The Columbian Exposition, often referred to as the “White City” because of its prevalent use of white plaster, inspired by classical building designs, was a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World, albeit a year after the actual anniversary.
Idaho was a newly minted state eager to show off its resources. Neoclassical architecture would not do. The concept for the Idaho Building was envisioned by Spokane architect Kirtland Cutter, who was chosen by a committee that included famed author and Boise resident Mary Hallock Foote. Foote had attended the Women’s School of Design at the Cooper Union in New York. Best known for her illustrations in popular magazines and books, Foote was also trained to draft. Foote led a committee in the Columbian Club that directed the design of the building and its furnishings. Of special importance was the Women’s Reception Room in the Idaho Pavilion with its early arts and crafts furniture.
Befitting this frontier state, the Idaho Building was a rustic log chalet on a foundation of lava rock. The cedar logs and cedar shake roof were stained to give the impression that the three-story building was years older than it was. It was a showcase of Idaho resources. The four ground floor rooms were the Fir, Cedar, Tamarack and Pine rooms, each trimmed in the namesake wood. Gemstones from the Gem State encrusted the white Idaho marble fireplace, which featured andirons made from miner’s picks, shovels and hammers. The second floor, where the Women’s and Men’s reception rooms were located, was divided by a mica hall, featuring Idaho mica glazing. That floor extended into a balcony garden planted with Idaho wildflowers. A taxidermy and agricultural product display took up the third floor.
The state’s building was a popular attraction, with an estimated 18 million people taking it in. One postcard remarked, it was the “gem of the show.”
The furniture from the women’s reception room would come back to Boise after the conclusion of the exposition. The women of the Columbian Club, who gathered the first collection of books to benefit women traveling on the Oregon Trail, were working on Boise’s first public library. In 1895 they furnished that room in the basement of city hall with custom furniture from the Idaho Building. But that wasn’t the end of the club. They had a library to build, then ordinances to pass (no spitting on the sidewalks), the courthouse grounds to landscape, suffrage to right, a traveling library to establish, a curfew law to pass, money for a girls’ dormitory at the University of Idaho to raise, improvements to the Morris Hill Cemetery to make, more furniture for yet another Idaho Building for the Lewis and Clark Exposition to procure, a library bond election to pass, sewing classes to be introduced into public schools, and on, and on, into the next century, and then the next.
In recent years, the Columbian Club led the restoration effort for the O’Farrell Cabin, and funded 20 log benches along the Greenbelt. The club’s endowment provides annual scholarships to outstanding young students.
The club’s origin story is tied to that 1893 Chicago exposition, where the first moving sidewalk, first Ferris Wheel, first automatic dishwasher, first phosphorescent lights, first zipper, first spray painting, and first U.S. commemorative stamps and coins were featured. It was at the Columbian Exposition that products common today were first introduced, including Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Cracker Jack, Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Gum, Quaker Oats, Cream of Wheat, Shredded Wheat, Hershey’s Chocolate, Pabst Blue Ribbon (which didn’t actually win one at the fair but was chosen there as “America’s Best”).
All those firsts and one important last: The last, and ever vibrant, Columbian Club.