Written by members of the BAP Student Advisory Board
For several years, the Boise Architecture Project (BAP) has followed the National Trust for Historic Preservation's annual listing of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places with interest. As young historians, it is much more interesting and engaging to learn about history from the source – including visiting historic places – rather than simply reading a textbook. In fact, getting out into town and appreciating the historic resources we have is the basis of our spring buildings project, which is featured at boisearchitecture.org.
But what does one do when history is threatened? What can high school students do in the face of the wrecking ball?
Earlier this semester, BAP students took to the streets to demonstrate in support of saving Cole and Franklin Elementary Schools, though the two historic buildings were ultimately brought down. In these two cases, economics and rising property values trumped preservation. However, several students grew from this experience and went on to attend community preservation meetings. One student even joined Preservation Idaho as a student board member working on state-wide issues. This drive for preservation is one of our project’s goals and is accomplished by documenting local history and buildings through our website. Sometimes preservation happens, and sometimes it doesn’t, which is why our website contains a number of profiles devoted to buildings and places that no longer exist.
So, to answer the wrecking ball question – perhaps research is our best tool for fighting the wrecking ball as a concerned classroom.
Then the idea was pitched to us – what if we followed the National Trust's model and formed our own list of some of Boise's endangered places? We set out by first surveying the preservation and architectural communities. We received a great response with over twenty suggestions for sites that folks considered “endangered.” We thought about putting those to a vote, but first checked the National Trust's criteria for making their annual list. In a nutshell, a site has to have historic significance and be directly threatened.
So what about our list of sites in Boise? Did they meet the criteria? Without a doubt, all of the sites on our draft list have some importance to our town, but are they all historically significant? We discovered that Boise actually has done a good job of preserving some of its most significant pieces of history. From Julia Davis Park to the Old Penitentiary, Assay Office to the O’Farrell Cabin, important parts of our past are preserved and still used today. However, there are sites on our list that have a strong historical place in Boise’s past, such as early houses, New Deal structures, and various downtown commercial buildings.
But are these sites also “endangered?” Through this process, we discovered that it is not always easy to identify a direct threat to a site. It turns out that most of the sites on our list are either slowly slipping away (as in historic neighborhoods) or have nebulous threats to them that are more potentially endangering than immediate. Is a downtown Boise block threatened by the economic downturn? What about a rumored buyout from an out-of-town real estate developer? What will happen to the other historic schools in town? What about historic, government-owned buildings that are currently vacant? These questions grew very large, very quickly, and we found ourselves – as a student group – wading into some complicated waters.
In the end, the process of making a list – something that many in the Boise community have been hoping for and support – has been incredibly educational. Preservation, politics, real estate, city planning, economics – all of it plays a role in something so seemingly simple as a list with eleven sites on it.
So which Boise sites made the final cut? You’ll have to wait for our next post, which we hope will inspire similar activities in communities – and maybe even classrooms – around the country.
The BAP Student Advisory Board consists of students at Boise’s Timberline High School who serve as leaders of the Boise Architecture Project. You can follow the students here on the PreservationNation blog and on their Flickr photostream. Also, get daily updates from their teacher, Doug StanWiens, on Twitter.
Are you an educator interested in teaching preservation in your classroom? Visit PreservationNation.org for resources, tips, and ideas to enhance your curriculum with lessons that will teach your students to recognize and appreciate the rich history that surrounds them.