No site in Idaho has been as lauded for architectural design and significance as the Intermountain Gas headquarters complex in Boise, completed in 1966 on what was then the western edge of the city.
The four-building complex, designed by architect Kenneth W. Brooks, is remarkable for its staying power as an elegant, comfortable and functional office complex that works well for the utility today. The care bestowed on the site by generations of leaders at the utility is remarkable as well. The buildings, landscaping, furnishings, and even small items like teak wastebaskets, wall hangings and vases, have been treated with such respect that in their 60th decade, they still look new.
“They have acted as stewards” of the site, says Dan Everhart, a historic preservation consultant who works with Preservation Idaho. “This wasn’t by accident; this was a conscious effort. It’s a multigenerational ethic on the part of the leadership of Intermountain Gas.”
Work began in 1964 on the 16-acre Intermountain Gas site off Cole Road. The president of the utility’s board at the time was Nat Campbell, who had moved to Boise from New York City and who was the driving force behind the company then, said Scott Madison, now the general manager. Part of the design was a conical brick powerhouse in the center of campus that was envisioned as the place where natural gas would be used to generate all of the electricity needed to power campus operations. The powerhouse was surrounded by a moat lit by gas flames; the moat was later filled in and is now lawn and flowers.
“Their concept was a ‘total energy concept,”’ said Madison. “They didn’t want any connection on this site to Idaho Power.” The complex managed to generate its own energy into the 1970s, when it finally did connect to the Idaho Power grid.
Offices on the main floor of the administration building are bathed with sunlight from floor-to-ceiling windows. Glazed blue, purple and green brick exteriors reflect the color of a gas flame when it is burning most efficiently. The comfort and elegance of the interior and exterior reflect the values that have recently come to the fore again for employers who can afford it: providing natural lighting and thoughtfully designed surroundings where workers will be comfortable.
“The campus presents a stunning corporate response to mid-century values calling for a progressive American workplace,” as the Society of Architectural Historians puts it in an essay on the complex.
Brooks, a Kansas native born in 1917, was an architect of some renown when he was hired to design the Intermountain Gas complex. Brooks had designed, or helped design, several notable buildings in Spokane, including the Washington Water Power Central Service Facility, a utility building that won Brooks a top award from the American Institute of Architects. He won a similar national AIA award for the Intermountain Gas company complex, where he collaborated with landscape architect Lawrence Halprin.
Madison doesn’t know the original cost of the Intermountain Gas complex, but he said it was expensive for the time, and the Public Utilities Commission raised some objections after work had started. But the buildings and grounds have shown that the care that went into the design has ultimately saved the utility both time and money, Madison said.
“They could have put up cheap buildings, but cheap buildings would have been torn down, and we would have to replace them,” Madison said.
Apart from the cost, the building also serves as a reminder to the rest of the community that good design does matter. As Boise grows rapidly in population and in commercial construction, City Hall, architects and developers are coming under increasingly loud criticism for allowing bland, derivative buildings to dominate the skyline and the entrances to downtown.
Recognizing Boise’s most notable mid-century office buildings – including the Boise Plaza, built by Boise Cascade in 1971 downtown – is a good way to remind design decision-makers that good design and proper maintenance pay off financially and culturally, said Everhart.
“It definitely speaks to a time and an era when civic investment, or private investment in the buildings that would shape the city, was taken seriously,” Everhart said. “It was seen not just as the quickest end to the lowest cost, but rather a lasting representation of their investment in Idaho’s future.”
The huge Morrison-Knudsen Corp. headquarters – now the property of St. Luke’s Health System – as another corporate investment that paid off, Everhart said.
“I think there’s something missing in that we don’t today see the same sort of forward-thinking, civic-minded corporate investment,” he said.