A Man's House is His James Castle 

The James Castle House is a place of mystery and a stepping stone for the city of Boise

The gate to the slatted, whitewashed shed swung open, revealing a second miniscule, decrepit shed inside: the onetime home and studio of feted Boise artist James Castle. The awning of the workspace leaned precariously on one side, torsion exposing old nails. Inside, wallpaper peeled from the walls and a rickety cupboard was on its last legs. Rachel Reichert, cultural sites manager for the city of Boise, and architect Byron Folwell said they are determined to preserve the decaying structure.

"This is no different in our opinion from a Castle jar of soot," Reichert said, referring to the ash the artist used in his work.

Deciding what to save and how to save it at the James Castle House site in the Collister Neighborhood has been one of the most significant challenges Folwell and Reichert faced as they set about preserving, restoring and converting the property into a gallery space, artist-in-residence studio and general cultural center. Those kinds of decisions have not been made easier by the features of the house or the artist who lived there, but they have held a few surprises.

click to enlarge - Rachel Reichert of the Boise City Department of Arts & History was a key figure in the restoration and conversion of the James Castle House. -  - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Rachel Reichert of the Boise City Department of Arts & History was a key figure in the restoration and conversion of the James Castle House.

Castle, who lived in and near the house from 1931 until his death in 1977, created thousands of individual artworks using found materials like ash, scrap paper and his own spit. Best known for his voluminous works depicting the area in and around the house, he was also drawn to repeating patterns like gingham and lettering, and produced occasional portraits, some of which hang in the house gallery. Many of his works are double-sided, and there are frequently dozens of versions of each of them. His attractions to repetition and pattern, combined with his deep relationship to the place where he lived, make learning about Castle and seeing his art where it was made a vivid experience.

The James Castle House is what architects call a "vernacular house." Since its original construction, the house has undergone numerous phases of additions and modernizations, and Folwell said he had to do some "investigative demolition" to get it in working order. In the process, he uncovered its history.

"We had this story of how buildings were built," he said. "What we found were about seven houses inside this one house."

click to enlarge - Architect Byron Folwell found creative ways to adapt honor James Castle's legacy in the renovation of the James Castle House. -  - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • Architect Byron Folwell found creative ways to adapt honor James Castle's legacy in the renovation of the James Castle House.

One of the clearest examples is the "materials collection." Formerly the location of the original front door, the tiny room was an addition to the original 12-by-26-foot house. Over the decades, owners covered the clapboard exterior of the home with wooden shingles, eventually adding tar paper, chicken wire and stucco. Excavating the room revealed plastered-on newspapers, cloth (likely from a dress), ancient patterned wallpaper and other materials used to windproof the room. As the city prepares to open the space to the general public on Saturday, April 28, Folwell has decided to turn the materials collection into an exhibit all its own.

"We want to draw a parallel between Castle's materials and the materials the house was built with," he said.

A more significant discovery of Castle-related materials took place in the largest room in the house, now the main gallery. That's where project managers found a trove of drawing fragments and other items squirreled away in the walls. Those materials have since been valued at more than $1.1 million and donated to the city of Boise. The house and nearby structures feature heavily in Castle's drawings, and finding never-before-seen artworks tucked against the house's bones was a reminder to Reichert and Folwell of the strong connection between the artist and his home, and of Castle's elusive and mysterious nature.

The house is less a shrine to Castle than it is a stepping stone. An important part of the renovation was turning it into a sort of pilot project for future interactive Department of Arts & History ventures while honoring Castle and his legacy. The house itself has a capacity of less than 50 people, but its expansive lawn will be used for events that could include performances of live music.

Another side of the space will be its artist-in-residence program. The Department of Arts & History already has a shortlist of artists who have applied for the inaugural residency, and Reichert said she expects an announcement to be made soon. To that end, she and Folwell have dedicated space in the house for a kitchenette, studio, bedroom and full bathroom, all of which hew closely to how they may have looked in Castle's time, down to the Depression-era kitchen sink (with cast-iron pans hanging beneath) and an antique bed frame.

"We looked at Castle's art to get a look at what this place looked like while he lived here," Reichert said. "The interiors are super easy because [he] rendered the space so often.

click to enlarge - The James Castle House has a gallery showcasing the artist's work. -  - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • The James Castle House has a gallery showcasing the artist's work.
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