Idaho State Capitol Building – a historical landmark at the heart of downtown Boise
In 1905, due to space constraints and other issues with the central government building in operation at that time, the Idaho Legislature approved funding for a new Capitol. Construction on Phase I began that same year. Phase I included the central portion of the building and the dome on top, and was completed in 1912. Phase II spanned the years of 1919 – 1921. It required the demolition of two other buildings to make room for the east and west wings. Remodeling projects took place in the 1950’s and 1970’s, but deterioration was long underway, and deeper efforts were necessary to preserve the historic building. In 1998, it was determined by the Legislature that the Idaho State Capitol Commission be tasked with ensuring the structural and historical integrity of the building, in addition to making necessary updates to facilitate modern functions such as internet use. A plan was drafted and approved, and once solid finances were available, the plan was implemented. Labors extended from 2007 to 2009. Improvements of the project include new systems for electricity, smoke and fire detection, HVAC, water, and sewer. Exterior lighting was improved, and a wheelchair-accessible elevator was installed. The most notable difference was the addition of two expansive atrium wings on the lowermost level. These wings extend beyond the above-ground dimensions of the building, and provide office space for legislators and large hearing rooms that facilitate public participation in legislative committee actions.
The principal architect for the original 1905 design was local contract architect John E. Tourtellotte. His Boise architectural firm, Tourtellotte & Company, was selected by the Legislature to construct the Capitol. Tourtellotte was assisted by his partner, Charles Hummel of Germany. Tourtellotte’s vision for the Capitol was to create a Capitol of light. His design emphasized natural light with light shafts, skylights, and reflective marble. For Tourtellotte, light was as much a design element as wood or stone. His intent was that the light metaphorically represent enlightenment and morality in government. He said, “The great white light of conscience must be allowed to shine and by its interior illumination make clear the path of duty.” Today, light remains a defining feature of the Capitol, and the effect is dazzling. Lights circle the rotunda at every level; windows in the dome comfortably illuminate the space below; looking up to the very peak of the dome, the ceiling is painted with stars; every surface reflects the light into a peaceful, idyllic glow.
Stone surfaces in the Capitol are composed of both marble and a lighter, less expensive marble substitute called scagliola. Scagliola, an Italian invention, was used to surface the massive columns that support the rotunda. Columns in the building are found in the classical styles of Corinthian, Doric, and Ionic columns.
Different portions of the building have particular stories relating to their architectural history, which cannot be discussed extensively in this article, but when you do make a visit to the Capitol, one interesting historical remnant is the antique gated elevator on the ground floor, located just outside the Legislative Reference Library on the north side. No longer operational, the elevator was preserved for posterity, having once served to carry judges to what was then the Idaho Supreme Court Chamber.
The Capitol is very open and visitor-friendly. When the House and Senate are not occupying their chambers, the rooms are open for public exploration. Visitors can stand at the podium of the President of the Senate or the Speaker of the House, which makes for a great photo op. When the Legislature is in session, visitors are welcome to view the proceedings from the public gallery of each house. Legislative committee hearings are also open for public observation, and those with business regarding a particular matter at hand are welcomed to testify before the committee. Of course, like any self-respecting public establishment with visitor opportunities, there is a gift shop, supplying all your Capitol Building and Idaho memorabilia needs.
There are a few permanent exhibits in the Capitol Building that lend to its historical value and attraction for visitors. The Winged Victory (Nike of Samothrace) is a 1949 plaster replica of the Hellenistic Greek statue discovered in 1863. The replica was included in a boxcar full of gifts sent by France, (one boxcar to each State in the U.S.,) to thank the United States for its role in liberating France from Nazi dominion in World War II. The statue is on display on the fourth floor of the Capitol, on the south side of the rotunda. Near the Winged Victory is the gilded wooden George Washington Equestrian Statue. This statue was carved over four years by German sculptor Charles L. Ostner and given to the Idaho Territory in 1869. In the Statuary Hall behind Winged Victory and George Washington is the Capitol Historic Trees exhibit. In the course of the 2007-2009 restoration and expansion, several trees planted by historic figures were removed from the Capitol grounds. Rather than be discarded, it was decided that they would be carved into a number of wood sculptures representing Idaho and its heritage. Those sculptures are found in glass enclosures, comprising the exhibit. Information on each item, as well as the historic trees from which they were made, is available with the displays. On the lowermost level of the building, in the very center beneath the rotunda, next to the gift shop, there is a ring of displays with information and artifacts detailing the nature of Idaho history and government. They go into reasonable detail, and they are very informative.
The Idaho State Capitol was built to be the people’s house. It is more than capable of accommodating this purpose, but can only do so if the people come to see all that it has to offer. A visit to the Capitol is an enlightening and breathtaking experience that every Boise area resident should enjoy.
*Information for the History and Architecture portions of this article was largely gathered from the pamphlet Idaho State Capitol – Capitol of Light, ©2013 Idaho Legislative Services, available to visitors at the Capitol.