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Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga House
The Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga Boarding House is one of few remaining examples of Basque boardinghouses in the West and it is a part of the Basque Museum & Cultural Center’s complex, the only such museum in the United States that is open to the public. The house remains as the oldest surviving brick structure in the city of Boise.
Gold was discovered during 1862 in the Idaho City basin area, approximately forty miles from Boise. Boise City was established in 1863 and a year later, Cyrus and Mary Jacobs built their family home at what is now 607 Grove Street (it was called Market Street then). Grove Street became one of the most opulent areas of town with large mansions surrounded by gardens and orchards. The Jacobses had five children who survived to adulthood: Mary (Mamie), Alexander Palmer (Palmer), Carrie, Edith, and Fannie. One child, Richard, died in infancy. They also adopted a Native American girl and named her Minnie. Minnie’s parents were killed somewhere in this region, a result of a skirmish with the U.S. Army stationed at Fort Boise. Minnie died of a disease as a teenager while living with the Jacobs family and was buried in a “pleasant place,” which is all that is known about her grave and its whereabouts.
Cyrus Jacobs was an energetic entrepreneur operating a mercantile, flourmill, meatpacking house, distillery (produced Jacobs’s Best Rye Whiskey and vinegar), soap factory, and cooperage in Boise. He was also in a partnership with family members and co-owned another mercantile in Walla Walla, Washington Territory. He owned mines and invested heavily in mining in Idaho Territory during the boom years. Later, the demise of silver prices and the subsequent depression hurt Jacobs financially. Always the opportunist, he figured out how to use his flourmill as the powerhouse for the electric streetcar company, of which Jacobs was an officer. Politically, he served a term on the city council, then a term as Ada County treasurer, and lastly a term as mayor of Boise in 1880. Cyrus died in 1900 and Mary Ellen in 1907. By 1900, the wealthy families living on Grove Street started moving to other areas of the city such as Warm Springs Avenue and immigrant families began moving into the large, empty buildings as renters. The Basques, Chinese, Greeks, and Bohemians created an ethnic neighborhood in the center of town.
The Jacobs family home began being used as a Basque boardinghouse in 1910 and functioned in that capacity until 1969. First rented by the Galdos, Bicandi, and Uberuaga families, it was finally purchased by the Uberuagas in 1928 for the sum of $2,000. Jose and Hermenegilda Uberuaga had three children: Joe P., Serafina, and Julia. As a boardinghouse, it was a home away from home for people emigrating from the Basque Country to job opportunities in Idaho and served as a social center that preserved many elements of Basque culture including food, music, dance, games, and most importantly, their language, Euskera. Dr. Jeronima Echeverria stated in her book entitled, Home Away From Home: A History of Basque Boarding Houses, that “they hosted a complex set of social functions that provided Basques with an environment to maintain their ethnicity, and they made Basque transition to and adaptation in the New World possible.” “For young Basque immigrants a long way from home, the boardinghouses became the village church, the town tavern, the bank and health dispensary,” noted John & Mark Bieter in An Enduring Legacy: the Story of Basques in Idaho.
The Restoration Project:
The Basque Museum and Cultural Center’s project to restore and preserve the Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga House was quite similar to many classic This Old House scenarios where an aging dwelling is in need of major upgrades. Termites and wood bores had damaged the house’s structure. Two historic fires, and failing footings and support piers further weakened its structure. The roof had turned into cedar toast, and the 1920s plumbing and electrical “Band-Aid” fixes were outright dangerous. The plaster was as fractured and crumbly as an old stale cookie. To say the very least, our project was equally as daunting as the most difficult projects on PBS. The distinction, however, was that the Museum was about to embark on historic restoration, not a house remodel. Usually, remodel projects update old homes with period restoration and improve the structure with modern amenities. Historic architectural elements and other aspects of the original house are usually retained for aesthetics, but almost always the primary goal is owner occupation. The Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga House is an example of historic restoration. The work is done to an existing structure to restore it to an original state, but the goal is to preserve for history’s sake, not occupation. In addition to the restoration, the Museum added another goal: to make the building a living history museum, not for occupancy, but for visitorship. By restoring the home to time periods, ca.1879 and ca.1928, the Museum could better tell the stories of the Jacobs and Uberuaga families, as well many other aspects of Boise and Basque history. It was clear that we were in for more than hammers and nails for a long period of time by choosing to restore the house for cultural education purposes.
