ESSAYS:

Stacking the Stone

By Royce A. Williams

Charles Hummel brought expertise in both architecture and engineering to the Capitol project.

Charles Hummel brought expertise in both
architecture and engineering to the Capitol
project. Photo courtesy: ISHS

When architect John Everett Tourtellotte took one of his flights of fancy in the design of Idaho’s Capitol, it was his partner Charles F. Hummel who packed his parachute.

Could we have been flies on the wall 100 years ago, a short conversation might have gone this way:

Tourtellotte: “Let’s bust up this east wall over here with a row of windows¸ a kind of Prairie Style approach, that will bring the morning sun right onto the desks in that space…”

Hummel: “Nice, John, but that wall’s got to stand up; it’s got to take wind loads that’ll mostly be coming from the northwest, so it’s got to brace the back wall and you’ve already got that wall full of windows…”

The two men would have used words of their era, but, continuing with the might-have-been, Hummel would be called geeky. Born in Dobel, Baden, Germany, he received his architectural training in Stuttgart, Germany. He spent two years in Switzerland (1876-1878), where he worked as a civil engineer. After finishing technical school, he worked as a draftsman and lived in Freiburg and Renchen, Baden, German. This experience can be squeezed into a single word — precision.

He married Marie Konrad in Renchen in 1882, and three of their six children were born in Germany. Hummel moved to Chicago in 1885, and worked as a carpenter, then moved west to Seattle in 1890. He was working as a draftsman and house builder there and sent for his wife and two sons, Ernest and Frederick C. (A daughter, Julia, died in Germany.) The family moved again to Anacortes and Everett in 1890, where they lived until 1895. Two sons, Frank K and Werner, were born after this move.

Capitol Stone

Charles Hummel and Marie Konrad, married
in Renchen, Germany in 1882.
Photo courtesy: Hummel collection

The Financial Panic of 1893 that closed all U.S. banks left the family devastated economically. Hummel and his wife were at a pier scraping scallops off one of the piles for supper, when Hummel noticed a flyer lying on the beach. The promotional flyer had been published by the predecessor of the Boise Chamber of Commerce and touted the prospects for success in the Boise Valley because of the boom in irrigated agriculture. The family moved to Boise in 1895, and Hummel went to work that year with the J.E. Tourtellotte Company. Hummel was 38 years old. A daughter, Marie, was born in Boise, but she died as a child.

It is astounding today when architectural drawings are measured by weight rather than page numbers that the original drawings for the Capitol that have been found covered less than 40 pages. And it is somewhat mysterious that Hummel’s name does not appear on any of those pages. If there was a shingle hanging in front of the T.E. Troutellotte & Co. at 215 Overland Building in Boise, Hummel’s name wasn’t added as a partner until 1912. However, he was there and working on the building from the beginning of construction in 1905.

Evidence of Hummel’s work and influence on the building reflect the omission of his name on the plans. His contributions aren’t always obvious. The fact that workers had to dig down 20 feet to river rock before they began pouring a foundation shows Hummel’s attention to detail. His tight calculations set weight limits at the base of all the Corinthian columns around the rotunda. It couldn’t be more than 200 pounds per square inch. His work shows up in the steel specs for the centers of the columns and in the engineering involved in transforming hot springs into winter heat for the building. He was building “green” before green was cool. The soaring dome on the Capitol soars because of Hummel’s precise calculations on the angles and riveting of the web of steel support for it.

Capitol Stone

The Hummel residence, located on North 13th Street, Boise, Idaho.
Photo courtesy: Hummel collection

Hummel’s specifications for the tensile strength of steel beams gave Superintendent of Construction Herbert E. Quigley a lot of headaches. Suppliers said finding the specified steel was difficult and getting it way out to Idaho was a logistic nightmare. Hummel wouldn’t budge. The result was steel still standing, and Quigley buying the derricks to lift it, hiring workers only when he had the right steel, and putting mumbling factory reps back on the train going east.

The Hummels would stay in Boise, with Charles’ two sons, Frederick and Frank, joining the firm. The Tourtellotte name would leave the shingle, but Hummel Architects PLLC is still listed in the Boise directory at 2785 North Bogus Basin Road. It is possible a Tourtellotte or two could still be in Boise, but if so, they have cellphones.

Tourtellotte and Hummel probably were an excellent team, each one making the other’s dreams a reality and each coming into the dream from a different route.