As civic leaders get their hopes up over the possibility that the infamous "Boise Hole" at 8th and Main streets could soon be filled, BW thought it worthwhile to check in with Todd Shallat, the director of the Boise State Center for Idaho History and Politics. Shallat, along with graduate student (and Boise City Council staffer) Chris Blanchard, both have theories about why the hole is the regrettable thorn in the side of downtown boosters.
According to these two eminent and thoroughly professional historians, the corner is "cursed." (Memo to Gary Rogers, the developer who plans to build the new, 31-story tower on the site: How's your insurance?) BW got Shallat to spill about the corner and provide a little of the storied history of the Hole That Wasn't Always There. To hear more, go see Shallat and Blanchard present their talk on Boise's Cursed Corner, and more, on Tuesday, Oct. 10, noon at the Idaho Historical Museum in Julia Davis Park. Cost is $2 for adults and $1 students.
BW: Why call it cursed?
That hole is just scary. If you want to keep planners and city officials up at night in terror, just mention 8th and Main.
Fair enough; explain the curse.
Theory No. 1: I call this theory, "Megalomania," or, if you prefer, "Holy shit." Basically, this corner is so prominent in Boise that no normal building will work. It's gotta be, "Holy shit! Look what we built on this corner!" And that, in itself, is a curse, because expectations got jacked up, way high. So, as a result, builders came and said, "OK, let's build a building, 10 stories high," and people would say, "No, it's got to be the tallest! It's got to be the biggest! It's got to be bigger than Pocatello!"
With that theory, what they could have easily done is take that poster that's hanging there. They should have just put the poster on the street. And then they could have just had a small building behind it, and have a computer server on the top floor, and have virtual condos. Because a lot of people who are buying real estate in Boise, they're not even in Boise. They're just buying from Alaska or wherever. They're just buying from the Internet. It's an investment. For those people, they don't even have to live there. So they don't actually have to have the building, just the facade. That would be totally appropriate for Boise, because Boise's Main Street used to have a lot of false-front buildings; still does, in fact.
So that's "megalomania."
I sincerely think it's a powerful explanation, because when people bid on that corner, there were all kinds of practical plans, but they weren't used. Architects and builders, what they prefer is just a blank slate. "Let us come in from some other place"--like BoDo, and whatever--and just plop it down, without studying the context and historical roots of why that corner doesn't work. And if they looked at that, they'd find out that that corner is Boise's commercial corner, because of its pedestrian scale. The original Overland Hotel, it was Boise's pedestrian place. People would come, and it would be Boise's impromptu political discussion corner. It was like a center of the city's commercial life. It was across the street from the city's original city hall. The city's biggest commercial department store was across the street. By coming in with this megalomania, and just defying that, by not even knowing what was on that spot before, and not even caring, and to come in with some design for a building that could have been built in Phoenix or L.A. or some other place, because they were so enamored of the idea of bigger is better.
But on to the reality of this theory: they didn't require anything of the developer. By making those concessions, they cursed it. They didn't have an airtight contract. By giving away so much of the public's resources, they cursed it.
OK, theory No. 2.
Theory No. 2 is that the corner's not really cursed, as much as it is going through a process of getting sanctified by bureaucracy. You know, before you build a Hindu temple, you have to bless the land, and do this whole process. In our society, we do that via 20 years of bureaucracy. So what's happening there is, in order to build something really fantastic, they had to go through this stage of bureaucratic sanctification. They had to build the rebar, let it rust, tear it out again. Several people had to be sacrificed.
But more importantly, they had to put a giant cross on the site. So, for five years, the largest cross in Idaho, maybe the largest cross in the Northwest, was on that site.
What was that?
It looked like a crane, the cross. But it was in the shape of a cross, that crane.
So in some ways, I think that, basically, 8th and Main died for our sins.
I presume we're getting to theory No. 3.
This is the Chris Blanchard theory. The original developers of this site had a dark cloud over them. Everything in the world happened to these people. There were fires. There were mishaps. There were accidental deaths.
Then the site was sold to some hotel developers, who built the Overland Building, in 1905. And the Eastman [family, which owned the building at one point], they had some fires. Even their house burned down. So [Blanchard] traced these series of accidents. Then, the curse continued until the 1970s. In 1972, the redevelopment agency bought the site for a half-million dollars, with the intention of making it part of their mall project. There were a whole series of lawsuits. So [Blanchard] believes it really is cursed.
So who originally cursed it? There's a number of theories. I think we have a smoking gun, but you have to go to the lecture in order to get it. It has to do with Chinese tunnels, Indian artifacts and the Egyptian Theatre.
All right, we'll suspend disbelief for now. Which of these do you believe in the most?
What I believe the most is that the prominence of the site dooms it. That hole has become a referendum on the [Mayor Dave] Bieter administration, even though it's not exactly dependent on the mayor. The mayors are helpless. They're held accountable for something they have no control over.
So what's the lesson for today's developers of the site?
The larger point is, in order to have smart development, you have to understand the history of the site. That spot has been succesful, and then not successful, forever. It's always been a place for Boiseans to gather. Any design that doesn't incorporate that is going to be unsuccessful. Things have historic uses. History's not about doing everything the way it was done in the past. History is about making intelligent choices.