Boise Places Worth Seeing

Idaho State Capitol Building - The Government's Own Pleasure Dome

Take a second and think about which building is the signature feature of the Boise skyline. The US Bank Building might be the tallest, but it lacks any distinguishing features and its ugly brown color neither blends in or stands out from the foothills behind it. The Wells Fargo Building or the Grove Hotel might have some interesting angles, but both lack the gravitas to be considered a featured landmark. Eventually you'll realize that the most logical answer to the question is the Idaho State Capitol building, and it's our opinion that you're absolutely correct.

The capitol's central location, stone construction, and classical dome, plus the fact that it is so unlike any other Downtown building, demand attention. It seems that no matter how many times you view the skyline, whether driving in on the Connector or admiring the view from the Boise Depot, it's the capitol building that draws the eye first. As the symbol of statehood and the collective wealth and values of its people, it's altogether fitting that it should be this way, at least until they slap ads on it for Geico or Chico's Bail Bonds. (Given the status of the state's economy these days, don't think it won't happen.)

The capitol building you see today was not Idaho's first statehouse. When Idaho became a territory in 1863 by order of Abraham Lincoln, they obviously needed a place for the territory's appointed officials to get together, make backroom deals, pat each other on the back, and smoke Carolina cigars. Thus, in 1885-86 the government erected what has been described as an "impressive red brick structure" on the eastern half of the current capitol lot, and this edifice served as the seat of Idaho government. At the time, 7th street (which is now Capitol Boulevard) still ran all the way through, meaning the capitol lot was half as large as it is today. The state government continued to use this building for fifteen years after Idaho became a state in 1890, despite the fact that it had an outhouse and no plumbing. In time, the powers in government decided it was a bit undignified for the governor to have to traipse out to a glorified pit toilet in between vetoing bills, so they started getting serious about constructing a proper capitol, complete with marble, chandeliers, and indoor flush toilets.

A painting of the old territorial Capitol

This dream was realized in 1905 when the powers that be voted to purchase the lot immediately to its west that contained the Central School and close 7th Street between the two lots, creating a site large enough for the collective ego of state government. The central part of the new capitol, including the dome, would be built first. When the time came for the wings to be built, the original brick statehouse would be torn down along with the old Central School. The design for the capitol was based, strangely enough, on the Mississippi State Capitol building, which is probably the only time anyone has ever used that state as a model for anything except abject poverty and expert race relations.

New Capitol under construction; notice old Capitol to the right and old Central School to the left

Construction of the new capitol started in the summer of 1905, using a goodly amount of convict labor from the fledgling Idaho State Penitentiary. To furnish the stone for the building, the State actually bought Table Rock Quarry for $20,000, after which our beloved convicts from the pen started building a road to it and quarrying 10-ton blocks of Boise sandstone so they could be hauled to the capitol site.

The central part of the capitol building, including the 208-foot dome, was completed in 1912. Atop the dome they put a 5'7" eagle made of copper that was originally gilded in bronze but was recently re-gilded in gold leaf during the exterior renovation of 2001-2006. During construction they also tapped into the area's geothermal potential when setting up the heating for the building. To this day, the Idaho State Capitol is still the only capitol in the country heated by geothermal sources. Construction of the east and west wings did not commence until 1919 and was finished in 1921, meaning that for a good seven years the capitol resembled an aroused eunuch. In the last decade, additional underground wings were added to the capitol, thus making the building's footprint now stretch nearly all the way from 6th Street to 8th Street.

Visitors admiring the rotunda during the Grand Rededication in January, 2010

As impressive as the exterior of the building is, with its sandstone sheathing, grand south entrance, and imposing classical dome, the interior is perhaps more so. For starters, it contains four different types of marble: red from Georgia, gray from Alaska, green from Vermont, and black from Italy. For all those men out there thinking about taking a capitol tour with their wives, be advised that nothing gets a woman thinking about home improvements more than the sight of marble. I'd advise giving your wife $200 and telling her to go shopping at some of the nearby Downtown clothing stores, because that will end up being a whole lot cheaper in the end.

