This isn't the first history of the northwest corner of Eighth and Main streets to appear in BW. And believe us when we say we're as tired of writing this article as most of you are of reading it. So why another one? Simply put, it must be written because the hole's still there--and not only is it still there, but its most significant development in the last year is a cheap, nondescript and quite tall fence meant to help us forget it's there. This property, a center of culture and commerce for our town's first century, has for over 30 years been downtown Boise's premier blindspot. That's right, 30 years. If you didn't know that, maybe the fence and its previous incarnations have been doing their job.
The property at Eighth and Main was occupied within weeks of the day when a small group of gold prospectors surveyed the 12 sagebrush-covered lots constituting the Boise City townsite on July 7, 1863. Originally, the lot contained the offices of the settlement's first doctor and justice of the peace, both embodied in D.S. Holton. Holton soon sold half of his lot to blacksmith H.A. Adams, and the pair worked side-by-side until George A. Young bought both halves in 1864 in order to build Boise City's first high-end hotel. Initially, the transfer from cabin to hotel amounted to nothing more than tacking on two canvas bedrooms--one for ladies, one for gents. (Before you laugh at this prehistoric notion of development, think of what's there now.)
On September 30, 1864, an extravagant, two-story version of the Overland Hotel was completed--an event marked by a formal ball, the first to take place in the young territory. The hotel quickly became renowned as one of, if not the, finest lodgings between Missouri and the end-destinations of Oregon and California. For decades afterward, it was the chosen haunt of visiting big shots and statesmen--including Civil War General William T. Sherman in 1870, whose stop caused quite a row between local Union-sympathizing Republicans (no relation to today's GOP of the same name) and the substantial number of Confederate refugees residing in the Treasure Valley.
The Overland changed hands several times before finally being purchased in 1877 by Hosea B. Eastman, a miner and renowned Indian-fighter who had also run the Idaho Hotel in Silver City. Under the administration of Eastman and his brother Manse, the hotel was the setting for a significant amount of local history, including Boise's first telephone exchange in 1883. The Overland thrived until the turn of the century, when the more modern facilities at the Idanha Hotel began drawing away its customer base. The hotel's last hurrah came in 1904, when Eastman invited all 264 of Idaho's surviving original settlers to a gala Pioneer Ball. The building was torn down just days later.
After demolishing the Overland Hotel, Hosea Eastman and his associates originally intended to build a new six-story hotel that would surpass the upstart Idanha. They abandoned the vision when the construction bids came in higher than expected. Instead, they contracted Boise architects Tourtellotte and Company--who also designed the State Capitol--to devise a four-story office and retail space in the prevailing Renaissance Revival style. Crews finished construction on the ensuing Overland Building in late 1905, and tenants rushed in to fill the building's elaborate arch-topped windows. Demand was so high, two additional stories were added in 1910--at which point the original cornice of the building, complete with over 100 distinctive terra cotta lion heads, was raised and transplanted to the sixth floor. After Eastman died in 1926, his son Ben renamed the building in honor of his father and uncle.
Throughout the middle of the 20th century, the Eastman Building operated at near capacity, its upper floors filled mostly with legal, medical and dental professionals. In 1927 alone, articles from the period reported that 25 doctors and 11 dentists maintained their offices there. The ground floor, on the other hand, was dedicated to retail, with the original Mode Department store, Whitehead Drug Company and Chase's Health Food Store counting among the longtime occupants.
In 1972, the Boise Redevelopment Agency (BRA), the predecessor to the Capitol City Development Corporation, bought the Eastman Building for $528,000. The purchase was part of a program to gather nearly eight blocks of downtown real estate for a proposed shopping center. While the plan called for some historic downtown buildings to be partially saved and incorporated into the development, the Eastman was pegged to be razed and replaced with an underground parking lot topped with an enclosed passageway between department stores. Under the BRA's ownership, the building quickly fell into disrepair, and by 1975, the upper floors were vacant. The retail floor was empty two years later, and BRA finally ordered the building to be demolished in 1978.
What followed was a battle replayed countless times, both in Boise and in other economically depressed towns: "the past" vs. "the mall." At the behest of a group calling themselves the Preservation Coalition, who opposed both the shopping center and the destruction of the Eastman, the Idaho State Historical Society applied to have the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places and thus protected from demolition. The application was accepted, but the BRA filed suit to have the building removed from the list.
Proponents of redevelopment called the Coalition anti-progress elitists. Polls showed a majority of Boiseans agreed, preferring the mall to the building. The Coalition countered with threats of an injunction if the BRA made any attempt at demolition. Eighth Street Marketplace developer Winston Moore, a supporter of the development, even proposed in 1981 the idea of cutting the six-story building in half, putting it on wheels and moving it to the corner of Capitol Boulevard and Broad Street. When this lofty plan didn't materialize, and with both sides unwilling to relent, the Eastman suffered a fate arguably more humiliating than demolition. It was boarded up and left vacant.
By 1987, the downtown mall dream had been replaced by Boise Towne Square fever, and talks finally resumed of renovating the Eastman, which was by then a frequent haunt of squatters and vandals. On January 22 of that year, local developer Larry Leasure announced plans to incorporate the building, as well as the neighboring Simplot Building, into a pedestrian-oriented retail and arts complex. Two days later, those plans became moot when the Eastman caught fire and was completely destroyed within a matter of hours. Police cited arson as the cause of the blaze, and a pair of 19-year-olds who were seen at the scene were questioned and later released.
Within three weeks of the fire, the BRA announced that with their on-high gift of a prime chunk of downtown real estate, the agency was eventually going to construct another building and not a mere parking lot. Rumors ranged from offices, to a convention center (You Boiseans, always with the convention centers!), to a 30-story twin-tower mixed-use complex--the progenitor of the Boise Tower. Meanwhile, the Eastman property, now packed with dirt, filled a variety of harmless, if not particularly productive, functions including (briefly) an open-air market, a volleyball court and the creepy derelict remains of a volleyball court.
In 1994, developer Rick Peterson, who had already successfully renovated the Boise City National Bank Building (formerly the Simplot Building) a year earlier, first floated the Boise Tower idea to the BRA--by then renamed Capitol City Development Corp. As per our city's unspoken code of only pursuing developments devoid of architectural style and personality, this 20-something-floor box was planned to be placed alongside the equally unimaginative U.S. Bank Tower and the Bank of America Centre, finally completing the Boise skyline's stepladder to banality. In 1997, a decade and three months after the fire, CCDC gave Peterson's company, Boise Tower Associates, the exclusive right to build on the Eastman property, and the seeds of Boise's hole were planted.