The Legacy of James Castle: The Man, the Mystery, The House and Now the Landmark 

Boise prepares for a celebration of the enigmatic artist.

click to enlarge James Castle at desk in Cottage (left), Drawing Eugene Street 2, found paper, soot (right).

James Castle Collection and Archive L.P. All rights reserved

James Castle at desk in Cottage (left), Drawing Eugene Street 2, found paper, soot (right).

A unique team of architects, designers and historians—think of them as something akin to The Avengers minus the capes, superpowers and melodrama—is tackling one of the most ambitious preservation challenges in Boise history.

"The city has never done anything like this before. In fact, no one in the state of Idaho has done anything like this before," said Rachel Reichert, Cultural Sites Manager for Boise City Department of Arts and History.

"This" began when the city purchased a ramshackle cottage at 5015 Eugene St. in 2015, intending to restore and preserve it. The tiny abode is known as the James Castle House, named for the artist James Castle, who lived there from 1931 to 1977. Castle, one of seven children, was born in September 1899, two months premature. Profoundly deaf, he mainly communicated through art, using soot, spit and pigments squeezed from saturated crepe paper to create likenesses of buildings and landscapes. Largely eschewing brushes and pencils, he fashioned tools from discarded sticks and broken fountain pens, but it wasn't until Castle was in his 50s that his work was recognized as extraordinary.

The national attention came on the heels of a visit from his nephew, Bob Beach, a student at the Museum Art School in Portland, Oregon, at the time. When Beach returned to Portland, he brought tales of his uncle's unique creations to his professors. Exhibitions and receptions across the Pacific Northwest soon followed, and the popularity of Castle's work continued to grow through the 1960s and '70s. Following Castle's death in 1977, interest in his art intensified, but his relatives, finding the demands for more access overwhelming, decided to keep the collection out of the public eye for two decades. In the 1990s, a rare exhibition of Castle's work at the Outsider Art Fair in New York City took the Manhattan art scene by storm, inspiring international exhibitions as far away as Madrid, Spain, and Venice, Italy.

"Today, when you're talking to a stranger about James Castle, it doesn't take too long to get their interest when you remind them his work hangs in the Smithsonian and The Whitney Museum of American Art," said Reichert. "That always sparks the conversation."

Reichert and her colleagues at Boise City Hall have been working closely with Boise-based Studio Maelstrom—specialists in architecture, residential design and public art—to bring life back to the Castle House. Studio Maelstrom principal Byron Folwell, said he has worked on a wide range of high-profile architectural and public art projects for the past 15 years, but nothing has excited him more than the Castle House.

"I grew up here, and if you were lucky enough to have a particularly hip art teacher, you may have been introduced to James Castle's work," said Folwell. "For me, that began in junior high."

For many, the Castle House has been a long-standing mystery. The fact that in his later years Castle spent most of his days in the shed and trailer just outside the main house only added to its legend. To say the home, trailer and shed have fallen into disrepair over the years is a major understatement.

"It's a miracle that the shed is even standing, considering the brutal winters that it endured," said Folwell.

The Department of Arts and History had a keen interest in preserving the Castle House, and in 2015 the city purchased the property for $200,000, following a marathon year and a half of negotiations. Though a milestone for the department, that purchase was only the beginning of a project that has since transformed the site into a destination celebrating Castle's legacy. So far, the cost of the renovation has been nearly $1.5 million, and a monthlong celebration is planned in April for its grand opening.

In anticipation of the event, which will include a four-day symposium (Wednesday, April 25, to Saturday, April 28), on Castle entitled "A Place Called Home" and culminate with the Castle House debut on April 28, Boise Weekly sat down with Folwell and Reichert to talk about the project.

click to enlarge Byron Folwell, Studio Maelstrom principal (left) and Rachel Reichert, Cultural Sites Manager for Boise City Department of Arts and History. - GEORGE PRENTICE
  • George Prentice
  • Byron Folwell, Studio Maelstrom principal (left) and Rachel Reichert, Cultural Sites Manager for Boise City Department of Arts and History.

