What's an Egyptian Movie Theater Doing in Downtown Boise?

In the 1970s, the city wanted to demolish the downtown. But residents stepped in, saving the 1920s-era icon.

Image
Sheri Freemuth

After Earl Hardy signed the contract to purchase the Egyptian Theatre in Boise, Idaho in 1977, his daughter Kay reports that the first thing he did was return to the office the two shared and say, “I must be crazy.”

The movie theater, built in 1927 in the Egyptian Revival architectural style popularized by the 1922 discovery of King Tut’s tomb, had long been a mainstay of downtown Boise. In 1974, the promise of “urban renewal” money from the city government proved to be too tempting to the Oppenheimer-Falk Realty Company, the owners of the theater. The building was sold to the Boise Redevelopment Agency, which, backed by money from federally-funded urban renewal programs, was pushing to develop an eight-block space in the heart of downtown into an inward-facing shopping mall.

"Four blocks of downtown Boise had been completely leveled," recalls Kay Hardy, who was serving as her father’s personal secretary at the time. "We had a developer, an urban renewal agency, and a mayor who wanted this downtown mall built. The cost was leveling the town I grew up in."

A sphinx head detail on the roof. Image courtesy of Sheri Freemuth

The first preservation push for the Egyptian Theater came when a group of Boise residents grew concerned that the theater’s organ, built to accompany silent films in the pre-talkie era, would be demolished with the building. They formed the Egyptian Theater Organ Society and brought attention to the theater’s plight, as well as the organ’s. The city put the building up for sale and Hardy stepped in, with help from a $100,000 grant from the Idaho Historical Society.

"I think the developers realized that this process was falling apart and that it hadn’t gained traction from national retailers," says Kay Hardy. The local newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, also sponsored a series of town hall meetings on the city’s redevelopment plans for the eight-block space, and the response was overwhelmingly clear: Boise residents were determined not to lose their historic downtown. The mall project was eventually moved to the outskirts of town.

Charles Hummel, a Boise architect whose father was the original architect for the Egyptian Theater, says that Earl Hardy’s purchase of the theater was a significant step in the revitalization of the pivotal eight-block section. Hummel himself oversaw the first restoration of the theater in 1978 after its purchase, and was a member of the Egyptian Theater Organ Society.

The theater’s interior still features original 1920’s-era artwork. Credit: Lol-ita, Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/lol-ita/)
The theater’s interior still features original 1920’s-era artwork. (Photo courtesy Lol-ita, Flickr)

"In the 1975 restoration, we researched what the original décor was like and did our best to replicate that," Hummel says. Parts of the original Egyptian-themed artwork in the lobby had been covered over with white paint, although the lavish and intricate decorations in the theater space itself -- including four large pillars painted with Egyptian-style artwork and a sculpted winged scarab perched in the middle of the proscenium -- had more or less been untouched. Hummel also stabilized the roof, updated the electrical system, and replaced the outside marquee with a replica of the original 1927 model.

Today, the Egyptian doesn’t operate as a commercial movie theater, but it has proved to be an ideal concert venue, opera space, and community center. Kay Hardy and her husband, architect Gregory Kaslo, did a second restoration of the theater in 1999, and have been taking great care to make sure that the theater is always in the best condition possible, both acoustically and visually.

"It’s enjoying a wonderful new life" says Hummel. Upcoming events include The Wild & Scenic Film Festival, a series of environmental films sponsored by the local land trust, and a performance by alternative rock band They Might Be Giants.

“It’s a real community gathering place -- that’s what my father wanted it to be,” says Kay Hardy. "He never wanted it privatized; he always wanted it to be a public community treasure. We feel that the Egyptian is that to the community."

Top image: The exterior of Boise’s Egyptian Theatre, which has been restored and maintained to look the same as when it was built in 1927.

This post originally appeared on Preservation Nation, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

  • Kate Flynn is an editorial intern at Preservation magazine. Her work has appeared online at the Washington Post and in Consequence of Sound, a music and culture blog.