Behind the Scenes:

A Historian’s Perspective

By Judy Austin

Judy Austin researching.

Judy Austin researching at the Idaho State Historical
Society Archives.

When IPTV’s “Assassination: Trial of the Century” was completed in the fall of 2007, I told Bruce Reichert that I’d be delighted to work on any future project that could use an historian. In January of 2009, he took me up on that, asking if I would participate in what became “Capitol of Light.”

Like my work with “Assassination,” the new project was a great deal of fun. It was also a very, very different experience in some ways. Most important, the major character in the show wasn’t a radical labor leader or a hired assassin or an attorney or a judge or a detective; it was a building. And the community that Bruce gathered was a good deal more varied: this time, we had a web designer and someone who specialized in school materials–not to mention Gary Daniel, who was liaison between the Idaho Capitol Commission and just about everyone else and who was a faithful and charming attendee at our weekly koffee klatches.

Charles Hummel, Royce Williams, Judy Austin.

Historic Capitol discussions with Charles Hummel.

Except for a few minutes (featuring Mark Anthony Taylor as the building’s co-architect, John Tourtellotte), “Capitol of Light” is not a docudrama. It does, however, include a lot of people speaking on camera: governors, lobbyists, legislators, members of the Capitol Commission past and present, the grandson of Charles Hummel–the other co-architect. Our Charles, retired from architectural practice now but with his expertise available to us, came to one coffee gathering and had such a good time that he continued to come. His presence was invaluable and delightful. And he was filmed for the program largely because of his work on a “redo” nearly 30 years ago. Sitting in on many of those interviews was a new experience for me, and I found them fascinating.

My introduction to the whole enterprise was a tour of the building soon after I signed on. With solid-toed shoes that came above my ankles and a hard hat on my head, I (with others and an escort) poked around a building that was unnervingly different from the capitol I’d been in and out of for 42 years. It was as if its skin and flesh were being stripped off and only the bones left. But over the next year, as we worked on the history of the building and its construction, we also watched new flesh and new skin go on those sturdy bones, put there by remarkable craftsmen. I learned a bit about construction; I also learned a bit about the back-and-forth process of decision making in a major public venture.

Judy Austin filing.

Judy Austin researching through files.

Not all of that learning relates to the efforts of 2007-2009. One of my responsibilities was to dig out as much as I could of the story of the capitol’s location and construction. Once again my former colleagues at the Idaho State Historical Society were welcoming and very helpful as I worked through boxes of the original Capitol Commission’s papers as well as those of the superintendent of construction, Herbert Quigley. (Several of us would like to see a lot more work done on Quigley, who was a most interesting and very competent character.) Then it was off to the newspapers, primarily Boise’s Idaho Statesman, to find out more about the nitty-gritty of the original project. Projects, really, since the central portion of the capitol was built and occupied before bids were even let on the wings. I learned about outrage at trees being removed; sound familiar? I learned about charges of misfeasance, of bribes and faulty construction; a particularly colorful episode is described in Royce Williams’ essay “Expletive Deleted” elsewhere on this site. I also learned–from both manuscript collections and newspapers–about the progress of the construction itself, decisions that had to be made on the fly, choices of material, equipment bought and then loaned elsewhere when it was not needed at the capitol.

Meeting at the coffee house.

Meeting over coffee to discuss Capitol of Light.

And then there were the photographs. I had learned from a friend, who’d been involved with restoration of the capitol’s exterior after a fire some years ago, that Quigley’s papers contained several remarkable images. Indeed: one shows a car being hoisted by a crane...as its occupants wave at the camera! Other treasures are in the historical society’s collections, including a set of images taken from the upper levels of construction and looking right down at the streets. Those aren’t official photographs; they were taken by Murray Badgeley, who worked for the federal government and lived on the grounds of Fort Boise at the time. Anyone with vertigo or a fear of heights should not look at Badgeley’s pictures.

Re-enactment with MA Taylor.

Re-enactment with MA Taylor.

In the midst of all this, early in the summer of 2009, I suffered a serious injury that kept me completely housebound for six weeks and unable to drive for six months. No more Wednesday-morning coffees–at least not until we worked out a way for my husband to drop me off downtown and one of my colleagues on the project to drive me home in a vehicle I could get into. Trips to the library, with patient and kindly chauffeurs, couldn’t resume until fall either. But “Capitol of Light” didn’t go away, and it did a great deal to preserve my sanity. Thanks to Boise Public Library’s cardholder access to the Statesman on line, I could continue to explore its coverage of construction, controversy, and alleged scandal. And thanks to e-mail I could continue to review and edit various parts of the script. I might not be able to explore continued construction at the capitol or join my colleagues for coffee until near the end of the project, but I was still part of the “Capitol of Light” community. Bruce (in particular) and my other colleagues will never know how deeply grateful I am to them for sticking with me.

When the capitol was rededicated in January of 2010, I was (unavoidably) at a meeting in San Diego. My historian colleagues there didn’t understand at first why I had to be in my hotel room, glued to my laptop screen, to watch live streaming of the ceremonies. Didn’t understand, that is, until they heard my stories of doing “Capitol of Light.”

Bruce, what’s next?