The James Castle House has been a puzzle for many of us. Is it fair to say it was a bit of a mess?

Reichert: When we purchased the property, the first six months of my job was to literally clean the house—with extreme care. For the next year and a half, Byron and I were a two-person team, researching the house and really trying to understand the bones about that space. Quite frankly, when the city purchased the property, the house didn't resemble anything the Castles would have known when James lived there.

So, is it your intention to turn back the clock or to create something new that preserves the memory of James Castle?

Reichert: It's so complex, because there's really no template to turn to for this type of preservation. Very soon, our thoughts turned to the view of the house. What was it like in the 1930s, '40s or '50s to stand on that corner of Eugene and Castle [streets, the latter named for the artist] and see this home with a lovely lawn?

Folwell: We've had this unique opportunity to be organic about the process and to identify what we had with some real investigative, historical work. We're not talking about Victorian architectural language here. This is the architectural language of the working class. This house started its life as a one-room gabled structure, only about 12 feet wide and 26 feet long. This little building was never intended to last so long, but in the intervening years, the home changed to meet the challenges of the family. All those changes become elements of storytelling.

Let's talk about the shed and trailer.

Folwell: The shed is still on the property. The trailer has been moved to a storage unit, waiting for treatment.

Reichert: The shed is a small wooden structure where we believe James Castle lived and worked from 1932 to about 1963. When the family bought a trailer, Castle worked and lived there until his passing in 1977.

I've heard the shed is in poor condition.

Folwell: Very poor. It currently has a dirt floor, and it has never been winterized. We have to view the shed as a piece of art rather than a piece of architecture.

Reichert: Byron and I have been grappling with what to do. Do we replace all of the shed's rotten boards? Do we put it on a new foundation? It's our goal to work with ARG Conservation Services from San Francisco. They have a lot of experience on projects with similar challenges. They'll be here in Boise in a couple of weeks to build an assessment and treatment plan.

Folwell: There are layers and layers and layers of wallpaper, cardboard, other papers and even some sheetrock stuffing the walls of the shed. Like I said, it's more art than architecture.

Paint me a word picture o how I might spend a couple of hours visiting the newly-renovated Castle House once it's open to the public.

Reichert: Right out of the gate, it will be an interactive experience. We'll have daily tours walking through the home, the grounds, even the shed, learning about James Castle and the history of the site. It's an amazing, deep dive into early architecture. For instance, we found up to 13 wallpaper patterns on the walls. Plus, we'll have some special artifacts on loan from the James Castle Collection and Archive.

Let's not forget someone will once again be living in the Castle House, at least temporarily.

Reichert: That's right. [With] our artist-in-residence program, an artist will be living there in May, June and July. We're looking at applications right now. I give a lot of credit to Mayor [Dave] Bieter, because as soon as we committed to saving the Castle House, he said we had to create an artist-in-residence program there.

Folwell: A pocket door, sliding into the wall, will separate the residence from the rest of the house. It's about 900 square feet: a studio bedroom, kitchenette, restroom and private artist's entrance.

The James Castle celebration really hits its stride on Wednesday, April 25.

Reichert: Our "A Place Called Home" symposium begins with a field trip to Garden Valley and the birthplace of James Castle. The next two days, we'll have a series of events at the Egyptian Theatre and the Linen Building. They'll feature preservationists, scholars and artists from across the nation. Members of the Castle family will also join us on stage to share their experiences. Then the public gets its first look on Saturday, April 28, when the Castle House is officially opened, and we'll have a neighborhood block party that same day on Eugene Street.

Folwell: When I moved away from the world of commercial architecture, I was really looking for projects that might elevate into something more meaningful or beautiful. I'm hesitant to try to pin down who James Castle was, because the sophistication of his work is seemingly endless. And after all of this intensity, I'm okay keeping him a bit of myth in my mind for now.

Are you ready to exhale now?

Reichert: Are you kidding? We're still inhaling. The construction is done. Now, it's all about the programming.

Folwell: We've checked a lot of boxes, but we have a few more still to check. We're very interested in the future of the shed and the trailer. We hope the public is, too.

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