Panhandle, is a place of picturesque, mineral-laden mountain ranges, stunning lakes, and dense forests. North Central Idaho consists of rolling, fertile hills and forested mountains. Southern Idaho is dominated by the irrigated Snake River Plain, stretching more than 400 river miles from Wyoming on the east to Oregon on the west. From there, the Snake River bends to the north and flows through the deepest gorge in the nation—Hells Canyon—on its way toward the Columbia River. A mountainous spine along Idaho’s eastern border inhibits east–west travel. Even more of an impediment is the mountainous center of the state: the combined Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness and the adjacent Gospel Hump Wilderness make up the largest contiguous roadless area in the continental United States. This area challenges north–south travelers and effectively bisects the state. With elevations ranging from 710 to more than 12,000 feet, Idaho’s geography has channeled most of the state’s development into the south and northwest. Of Idaho’s twelve largest cities, eight are along the southern Snake River Plain and four are along the western border of northern Idaho. Notable architecture is clustered in Boise, Moscow, and resort areas of the Panhandle and Sun Valley.

More than 14,000 years before Europeans and European Americans entered Idaho, Indigenous peoples lived here. Seven groups of Indigenous peoples occupied the area that became the State of Idaho; today many of their descendants live on or near the six reservations in the state. In northern Idaho, the Ktunaxa (Kootenai), Qlispe (Kalispel), Schitsu’umsh (Coeur d’Alene), and Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) migrated seasonally following food resources, but returned every year to established villages along rivers and lakes. The state’s oldest known architecture is a 5,000-year-old village of ten semi-subterranean pit houses that Nimiipuu ancestors built along the Clearwater River. When the Lewis and Clark Expedition entered Nimiipuu territory in 1805, they saw abandoned pit houses, but by then Nimiipuu, Ktunaxa, Qlispe, and Schitsu’umsh people lived in conical dwellings and long lodges built of wood poles covered by tule mats, buffalo hides, bark, brush, or straw. Southern Idaho has been inhabited by three groups of Indigenous peoples: the Newe (Shoshone), Bannaqwate (Bannock), and Numa (Northern Paiute). Around 4,000 years ago, people began building semi-subterranean pit houses along the Snake River. These were replaced 1,000 years ago by pole-and-thatch structures built by planting poles in a circle, attaching the top ends to form a cone or dome, and applying thatch or matting. Pole-and-thatch dwellings were used up to historic times, but as people procured horses beginning around 1700 CE, they began living in buffalo-hide tipis.

The earliest known non-Indigenous buildings in Idaho were short-lived wood-and-clay trading posts built by fur traders in the early 1800s. In 1809 David Thompson built Kullyspell House along Lake Pend Oreille and in 1812 Donald Mackenzie built another post along the Clearwater River. Longer lived were two 1834 fortified trading posts in southern Idaho that became important nodes along the Oregon Trail. Nathaniel Wyeth established Fort Hall, a compound of log and adobe buildings enclosed by a cottonwood palisade, along the Snake River in the southeast. Thomas McKay established Fort Boise, an adobe walled compound, along the Boise River 300 miles to the west. The first mission in Idaho was established with the Nimiipuu in 1836 by Presbyterians Henry and Eliza Spalding who, in 1838, built a hewn cedar log house over a cobble foundation. In 1842 Jesuit Father Nicholas Point established the Mission of the Sacred Heart with the Schitsu’umsh. For this mission Father Antonio Ravalli designed a magnificent Baroque church in 1850 that the Schitsu’umsh people built with a fieldstone foundation, braced timber frame structure, and wattle-and-daub infill. It is the oldest existing building in the state.

The oldest European-American town in Idaho is Franklin, a pioneer village established in 1860 along the Utah state border by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Although miners and pioneers traveled through southern Idaho in the 1840s en route to California and Oregon, Franklin was the first Idaho destination for settlers. With exquisite cut stone buildings, Franklin was the vanguard of considerable Mormon development in southeastern Idaho, including the 1884 Bear Lake Tabernacle in Paris and the 1945 Idaho Falls Idaho Temple.

The first big influx of people into northern Idaho was the 1860 gold rush along the Clearwater River. This gave birth to Lewiston in 1861, which began as a tent city at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers and became the first territorial capital two years later. In southwestern Idaho, one of the richest gold strikes in the United States occurred in the Boise Basin, leading to the development of Idaho City, the largest town in the northwest by 1863. Also in 1863, the U.S. Army constructed a new Fort Boise 50 miles east of the original fort, at the crossroads of the Oregon Trail and the road leading 36 miles northeast to Idaho City. The town of Boise emerged here, replacing Lewiston as the territorial capital in 1864. Promoted to state capital when Idaho achieved statehood in 1890, Boise’s new role was announced by stately buildings crafted out of a durable local material, Boise sandstone. These included Fort Boise’s Quartermaster Building (1864), the Idaho Penitentiary (1871), and the Assay Office (1872). Meanwhile, along the Coeur d’Alene River in northern Idaho, gold was struck in 1878 and then eclipsed by discovery of lead and silver in 1884. The area known today as the Silver Valley has produced more silver than any other mining district in the world. Wallace, the primary city in Silver Valley, was built rapidly of wood in the 1880s, but rebuilt in brick and stone after a devastating 1890 fire.

