Downtown Boise's Olympic Hotel Gets New Life 

It's a gold-medal renovation

The new Olympic Venue is a winner.

photo by Kelsey Hawes

The new Olympic Venue is a winner.

Rocket Neon owner Wil Kirkman, spent about two months restoring a piece of Boise history.

"I asked about fixing the sign a few years, but they weren't ready," Kirkman said. When they were ready, though, they called him.

The sign in question is a century-old metal-and-neon beast that hangs high above the sidewalk on the Larson Building on Main Street in downtown Boise. It reads "Olympic Hotel," and on Saturday, June 13, the new Olympic Venue (1009 Main St.), a special-events space, will open its doors for a grand opening, welcoming the public in for the first time in decades. In its 100-plus-year history, the three-story Larson Building has housed a number of businesses, including Purcell's Western Wear and Sporting Goods Store where, according to a 2009 Idaho Statesman article, a longtime friend of the late J.R. Simplot bought the agricultural magnate's famous hat. Though Purcell's is long gone, Mulligans has successfully occupied the ground-floor level for years, but the only residents of the old third-level hotel have been birds, happy to nest in the run-down space, undisturbed by any humans. Until now.

The door to nowhere: this is what's left of an old gun safe. - PHOTO BY KELSEY HAWES
  • photo by Kelsey Hawes
  • The door to nowhere: this is what's left of an old gun safe.

Alicia Wagner bought Mulligan's in 2005 and for years she thought about what to do with the space upstairs. She considered opening another bar/eatery, but she didn't think that was quite right.

"I didn't want to detract from Mulligan's," Wagner said. She did, however, want to restore and reinvigorate the old Olympic Hotel, so she brought in friend and carpenter, Ryan Allen, owner of Artisan Custom Carpentry and Renovations. Just as Kirkman peeled away layers and layers of paint from the old sign, Allen began the arduous process of pulling up floors, tearing out walls and windows and removing the debris of a space long ignored.

"I knew it was a big job, but I had no idea how big," Allen said smiling. Allen (who is also a musician) oversaw the renovation, which included adding a back patio—and restoring part of the old Boise Canal that runs under much of downtown—an elevator to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, replacing windows and reclaiming timber to build tables and wooden supports.

The description of the Larson Building in the National Register of Historic Places includes details about its facade, calling it a "calm, simplified trabeated [designed or constructed with horizontal beams or lintels] Renaissance composition." Sara Schafer, Design Review and Historic Preservation Manager of the City of Boise Planning and Development Services, explained that since all the renovation work was taking place inside the building, Wagner and Allen didn't have to petition or request to make changes on the facade. But even if there had been major proposed changes to the face of the building, Schafer said her department would have done its best to expedite them.

"A lot of times even changes in color will come to us," she said. "If we can, we like to be able to get [owners] right to the building permit, so that they can get moving."

Sign of the times. - PHOTO BY KELSEY HAWES
  • photo by Kelsey Hawes
  • Sign of the times.

Even the updated Olympic Hotel sign fell under "maintenance and repair" but like Wagner and Allen, Kirkman honored the iconic sign. He said he found green, yellow, red, white and even a blue layer in all the paint covering the sign. Kirkman chose a deep red and a sunflower yellow for the paint, based on the last color, and traditional orange for the neon. Like the rest of the new Olympic Venue, it maintains a sense of the building's history, yet is bright, updated and ready for a new life.

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