SANDPOINT — For the first time in its 38-year history, the group Preservation Idaho will hold its annual awards Orchids & Onions ceremony in North Idaho. In Sandpoint, to be exact, making this the only occasion to date when the event has traveled farther north than the Lewiston-Moscow region.
“This is a Galilean moment,” joked Sandpoint Mayor Carrie Logan. “They’ve discovered that that is another part of the state.”
The decision might have been one of simple convenience, since Sandpoint will receive no fewer than three of the 11 statewide preservation project awards when they are handed out at the Saturday, May 30, event.
The local recipients will be the Northern Pacific Railway Depot, the Nesbitt-Tanner House and the former St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, now known as the Heartwood Center. The structures — built in 1916, 1906 and 1907, respectively — speak to the city’s past, but also to its passion for preserving that history.
Though the youngest of the three Orchid recipients, the railroad depot has traveled the most circuitous route to restoration. According to Dann Hall, president of Sandpoint’s Historic Preservation Commission, the Gothic-style brick building could just as easily have been razed, except for an unexpected turn of events.
“Fifteen years ago, it was a fait accompli that it was going away,” he said.
Ironically, the Sand Creek Byway, which many thought would leave the depot orphaned between passing traffic and the railroad tracks, turned out to be the building’s salvation. As what became the largest highway project in the state’s history got under way, the Idaho Transportation Department negotiated to give $1 million to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad to build a new depot elsewhere or “restore established facilities.” The railroad favored relocation, while members of the Historic Preservation Commission and local residents who loved the depot pushed for restoration.
“Otherwise, we would not have had a depot in Sandpoint, which is the only Amtrak stop in Idaho,” said commission member Jacquie Albright.
While the city threw its shoulder to the wheel of saving the railroad depot, private parties were equally busy saving the other two Orchid Award winners. At the Heartwood Center, that investment was being made by Susie and Mark Kubiak, who purchased the empty church building in 2011. The historic home at 602 N. Fourth Ave., meanwhile, was purchased by James Harvey, who immediately set to work taking the ramshackle shell of a Queen Anne Victorian and bringing it back to its rightful splendor.
“People are buying into that whole idea of vibrancy, activity and a sense of place,” Logan said. “That’s what happened with the Nesbitt House. Instead of kicking that old beauty down the road, they made it contemporary.”
Historic Preservation Commission member Sue Graves had equally glowing words about the turnaround of the moribund church on the corner of Oak Street and Sixth Avenue.
“They’ve done such a beautiful job on the Heartwood Center,” she said. “They’ve really preserved the integrity and style of the original building to create a peaceful, welcoming gathering place for the community.”
Sandpoint’s guardianship of its history has never been as active as it is today. One reason might be the “woulda, shoulda, coulda” perspective that comes with looking back at past mistakes, as well as the near misses that would have erased or obfuscated the town’s historical relevance.
Hall points to the old Farmin School — a three-story, bell-towered landmark built in 1906 at the corner of Second & Main — as an example of big mistakes. Hell-bent on building a new bank and adjoining city parking lot on the site, those behind the development convinced the city in the late-1960s that the school had become unsafe to the point of being ready to tumble to the ground. As it turned out, the wrecking ball proved wholly ineffective in knocking down the sturdy, old structure, which ended up taking years to completely dismantle.
“Can you imagine what kind of community center that would be now if it was still there?” Hall queried.
In the near miss department, a mid-1970s movement to cover downtown buildings with Old West false storefronts was, thankfully, stymied when a savvy consultant helped Sandpoint see what already was under its very nose. According to Albright, he told the community, “You’re not Western — you’re brick.”
If the state has embraced its roots, Sandpoint has nurtured them, balancing progress with respect for the past. It’s a posture that is embedded in the city comprehensive plan and continues to gain traction as Sandpoint looks for additional ways to preserve its character.
“The Historic Preservation Commission is focused on the historical fabric of the community — not just the buildings, but the intent of the neighborhoods,” said the mayor, adding that the planning commission will have tools to preserve landmarks, historic neighborhoods and murals on the sides of buildings. “It’s not going to be ‘Thou shalt;’ it’s going to be encouraging.”
While the Orchids & Onions recognition (Onions, by the way, are given to those who have thoroughly botched or ruined historic places with bad ideas such as false Old West storefronts) could be seen as a capstone to the efforts of the city and private enterprise, Logan and the commission members say it is just the beginning.
“This is going to raise the awareness of people in Sandpoint that their history is important and that preserving their history is even more important,” said Albright.
Tickets for the May 30 Orchids & Onions Awards ceremony and luncheon at the Sandpoint Events Center are $25, available in downtown Sandpoint at the Pend Oreille Arts Council office next door to the Panida Theater, at the Hallan’s Gallery, 323 N. First Ave., or online at: www.eventbrite.com
The event begins at 11 a.m., when doors open at the events center, located at 102 S. Euclid St., with the awards luncheon following at noon. After the ceremony, the SPOT buses will provide transportation to the railroad depot, where a grand re-opening dedication is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. A self-guided walking tour of historic Sandpoint will leave the depot starting at 3:30 p.m.
The day before to the awards-related events, a special opening reception of “Depot Art” will take place on Friday, May 29, from 5:30-7 p.m. at Pend Oreille Arts Council, 302 N. First Ave.
Information: Melissa Bethel with the city of Sandpoint at 208-263-3370.