Mining, logging, ranching, and farming were transformed into the dominant economies of Idaho by the advent of the state’s rail lines a decade after the nation’s railroads met at Promontory Point, Utah. The first railroad in Idaho was the Utah and Northern, linking southeastern Idaho to Utah in 1879; by 1884 the Oregon Short Line linked southern Idaho with the Midwest and Oregon. By 1883 and 1893 the transcontinental routes of the Northern Pacific Railroad and the Great Northern Railway crossed Idaho’s panhandle and transported the state’s commodities to coastal marketplaces. Railroad links, including Boise to Portland, southeastern Idaho to Salt Lake City, and northern Idaho to Spokane and Seattle, have reinforced geographic divisions of the state and influenced Idaho’s cultural, religious, political, and economic development. Enduring links with cities in the region have attracted out-of-state architects from Spokane, Seattle, and Salt Lake City, who have helped shape the built environment of Idaho.

Although in many cases railroads dictated the locations of towns, the exception to the rule is the north central community of Moscow. Developed first as a productive agricultural center in the fertile Palouse landscape, Moscow became a thriving grain distributer after the railroad reached it in 1885. The largest town in northern Idaho by 1888, Moscow was the location the territorial government chose for the University of Idaho in 1889. As a center for both agriculture and education, Moscow prospered and its commercial downtown developed rapidly between 1888 and 1893. Many of the downtown’s early buildings remain, such as the McConnell-McGuire Building (1891) and the Moscow Hotel (1893). With a concentration of nineteenth-century commercial buildings in the Moscow Downtown Historic District, stately homes in its Fort Russell Neighborhood Historic District, and more than a century of academic buildings on the University of Idaho campus, Moscow is the location of the largest concentration of significant architecture in Idaho outside of Boise.

Twenty miles north of Moscow is Idaho’s only historic company town, Potlatch. Founded by the Potlatch Corporation in 1905, Potlatch is Idaho’s most significant architectural representation of a corporate mill town. When built, the Potlatch mill was one of the largest sawmills in the United States and the largest white pine sawmill in the world. After the mill closed in 1981, residents bought the town. Some still live there in their original houses. Significant buildings remain such as the Washington, Idaho, and Montana Railway Depot (1906), the Gymnasium (1916), and the Administrative Office (1917), now serving as Potlatch City Hall.

Unlike northern Idaho’s dryland grain and legume farming that depends on 20 inches of annual rainfall, southern Idaho’s high desert agriculture is possible only with irrigation. The 1894 Carey Act funded extensive irrigation projects that diverted water from the Snake River onto the rich volcanic soil and allowed large-scale cultivation of several crops including Idaho’s famous potatoes. To store potatoes, farmers developed potato cellars, initially semi-subterranean structures insulated by straw bales covered by earth, but more recently high-tech refrigeration storage units. Irrigation also led to the creation of new towns such as Twin Falls, founded in 1904 as a planned community inspired by the City Beautiful movement. As a prosperous center of agriculture, the town sought to attract families with its classical arrangement of churches and civic buildings around a town square. The warehouses and silos of this early agricultural industry have since been redeveloped into restaurants and business offices.

Between 1900 and 1920 Idaho’s population tripled. Many towns, particularly county seats, matured into small cities complete with federal buildings, county courthouses, Carnegie libraries, and churches. U.S. Treasury Department architect James Knox Taylor designed six federal buildings in Idaho, all finely detailed classical buildings. Eleven Carnegie libraries, most classical in style, were built in Idaho between 1903 and 1919. Churches for various denominations were built in a multitude of styles, often in brick or local stone such as sandstone or basalt.

Many of Idaho’s earlier buildings were erected without architects or designed by out-of-state architects. Idaho’s first professional architect, James King, came to Boise in 1888, two years before statehood; King was known for several fine stone buildings in Boise such as the Richardsonian Romanesque Boise City National Bank (1891), built of rusticated Boise sandstone. Two of Idaho’s most significant architectural firms began to practice in the same era. John Tourtellotte and his partner, Charles Hummel, became the most productive and noteworthy architectural force in Idaho. Together, between 1890 and 1922, they designed and built hundreds of buildings including the Renaissance Revival Idaho State Capitol (1905) and the Collegiate Gothic University of Idaho Administration Building (1908). Hummel’s sons continued the architectural practice which is still in operation today. The other significant firm was the Boise partnership of Frank Paradice and Benjamin M. Nisbet, who together designed significant buildings such as the Chicago-School Empire Building (1909) in Boise. In 1914 Paradice left Boise for Pocatello in the southeast where he designed dozens of important commercial and public buildings. Some of his most notable buildings include the neoclassical terra-cotta Valentine Building (1916) in Pocatello and Art Deco high schools in Montpelier (1937) and Pocatello (1939).