A sampling of the different marbles

All the marble plus the fancy columns and the scagiola, which is plaster formed and painted to look like marble, give the central interior of the capitol a very stately and ornate appearance unrivalled in the state, except for maybe J.R. Simplot's gilded root cellar. For an added touch, the very top of the inside of the rotunda was painted with forty-three stars, symbolizing Idaho's place as the 43rd state in the Union. All this opulence and permanence is amazing considering that the first cabins in Boise, such as the O'Farrell cabin, were built a mere 42 years before they started constructing the central part of the capitol.

Stars at the top of the rotunda

Although the capitol originally housed the entire state government, supreme court, and everything else in the typical beaurocratic machine, a lot of the offices and state agencies have long since moved to other locations around town. The Idaho Supreme Court, for example, now has its own building a block to the east, and the secretary of state is a block east of that. However, the capitol still has the governor's office, the attorney general's office, and the chambers for the senate and house of representatives. Some people also claim that the capitol has an underground stable where Governor Butch keeps his horse, but we've been unable to confirm that.

Chamber for the Idaho House of Representatives

The capitol also house some of the state's finest pieces of art. Among them are a replica of Winged Victory of Simothrace, which was a gift from France that came over on the Merci Train. Another notable piece is a very old wooden statue of George Washington on his horse, which is painted a shiny gold color that makes him look vaguely like Goldmember from the third Austin Powers movie.

Modern works of art on display are almost as impressive, and the fact that they exist at all is a tribute to one thoughtful member of the Idaho House of Representatives. Before the two new underground wings could be built recently, numerous old historical trees, some of which were planted by Presidents Benjamin Harrison, William Howard Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt, had to be removed from the capitol lot. Instead of carting the resulting lumber off to Aunt Nelly's house to be used as firewood, Representative Max Black put together a plan for the wood to be given to local artists, who would then create objects from the wood. Items they created include bowls, urns, benches, a violin, a putter head, and a lectern. Representative Black, being a woodworker himself, also contributed a scale model of the Oregon Short Line Railroad train that used to run through Boise.

Model train made from the historical trees cut down to add the underground wings

At the same time these works of art were being created, the underground wings were being constructed. The result, which can be seen today by descending to the Garden Level of the capitol, is a bright, expansive set of offices and meeting rooms that relieved the crowding that had been a major problem during the yearly legislative sessions. Plus, the exits at the ends of the hallways provide legislators a quick and somewhat secretive escape when mobs comes to tar and feather them.

One of the new "Garden Level" underground wings

Another addition to the Garden Level is an education center, which features numerous interactive panels that explain all the government stuff you ignored in your high school civics classes. Nearby is a video room for watching a variety of informative videos about the capitol and the State of Idaho. You can also visit the gift shop and buy your kids a giant stuffed Spuddy Buddy doll, because every child needs an anthropomorphic potato to haunt his or her dreams at night.

Learn about kickbacks, slush funds, and other government activities here

If all that isn't enough to encourage you to visit the capitol, consider these indisputable facts. If you peruse all the old legislative photo collages throughout the building, you'll get to see the greatest collection of historical mustache photos in the country (Figure 1, below). The same goes for cowboy hats. No other state can boast as many cowboy-hat-wearin' legislators as Idaho (Figure 2, below). The state legislature photos also allow you to see some of the greatest fashion faux pas in history, such as the the bright idea to wear ribbon ties during the centennial legislative session in 1963 (Figure 3, below).

Figure 1: Idaho has always rocked the mustache

Figure 2: No, that's not Merle Haggard; he's your state senator

Figure 3: Awesome ribbon tie with even awesomer pencil-thin mustache

All this and more is waiting for you to discover at the Idaho State Capitol. It's open to the public every day of the week, so the next time you're wandering around Downtown Boise without a purpose, stop in and browse around for awhile. You'll learn plenty of stuff about the building and about the Idaho, and that's better than sitting on a bench playing with your mobile device and ignoring your kids.

Place worth seeing: Idaho State Capitol Building
Where: 700 W. Jefferson St.

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Hours: During Legislative Sessions:
Monday-Friday, 6:00 a.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Saturday-Sunday, 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Between Legislative Sessions:
Monday-Friday, 6:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Saturday-Sunday, 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Cost: Free
Website: Capitol Commission
Fun fact: It was built by prisoners for a lot of folks who should be in prison.