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Preservation activists, designer clash over partially demolished East End home

Tamarack Resort Q4 2020

Update: The Boise Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously to deny the demolition request on September 28.

Only the foundation and three walls remain from a 1912 home in Boise’s East End Historic District. 

At the end of May, the new Jefferson Street homeowner Utae Nakanishi and her residential designer Catherine Scott filed permits with the city to add an addition on the back and side of the home, demolish two outbuildings and add a new garage. But, between the city approving the permit and early August, a contractor removed the home’s roof and chimney, the interior was stripped down to the studs and the entire structure is awaiting approval for demolition from the City of Boise. 

Neighbors and historic preservation activists cried foul. They say Scott and her contractor Larry Christensen took down one of the contributing homes in the historic district without cause in violation of the building permit from the city. But, Scott and the contractor say all of the demolition was necessary to make the home a structurally sound place to live, according to an email to the East End Neighborhood Association obtained by BoiseDev. There are conflicting accounts of the condition of the home, and the necessity of gutting it, leaving the designer and East End residents butting heads. 

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The City of Boise stopped all work at the site. The matter of the home’s demolition awaits a hearing at the city’s Historic Preservation Commission slated for September 28. 

Neighbor strongly disapproves of home’s condition

There are few regulations in Idaho on what owners can do with their private property, unless a building is located in a historic district. 

Boise has ten historic districts, mostly located in and around the downtown core in the East End and North End. These historic districts limit what construction projects are allowed in the neighborhood on homes considered “contributing” to the historic nature of the district. Requested projects are reviewed by city staff and a volunteer commission appointed by the mayor.

Because the Jefferson Street home was in the 39-block East End historic district, Scott sought a certificate of appropriateness to add the additions to the home from the city. All went according to the regulations, until the first week of August when neighbors say the contractor took down the chimney and eventually the entire roof of the home in violation of the permit. 

Multiple neighbors began contacting the city about the project and it was stopped in early August. Truman Keith, who lives across the street from the home and contacted the city, called what Scott and Christensen did to the home “shameful.” He said the contractor should have researched ways to make the home livable without taking it down completely. 

“Until this city gets serious about having historic districts, or historic anything, we need to put more teeth on it to protect these things,” he said. “Every person in the East End who owns a historic home and likes to say they live in a historic home should be standing in front of this place demanding that something be done about it.”

A photo of the home in 2016 after Debbie Hansen purchased it. Courtesy of Hansen.

An ‘unfortunate mistake’

Scott and Christensen did not return calls for comment last week about the project. 

In an August 17 email to the East End Neighborhood Association about the project obtained by BoiseDev.com, Scott called the removal of the roof “an unfortunate mistake” by her contractor. She said she did not regret having the roof removed, but Scott wrote she “dropped the ball” by proceeding with the work without getting in touch with the city first. 

“Because of the extreme neighborhood reaction to our mistake of removing the roof the job has been stopped and the City has no choice, but to make us submit a new application to declassify the house as contributing and request permission to demolish it completely and construct a new house in its place,” Scott wrote in the email. “I can’t emphasize enough that this was never our intention.”

Boise’s Senior Historic Preservation Planner Ted Vanegas said the city has not declared the home demolished. He said they are not requiring it to be torn down and a new home to be built in its place. The possibility for demolition is up to the Historic Preservation Commission, and the decision can be appealed to the Boise City Council. 

“(The demolition) request is coming solely from (Scott) and the contractor,” Vanegas said in an email. “The city is only requiring review by the Commission because the scope of work has been exceeded to a point where commission review is required.  They could certainly request to replace the roof in-kind, which the commission would have to approve.”

Violating a permit from the city on historic preservation matters can result in a fine or a misdemeanor. However, Deputy Director of Current Planning Cody Riddle said the city does not have plans to pursue either of these options even though they have the authority to do so. 

“It’s the same process they would have went through if they would have asked up front (to demolish the home),” Riddle said. “It’s obviously unfortunate they would have gone about it this way. The hard part is nothing we do will bring the home back.”

Conflicting accounts of the home’s condition

There are multiple reasons Scott laid out in her email saying why the roof needed to be taken off, but neighbors, Preservation Idaho and the former homeowner expressed skepticism. 

Scott said in her email the floors were “comically, if not frighteningly out of level” and the construction of the roof prevented the builder from completing necessary reinforcements once they started building. She also said the home was actually not contributing to the historic district because the front gable had been remodeled and was not part of the original structure. 

The remodel of the front of the home was noted on the Idaho State Historic Preservation Office survey from 2011, and the city says it is still a contributing home. 

Debbie Hansen, the former owner of the home, is dismayed at its current condition. When she purchased the home in 2016 for an elderly relative to live in, Hansen completed all of the necessary repairs on it. The home inspection, which she provided to BoiseDev.com, shows no notes of deterioration to the roof, but found a need to reinforce the foundation to level the floors. Hansen spent $5,000 on making the necessary repairs to level the floors and reinforce the foundation, as well as other improvements, like a new sewer line, painting and fixing old windows. 

“We went and had everything done professionally so that the house would be a good place for (the relative) to live,” she said. 

There was no official inspection completed in 2020 when Nakanishi purchased the home, Hansen said, so there are no official records documenting its condition upon the sale. A city building inspector visited the site after the stop-work order was issued and the debris from the work had been cleared away. He concurred with the contractor about the poor structural shape of the house, but this was a request of the builder and there is no record of what he observed there, Vanegas said. 

The side of the home on Jefferson Street. Photo courtesy of Preservation Idaho.

Historic preservation experts frustrated

Kerry Davis, a resident of the neighborhood and an architectural historian with Preservation Solutions, acknowledged the home was aging and there are questions of integrity when remodeling over a century-old structures in Boise. But, she said if contractors used the logic employed by Scott and Christensen many old homes in Boise would be going to the landfill.

“The structural concerns described by the project team are valid; they are also common to the vast majority of houses built before WWII,” Davis wrote in an email. “If the misinformed approach employed by this project team were applied to most dwellings in the East End or North End, the vast majority would need to be demolished.”

Preservation Idaho Executive Director Paula Benson also disagrees with Scott’s assessment of the home. She said Scott’s contractor tried to use modern construction methods to reinforce the home, instead of studying methods used in Boise’s historic districts frequently. Benson questioned the need to reinforce the foundation of the home, and why Scott found the rafters needed to be removed if the plan was to reinforce the roof instead of taking it off. 

Benson said she thinks the city should level steeper penalties against Scott and Christensen so builders do not start demolishing historic buildings without a permit in the future. In the future, Benson said the city should consider a licensing process for contractors to work in the historic districts so work is only completed by experienced builders familiar with construction techniques for old buildings.

“Our overarching concern is how do we prevent these things from happening,” she said. “The destruction of a contributing resource that is projected is supposed to be against this law. We think this owner should have significant consequences so it doesn’t send the message to other homeowners that you should ask forgiveness rather than permission.”

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Margaret Carmel
Margaret is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at margaret@boisedev.com or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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