We needed more than carpenters and craftspeople to help us move walls, fix foundations and repair electrical systems. We needed historians, researchers, conservationists, archaeologists, architects, and a host of other specialists who were able to bring the house to life accurately and safely for visitors. We also needed great financial support. Thankfully, the Museum’s Board, membership and community was fully supportive of the project, but we needed to raise money to finance the restoration. Thankfully, a host of donors and the E.L. Wiegand Foundation helped us to make our dream a reality. A consultant team was hired, comprised of Planmakers, ZGA Architects & Planners, and historian Barbara Perry Bauer to help us draft a project plan.
Then we set out to learn all we could about the house and its history. In the initial discovery phase, we needed to find many pieces of the puzzle to begin to reconstruct the home’s evolution over a hundred years. Detailed historic research and physical examination of the structure helped us understand the home’s past. We searched for photographs, records of the house, and information about those who lived here by contacting archival repositories and descendants of the original residents.
Paint studies of each interior room and exterior element were performed to develop a color scheme history. Wallpapers were removed layer by layer from the walls and ceilings and cataloged in a database to create the décor history. Age-old linoleum rugs and tiles were studied in an effort to date them. All structural elements, such
as masonry, doors and windows, cabinetry, flooring, hardware, nails, glass, plumbing fixtures and electrical fixtures were closely examined and documented so that we could determine their origin to enable us to make reproductions. Donors’ household articles and other artifacts were painstakingly researched and cataloged. The discovery phase was tedious and time-consuming. It was as if a small army of detectives were trying to solve many of the house’s mysteries. Significant discoveries about the house and its inhabitants resulted, but not all the mysteries were solved. Before any historic restoration could begin, we needed serious foundation work to preserve and stabilize the house structure, including correcting framing and footing problems. We learned that before foundation work could proceed, an archaeological excavation had to be conducted to determine if there were cultural items resting beneath the foundation. Members of our community volunteered countless hours of time to help us do that.
When the archaeological excavation was completed, we replaced the roof, repaired windows and installed insulation. Then we snaked pipes, conduits and ducts through hidden chases, crawl spaces, under floorboards, and behind plaster walls and ceilings. The “to-do” list was extensive. The preservation effort was substantial, out-of-the-ordinary work that challenged the most gifted craftsmen, engineers, and architects. The preservation work literally provided the foundation for the project, as the historic restoration could not occur without this significant phase. Unlike “behind-the-scenes” remodels, this restoration work was intended to be seen by everyone who enters the house. We wanted to transform the house into a magical theater that would transport people back through time, enabling a true “living history” experience. Successful restoration to accurate historical periods would be the essence of the cultural experience for the visitor. Historical accuracy, attention to detail, and quality components were critical to this phase of the work. Lath and plaster walls and ceilings were restored by master plasterers. Painters meticulously used old-fashioned brushes and methods to recreate the texture and appearance of historic paint. Historic wallpapers were reproduced using hand-printing techniques and hung. Fir floors were stripped and refinished. Period wood moldings, paneling, cabinetry, and the 1864 front door were reproduced. Period hardware was refinished and reinstalled. Reproduction brewery cord lights from the 1920s, almost exactly like those that once hung in the house, were installed, as well as period bath and kitchen fixtures. Old, exposed knob and tube wiring systems were rewired to historical accuracy. Lastly, masons rebuilt three of the five historic chimneys using historic 19th Century photos as a guide.
Historic furnishings completed the restoration phase, including the dining room table, built by boarders who once stayed in the house; a bed from the Jordan Valley Elorriaga boarding house that was similar to the Uberuaga beds; and 1870s Eastlake furniture for the Jacobs bedroom. Today, when one hears the audio tales of Mary Ellen Jacobs, Serafina Uberuaga Mendiguren, and Joe P. Uberuaga, there is no doubt this place was home for many — and history truly comes alive.