During the Great Depression the privately funded Sun Valley resort emerged in 1936 as the first destination ski resort in the country. Sun Valley was the brainchild of Averell Harriman, economic advisor to President Roosevelt and later Governor of New York, who built Sun Valley to help stimulate the economy and Union Pacific rail travel. Also during the Great Depression, many Idaho buildings were designed and built through New Deal programs. In Idaho the Civilian Conservation Corps built more than 200 of the 900 fire lookouts, ninety-one dams, roads and bridges, and buildings such as the 1933–1938 log structures in Heyburn State Park. The Public Works Administration (PWA) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) built many Idaho buildings such as the Red Baron Hangar (1936) in Idaho Falls and the Boundary County Courthouse (1940) in Bonners Ferry. In 1942 the Army Corps of Engineers constructed one of Idaho’s largest federal projects, the Minidoka War Relocation Center, to incarcerate Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II.

Post–World War II development trends in Idaho responded to changes in economic forces and transportation infrastructure. Mirroring national trends, populations in most rural communities have declined since midcentury, while urban metropolitan areas are prospering. Employment opportunities for rising generations in mill, logging, mining, and agricultural industries, which historically sustained small towns, have diminished. Some mountain and lake communities such as Coeur d’ Alene and Sandpoint, have capitalized on their spectacular natural settings to become tourist destinations contributing to the state’s growing outdoor recreation economy. With construction of the Coeur d’Alene Resort in 1983, the former mill town was transformed into a world-class destination. Quality of life and access to outdoor recreation in mountain towns such as Ketchum and Sandpoint have attracted celebrities resulting in national attention. These towns appeal to active retirees and outdoor enthusiasts who work in expanding service industries. Idaho’s numerous natural assets including wild and scenic rivers, pristine lakes, and mountainous terrain, contribute to an economy in outdoor recreation and tourism that continues to gain momentum.

Since World War II, federal funding has supported nuclear energy research at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), established in 1949 between Arco and Idaho Falls. The 1951 Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR1), a National Historic Landmark, was the first power plant in the world to produce usable electricity using nuclear energy. In addition to proving that nuclear energy could generate economically competitive power, EBR1 demonstrated that a nuclear reactor can create more fuel than it consumes. Energy research has continued at INL and in 2009, the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, a LEED Gold building, was built as a place for INL researchers to collaborate with faculty from University of Idaho, Idaho State University, and Boise State University. Technology transfer from the state’s universities has spawned small technology start-up companies. Larger firms like Micron and Hewlett Packard generate growth in technology and high-level manufacturing jobs in the Boise area.

Idaho architects have designed the vast majority of Idaho’s post-1950 architecture. Their work often includes creative uses of wood. Among the most innovative, Arthur L. Troutner designed and built dozens of experimental houses and invented technologies that revolutionized the use of wood as a composite structural material. One of Troutner’s inventions was Trus Dek, a lightweight, wood-and-steel composite structural system. Troutner used an expanded version of Trus Dek to create a 400-foot-wide, barrel-vaulted roof for the Kibbie Activity Center at University of Idaho, thus creating the longest wood roof span in the world when it was built in 1975. A related Troutner invention spawned the Trus Joist Corporation, a Fortune 500 Company. In the late twentieth century, North Idaho architect R. G. Nelson became one of the state’s prominent designers whose Northwest aesthetic is evident in the timber-framed Hagadone Newspaper Building (1972) in Coeur d’Alene and the award-winning University of Idaho Student Recreation Center (2002). Since 1950, a few Idaho buildings have been designed by nationally acclaimed architects. These include Pietro Belluschi’s Idaho Statesman Building (1951), Frank Lloyd Wright’s Teater Studio (1952), Perkins and Will’s Kellogg High School (1957), and SOM’s Boise Cascade Building (1971). Other notable buildings, designed by prominent northwest architects out of Spokane and Seattle, include Kenneth Brooks’ Intermountain Gas Company Headquarters (1965), Arne Bystrom’s Dennis House (1986), and Tom Kundig’s Chicken Point Cabin (2002).

Several trends have shaped changes to Idaho’s built environment over the last few decades and into the twenty-first century, including efforts to enhance community and culture. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s Benewah Medical Center (2013) provides medical care to all in the area, not just Tribal members; the Idaho Commons at the University of Idaho (2000) provides spaces where the campus community and others can come together. Another trend is the Northwest interpretation of sustainability. Here architecture expresses wood structure, captures and attenuates daylight, and seeks to engage with the landscape, as exemplified by R. G. Nelson’s University of Idaho Student Recreation Center and Arne Bystrom’s Dennis House. A third trend is stewardship of the inherited built environment through preservation and reuse at multiple scales, like the 2009 LEED Gold restoration of the Beardmore Block (1922) in Priest River and the ongoing preservation of downtown Wallace’s mining era buildings. This also extends to urban places such as the preservation and development of Moscow’s vibrant downtown or the creation of Boise’s Greenbelt. Finally, Idaho’s disused rail corridors have been transformed into some of the most spectacular bicycle trails in the country. The Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes and Hiawatha Trail allow cyclists to learn about the state’s historical transportation infrastructure while experiencing the rugged mountains and sublime lakes of northern Idaho.


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Writing Credits

Anne L. Marshall, Wendy R. McClure, Phillip G. Mead, and D. Nels Reese

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