Arts & Culture » Culture

Big Building, Big Dream

Jon Swarthout finds a home for TrICA

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Stepping inside of the stone edifice that has stood in a residential neighborhood at the corner of 14th and Eastman since 1907 is a little like stepping into a broken time machine. Stained glass windows, exposed wooden timbers and a sky-high ceiling immediately engender a sense of the building's original purpose as a Methodist church. It's easy to imagine parishioners finding solace and community within those walls a century ago. Now, many of those same windows are covered on the outside with corrugated plastic, allowing only dim, filtered light through; some of the timbers are so rotted, one slight shove and they disintegrate into a musty brown dust; and signatures scrawled in Sharpie run up and down the support beams. In the basement, a mural of brightly painted stars and planets is a reminder that the old church once housed a child-care facility, and, on the main floor, remnants of the building's one-time use as an apartment building sit, waiting to be removed, including a six-person bathtub with mirrors on the ceiling above it.

What happens to the giant space, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is not only in the hands of its owner, Jon Swarthout, a tall, gentle man with gray at the temples and ice-blue eyes. The fate of his building and Swarthout's dream for the Treasure Valley Institute of Children's Art are also at the mercy of the people and organizations from whom he hopes to raise the $4 million necessary to open TrICA by the summer of 2010.

A fourth-generation Idahoan, Swarthout has been soliciting—and receiving—help since the age of 13. With a budget of $80, he directed and produced a stage version of the 1974 television special Free To Be You and Me, going so far as to get the superintendent of schools to donate theater space.

At 16, he left Idaho to attend the North Carolina School of the Arts (where he met fellow dancer/choreographer Trey McIntyre). During his senior year, he attended the Houston Ballet Academy and stayed on for two years after graduation. Swarthout then left for the Joffrey Ballet in New York City, but an injury put an end to his tenure there. Healed, Swarthout signed on with the Oregon Ballet Theater for three years. While there, he read an article about the Feld Ballet (now the Ballet Tech School; it offers tuition-free ballet for New York City public school kids) in New York.

"When I read it, I thought, 'That's what I want to be a part of,'" he said.

"We were on tour, I remember, and I called Feld Ballet. Eliot Feld played Baby John in the 1961 film version of West Side Story. This guy answered and we started talking and joking about the article. I eventually asked him how I could set up an appointment with Eliot Feld. He said, 'I am Eliot Feld.' I'd been talking to him the whole time," Swarthout said, laughing.

Swarthout was invited to join the Feld Ballet and did, but the tough quality of life in New York was hard for a boy who had spent much of his youth on his grandparents' farm in Melba. He returned to Boise and began studying technical theater at Boise State. While there, he danced with Idaho Dance Theatre and helped found that company's outreach program. At the same time, Swarthout had started dancing with Ballet Idaho and, looking for a steadier paycheck, left school to dance full-time with the ballet. He then left Ballet Idaho to become a minister at the Boise Christian Church, a job he describes as a "cross between being a cop and a psychologist, two jobs I never wanted." Less than two years later, he was ready to move on yet again. It was 1998 and it proved to be the year that Swarthout discovered his calling.

At the time, Swarthout was teaching adult and advanced classes at the school at Ballet Idaho when the children's teacher asked him to substitute for her. "I told her I'd never taught kids before but I'd try it," he said.

"I went in trying to teach the way I'd always taught and it was a disaster. It was a total flop," Swarthout said. "The kids didn't get it and they didn't connect to it. I went away thinking, 'What can I do to make sure the next class is better?'"

Swarthout decided it was simply finding out what kids want.

"They want visuals, they want costumes, they want fun, they want humor, they want games. I gathered a bunch of stuff up and went back in. It was a magical combination of dance and imagination. That was the start of what it's grown into," Swarthout said. "I've identified what I do as an experience-based approach. It's more about providing an experience for children rather than insisting they learn some technical thing. We don't throw technique out the window, we just take a different approach."

Swarthout decided to take his cues from Janie Parker a dancer in Houston. Swarthout said that, with each move she made, he could see her love and appreciation of dance. She had great technique as well, but exuded joy in what she did.

"I wanted to start a school that teaches that," he said. "Not just dance techniques, but a real love for the art of dance."

Once completed, the institute will, of course, offer dance classes but also acting, music, technical theater, visual arts, writing and even culinary classes. The building will house TrICA employee offices, a two-story library, a museum, class space for private lessons, a green room and a huge performance space. Swarthout still has a few hurdles to clear before any of that becomes a reality, though.

He has done exhaustive research on the building, digging up old photos and even a copy of the original blueprints. Swarthout wants to restore some of the building's original aesthetic, including removing a non-load bearing wall that bisects not only a huge first-floor area but also a tall, west-facing stained-glass window. Plans include removing the second floor, but Swarthout wants to retain a beautiful hung ceiling that fills a large area of the west side of the building.

Dealing with weathered wood and broken windows are only part of the complete overhaul. The building has served as a meth den, and traces of lead-based paint remain, both of which require an all-clear from the Department of Environmental Quality. Hundreds of people coming in and out of TrICA may also raise concerns. Swarthout has an option to buy adjoining property to the north to possibly serve as parking, but that may not satisfy one neighbor who complained to the North End Neighborhood Association that the neighborhood would no longer be very peaceful with the behemoth building occupied. And all of this pales in comparison to the herculean task of raising $4 million dollars to get the institute up and running. As of July 13, Swarthout has raised $192,000-plus in supplies and services and almost $693,000 in cold hard donations. With only a year and a half to go before TrICA is supposed to open its doors, Swarthout will no doubt double his fund-raising efforts. He does seem a bit weary, but not the slightest bit worried.

"I've never had any doubt we'll get this done," he said. "I'm the sort of guy who acts on dreams."

TrICA, 1406 Eastman St. For more information, visit tricarts.org.