Saturday, August 06, 2005

Idaho Falls Downtown

(c) 2005, m. wells

Idaho Falls, readily identifiable from afar by the gleaming white spire of the Latter Day Saints Temple on the falls, is a small town that boomed in the early 1950s, due to the precursor of INL, the NRTS. NRTS, and Argonne National Laboratory-West brought scientific and engineering talent to the area, and created work in the Idaho desert. The people I met in Idaho Falls were modest about their small city, and particularly about their downtown, which admittedly was like many towns you see across the United States--but I liked it.

I set out early in the morning, crossed the falls from the Red Lion Hotel, walking towards the Museum of Idaho. There are about six intersections of interest in the downtown, and unless you're heading out to the strip for some shopping sprawl, everything is quite walkable. While many of the old storefronts are closed (including this Chinese restaurant, seen above) the bakeries and antique stores appear to get a lot of business. There is poverty and grit, as in all small cities, but I was pleased to see the local police force treating the homeless population with respect.

The downtown has perfectly preserved (probably by virtue of the fact that they have been empty all this time) its 1920s-1960s storefronts. There is a melange of style, from the more ornate eclectic period, to Moderne (that is, Art Deco in a more horizontal style), to the permastone and colored siding applied to buildings in the modern era. Some of these buildings, modified in the 1950s and 60s, are, I think, superior examples of the style. After all, as these modifications age, and no longer look contemporary, they are often dismantled. While they look bad to us now, we may regret the wholesale destruction of them later on. I will be posting a few photographs of these "modern" storefronts shortly.

At the edge of the downtown is a wide, dusty strip of railroad tracks (about six tracks, I think). Across the tracks is the Museum of Idaho, a partially historic, partially modern building which was previously a library. The nose of a aircraft is emerging from the modern structure, to announce the Space Exhibit currently on display.

Finally: the mystery of the low houses. On a drive around town, I saw two of a group of low houses--houses in which all the living space was below ground, and only the top of the house and the roofline was above ground. Unfortunately, I was not able to snap any pictures of these. I speculated that this might be some kind of natural disaster protection, but as local Bill Ginkel told me, the explanation is much simpler. When people moved to Idaho Falls in the 50s, they bought land and started to build their houses. Often, the money they had was only enough to build the basement, and in order to make it through the year, presumably, a roof had to be put on the half-built house. Some of these houses were never finished, and remain basement houses. The story reminded me of the garage houses in Chicago.

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