If you’ve never been to downtown Boise, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Pioneers pushing west in the mid 1800’s passed through on the Oregon Trail. They were grateful for the fresh water of the Boise River and the shade along its banks, but they were eager to move on. Today more people want to put down roots in this oasis where wagons ruts have given way to streets and bike paths.
When gold was discovered in the nearby Boise Basin during the American Civil War, miners and entrepreneurs flocked to the area. In March of 1863 President Lincoln signed legislation creating the Idaho Territory. A few months later Fort Boise was established to keep the peace in the region and a townsite was laid out a few days later.
John and Mary Ann O’Farrell built a one-room cabin in 1863 near the military reserve. Today it stands on the former reserve property, facing Fort Street between 4th and 5th streets. For several years John and Mary Ann invited fellow Catholics into their home for weekly worship. Cyrus Jacobs, another city founder, built a brick home in 1864 on Grove Street with the city’s first indoor bathtub. It’s the oldest surviving brick building in downtown Boise.
One of the biggest imprints on the city was a precedent set by another founder, Tom Davis. Davis began farming in 1863 to sell produce to the miners, and in 1864 brought in several thousand apple seedlings to plant a large orchard. Eventually he was growing food on several hundred acres, including property that is now the location of Boise State University. When Tom and his wife Julia were ready to retire, they offered several acres to the City of Boise for its first public park, and after Julia’s death Tom requested the City name it after his beloved wife.
Julia Davis park is now more than double its original size at 89 acres and is home to several Boise treasures, including the Boise Art Museum (BAM), Idaho State Historical Museum, Idaho Black History Museum, Zoo Boise, and Discovery Center of Idaho. The Boise River Greenbelt, with over 30 miles of paved pathways lining the river, also passes through the park.
The Davis’ gift set a standard for later Boise entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Land and money have been donated by later generations for parks along the Boise River and other locations, many bearing the names of the donor’s loved one. Some of the larger and better-known parks adjacent to downtown and front the river are named after Ann Morrison, Kathryn Albertson, Bernardine Quinn and Esther Simplot.
The Boise Basin gold rush drew miners and entrepreneurs from across the United States and other countries. One group of Basque miners stayed on after the mines ran out, many of them working as shepherds on the open range in Idaho, Oregon and Nevada. The Cyrus Jacobs house on Grove Street was converted into a Basque boarding house in 1910. It was later purchased by the Uberuaga family, and as a boarding house it served as a de facto center for Basque heritage in Boise through the years. Today it is a vital piece of downtown Boise’s Basque Block and sits next to the Basque Cultural Center on Grove Street between 6th and Capitol.
Another noteworthy downtown home is the Moses Alexander house at the corner of 3rd and State Street. Alexander built this beautiful Queen Anne style home in 1897. Alexander served as mayor of Boise and governor of Idaho, and the home stayed in the family for 8 decades. It is now owned by the state and after a recent restoration, it’s become well suited for occasional use by the Governor to host guests. That’s a good use for the beautiful home since there is currently no official Governor’s residence in Idaho.
Many other fine historic homes still stand in downtown Boise and the nearby North End and Warm Springs historic neighborhoods. These homes were built in various architectural styles, including Queen Anne/Victorian, Craftsman, Neoclassical, Spanish, Georgian, and Colonial Revival. There are two neighborhoods downtown that you can easily tour on foot or bike.
The first neighborhood to explore is just north of the State Capitol, from State Street to Hays, and between 8th and 11th streets. These blocks wrap around the Greek Revival Boise High School and include beautiful homes lining Hays, Washington and other streets. You’ll also be inspired by the Gothic Revival Cathedral of the Rockies and St. Michael’s Cathedral, the Romanesque Capital City Christian Church and St. John’s Cathedral, and the Neoclassical Carnegie Library.
The second neighborhood is on Main Street between 2nd and 1st streets, extending north to Jefferson Street at 2nd. This includes the Assay Office, built in the Italianate style in 1870-1871, along with several beautiful homes. Main Street extends East across Broadway/Avenue B to become Warm Springs Avenue. Consider going the extra mile and exploring Warm Springs Historic District with a mile of beautiful classic homes lining the avenue. Many of these homes are heated with geothermal energy, and they were built in a bygone era when a streetcar carried passengers down the street, connecting downtown with Boise’s popular Natatorium.
Boise’s bustling downtown grew up along Main and Idaho streets, and a promenade of stately buildings remains between 5th and 12th streets. Downtown Boise’s two most iconic buildings rise 2 miles apart from each other at opposite ends of Capitol Boulevard, the Boise Depot and the Idaho State Capitol. The Capitol is open to visitors every day and guided tours can be arranged by reservation at least 2 weeks in advance. Self-guided tours begin on the Garden (ground) Level where you can explore displays about the building and the state’s history. Boise’s iconic Spanish Style rail depot is open to the public Sundays and Mondays, with free guided tours on the first Sunday of each month.
There is a variety of architectural and philanthropic history to soak in when you visit downtown Boise. But that’s far from the end of what you’ll want to do while you’re here. Take a break to enjoy one the many fine restaurants, clubs, or concert venues downtown has to offer, and check out our retail shops, including the weekend farmers’ markets. You’ll quickly see why people love it here in Idaho.