Idaho Arts Quarterly » North Idaho

Windows to the Past

Exhibit peers into the city's history

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Old wood-framed windows, when they have reached the end of their useful life, often end up gathering dust. But Kathleen Burns, the City of Moscow's new arts director, saw an opportunity for art when the original 50 windows from the third floor of Moscow's City Hall were replaced earlier this year.

The windows were sold for $30 each with the hope that creative and artistic buyers would create works of art with them. An exhibit of the transformed windows, entitled "Windows Into Moscow," is scheduled for October and November 2007, at the City Hall's Third Street Gallery, located at 206 E. Third St.

Proceeds from the sale of the windows will be used by the Moscow Historic Preservation Commission to purchase banners for the newly designated downtown historic district.

"The inspiration came from knowing that this building is very historic," Burns says. "It is an opportunity for residents to share some of their memories about Moscow, whether it be something they see from their kitchen windows, something they experienced in college, or whatever."

The connection between art and history might not be immediately obvious, aside from being grouped together as part of the larger "humanities" field. But start thinking in terms of stories, and it makes sense. History is a collection of stories, and a work of art can tell a story.

"Hopefully, we will get a variety of mediums and that 'Windows Into Moscow' will be a good opportunity for folks to share their stories," Burns says.

Built in 1911, Moscow's current city hall was originally the town's post office and federal building. The first decade of the 20th century was one of great growth and progress in Moscow (and other communities in Idaho and the West as well), with many of the town's most enduring structures, such as the public library, completed during that time. Booster literature created to attract newcomers from the East boasted shamelessly of the area's rich agricultural land, healthy business climate, engaged citizenry, high-quality public schools and variety of churches. The University of Idaho was growing, and the population of Moscow had expanded to 3,670 in 1911. The completion of the federal building, after more than three years of planning and construction, crowned this time of prosperity and great expectations.

The Moscow post office's "first permanent home" was a "fine example of Federalist architecture," writes Lillian W. Otness, one of Moscow's eminent historians, in her book A Great Good Country. "Worthy of note are the multi-paned windows of the first story topped with round-arched windows, as are the south and west doorways. The small third-story windows set in pairs are part of a decorative frieze made up of a terra cotta band below the windows and light brick decorations of circles or diamonds in rectangles ... The building is on the National Register of Historic Places ... observe in the lobby the oak woodwork, the classic decorative treatment of the walls, the terrazzo floor, and the marble baseboards, as well as the graceful stairway with its twin brass rails."

The high-class surroundings didn't discourage the town's men, who liked to "chew both the fat and tobacco" from gathering in the post office according to information about the building in the archives of the Latah County Historical Society.

The third-story windows almost lasted a full century, providing a bird's-eye view of Moscow's downtown for the federal employees who worked on the upper floors of the building until federal offices and the court were moved to a newer, but less-distinguished federal building in 1974. The old federal building was purchased by the city of Moscow and became a community center in the 1980s; then the city renovated the building in the 1990s and moved most of its city offices there.

But for most of the century, Federal District Court was held in the oak paneled rooms of the second floor. Attorneys' offices, jury rooms, the U.S. Marshall's office, FBI offices and others took up the rest of the space.

Now, nightclubs catering to Moscow's college crowd occupy several of Moscow's most venerable historical buildings in the downtown. In Moscow's early days, the area of town in which many saloons were located was off-limits to women who valued their good reputations, and during the 1920s and 1930s, most of the activity in the federal building involved prosecuting those who broke Prohibition laws. People who were caught drinking were usually only fined, but those engaged in the commercial sale or manufacture of liquor were usually sentenced to jail by Judge Deatrich, who gave the District Court in Latah County the reputation for having the best enforcement of Prohibition laws in the state.

The original 50 windows from the third floor of Moscow's City Hall - LATAH COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY

"I guess this town was pretty hopping during Prohibition, when all the moonshiners had to come to court," says Moscow watercolorist Nick Bode, who has lived in Moscow for over 45 years and remembers when the post office was still on the building's first floor.

Bode and his brothers own the Moscow Hotel, a contributing structure to Moscow's downtown historic district. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Moscow Hotel is itself the home of a drinking establishment.

Bode, along with Moscow artist Anne Pekie, painted a demonstration window for the "Windows Into Moscow" project featured at the farmers' market this summer.

Pekie designed the two panes, one featuring the rolling Palouse landscape, the other, a set of Moscow's historic grain elevators located at the edge of downtown. Like the windows, these grain elevators were recently given a second chance at life, when they were saved from imminent destruction this spring by a conservation-minded group of people who hope to adapt them for a new use.

"I painted the landscape, and Anne painted the grain elevators," Bode says. "But it was all Anne's idea."

Bode's house in Moscow is difficult to find at the end of an unusually hidden street. His painting studio, which is part of his very large wood shop, is tucked away in the back yard, in an absolutely private oasis where one suspects that the recently retired Bode spends much of his time. He claims not to have much to say about himself, but the demonstration window revealed not only a technical challenge, but a glimpse of Bode's down-to-earth, no-nonsense manner that has served him and generations of fellow Idahoans well.

Bode approached the difficulty of painting on glass with frontier practicality: forget buying fancy-pants specialized supplies or spending a minute more than absolutely necessary.

"Anne had all these theories she wanted to research, and I just said, look, I've got a whole bunch of old spray paint, let's just make some templates to layer the different colors. It was almost a silk screen process."

Bode admits he was looking for an easy way out, although cutting the templates for the images—one template for each color—ended up taking quite a bit of time. Still, he knew that if he made a mistake, he could just scrape the paint off and start over.

"But it came out better than I expected," Bode says, perhaps the highest praise he'll allow himself.

If Bode had lived in Moscow in the early 1900s, he probably would not have written any of the town's "booster" literature himself, being modest by nature, with little tolerance for highbrow aspirations. He majored in art in college but supported his family by working as a farmhand and carpenter and various other occupations.

"I ended up working a lot and didn't paint for over 30 years. Now I paint a lot, mostly landscapes and some portraits, but very little of it is any good," he says. "I have a short attention span, so I paint for a little while and then go work in the yard, then come back and paint awhile." Still, he has paintings in Moscow's ArtWalk 2007 and has 20 pieces on display at Gritman Hospital. He is a member of the Idaho Watercolor Society and also of the Palouse Watercolor Socius.

"Doesn't that have a pretentious ring to it?" he asks.

Although he isn't himself painting another window for the project, Bode is pushing his own artistic boundaries by learning to paint plein air.

"It's really hard; you have to develop a whole different approach," he says.

And Bode is contributing to Moscow's artistic reputation by helping organize the art competition for the Latah County Fair in September, encouraging artists to enter the competition, and putting on a beginners' painting workshop on occasion.

This window was painted as a "demo" by Moscow artists Nick Bode and Anne Pekie using spray paint and templates. - CAROL PRICE-SPURLING
  • Carol Price-Spurling
  • This window was painted as a "demo" by Moscow artists Nick Bode and Anne Pekie using spray paint and templates.

Bode did not speculate on the historic or architectural significance of Moscow's City Hall or on his own Moscow Hotel building, but as a practical man and a gardener, Bode was glad the City Hall windows didn't end up in the landfill.

"I've always been into recycling. You could use those windows to make cold frames, but this is a good project for a town that bills itself as the Heart of the Arts," Bode says.

Windows from Moscow's City Hall may still be available for sale. Contact City of Moscow arts director Kathleen Burns at 208-883-7036, or e-mail kburns@ci.moscow.id.us.