INTERVIEWS:

Charles Hummel

Charles Hummel, grandson of Architect Charles Hummel.

Charles Hummel is a retired architect and the grandson of the co-designer of the 1905 state Capitol. This interview was conducted in the summer of 2009.

What are your earliest remembrances of John Tourtellotte and your grandfather, Charles Hummel? I never knew John Tourtellotte, but I certainly knew my grandfather. He died the year that I was a freshman in high school. As a kid, I was at my grandparents' house quite often and of course at the old office. But he was a very quiet man, very German in the old world sense, courtly, very polite. And you know that wonderful story about not telling his wife that he had converted to Catholicism, so he was a man of few words. And he and Tourtellotte had a very super-professional relationship; it was not a relationship of close friendship. They respected each other's abilities, and they were a perfect team.

How did they differ? What did they bring to the collaboration? Tourtellotte, of course, was the promoter, the visionary. He knew how to get work, and he knew how to talk. In fact, he talked and talked. That's what my father told me later that he remembered about Tourtellotte. He talked a lot, and talked into that dictating machine. That's how he got all of his written things done, because they had stenographers that could transcribe that. Tourtellotte was a designer of some capability. He was largely self-trained as an architect, but he knew how to design. His tastes were pretty Victorian, rather ornate.

My grandfather, who was classically trained as an architect in Germany, understood construction thoroughly, and he brought to the firm the classicizing side of the firm. You can see that, for instance, in the series of houses that they did. The earliest houses that Tourtellotte was doing were very Queen Anne, very ornate. My grandfather's influence began to be felt with the houses that became simpler, more classical. That's what he brought to the firm.

They were a pair, and when they opened a branch office in Portland, right at the end of World War One, the agreement they had was it would still be called Tourtellotte and Hummel, but they would be pursuing their own projects, and the Boise office would compensate Tourtellotte for the cost of putting out promotional materials which Tourtellotte would write. That was clearly understood, that Tourtellotte was the PR man in today's terminology.

So what about this “talking machine”? So I was poking around in the office, and my grandfather was there, and in the back room I came across this black old Edison Dictaphone that used the wax cylinders. I asked my grandfather, “What is that thing?” He laughed and he said, “That's a talking machine.” Then my father told me later that the only person in the office who really used it in those days was Tourtellotte. But I think everybody must have used it because they were dictating specifications and letters. But Tourtellotte dictated all of the writings that we now know that he did. It was a state-of-the-art thing at the time, and he used it a lot, apparently. That was his forte. He really knew how to promote and how to talk and how to get people to visualize buildings.

How did your grandfather get to Idaho? My grandparents were both born in Germany in the state of Baden. And he was trained in Stuttgart as an architect. He came to the U.S. apparently in 1885, to Chicago. In any event, he ended up in Everett, Washington. In 1890, he was working there as an architect and a house builder until 1893 when there was this terrible depression. Every bank in the U.S. shut down, and they were starving. He came across a flyer extolling the beauties and the opportunities of the Boise Valley. That impressed him, so he got on the train, stopped off in Weiser on the way, made some acquaintances. Came to Boise, looked it over, and brought his family here in 1895. He bought a house on south 12th St. and almost immediately met Tourtellotte.

At least from 1896, he was working for Tourtellotte or they were working together. The firm didn't come to be called Tourtellotte and Hummel until about 7 years later. They immediately began to get work and in 1896, for instance, they did two or three houses. They did a public school, and other things, and it just went on from there. So, they began to assemble a team of other young professionals. It was a big deal. It was a fully professional architectural firm.

The old drafting room was very quiet, and everybody sat on high stools, and stood very often because the drawings were large, and you would have to lean over. So you would see their behinds and their elbows if you were behind them. They only talked to each other when they had to. The thing I remember mostly was the atmosphere. Everybody smoked cigars. The odor in that room, I still remember very well. It was a combination of cigar smoke, pencil shavings, indie ink and the smell of the tracing linen, which had a distinct odor of its own. Whenever we get out the old drawings from those days and open up a roll that's been archived away for 40 or 50 years, that odor comes out of it.

Charles Hummel looking over capitol blueprints.

One of the interesting things about the Capitol is the steel framework of the dome. The training my grandfather had included structural design, which Tourtellotte did not have. The steel framework of the original capitol was basically modern. It was riveted steel instead of high strength bolted or welded, as we would do today; but it was basically the same structural designs that you would do today. The office had people that knew how to do that design and clearly my grandfather was helping to steer the office into that direction.

But there was another young architect working for the firm by the name of Nesbit who did a number of important buildings in Idaho later, on his own. I noticed that his initials are on many of the drawings that cover the structural work. But the structural steel drawings were very detailed, just like they would be today, and they called for a high precision of fabrication. Putting the dome together in particular required quite a bit of knowledge of trigonometry and solid geometry in order to get all those pieces to fit right. As far as I know, they fit perfectly the first time they were put up.

Idaho's capitol was called the most beautiful of the nation's capitols when it was first built. How does it fit into the larger picture? If I'm not mistaken, I think there are 46 state capitols that basically are like this one. They have a dome, and balanced wings on each side. Of course, the model of that is the United States Capitol. So, this capitol follows that tradition. So it's not unique in that sense, but I believe that it's one of the most nicely proportioned ones, and the interior rotunda with the sky light effects, which by the way were a particular Tourtellotte signature. He loved skylights and the central rotunda, that white marble and the white colored scagliola flooded with light, is one of the real achievements of this capitol. Many other state capitols have very ornate rotunda areas, some of them nice or impressive, but this one has a certain quality that I don't think the other capitols have.

Tourtellotte certainly believed that buildings could inspire people to be better individuals. Yes, his writing has clearly indicated that buildings are meant to inspire. A state capitol in particular is meant to exemplify the best qualities of the citizens. If you trace the history of our capitols back to the predecessor, the United States Capitol, Jefferson had a lot to say about that. He didn't design the Virginia statehouse, but he saw to that it was designed like a roman temple, classical Roman architecture, with the columns and the whole thing. He insisted on calling it a capitol and not a statehouse, and what he was thinking of was the Capitoline Hill in Rome. That was the mythical seat of the Roman Republic, and he thought that exemplified the Roman Republic that brought out patriotism, self sacrifice, loyalty, all those kinds of virtues, and he thought that the classical architecture would exemplify that.

That's why he insisted on that in the Virginia Capitol. That was carried over into the United States Capitol and has become the signature of practically all of those 46 capitols in the U.S. that are designed along classical lines.

I've always liked the location of the Capitol. It's fortuitous that it's where it is in the city, at the end of Capitol Boulevard with another signature building, the Depot, at the other end. That wasn't blind luck that made that happen, but it was some foresight that caused that to be built that way.

The vision of Capitol Blvd that was actually laid out by the New York architects who designed the Depot has never been fully achieved. The city set up zoning ordinances for setbacks and that kind of thing quite a long time ago, and by and large, they were observed. Then a great fellow planner by the name of John Bertram designed a new master plan for Capitol Blvd. By that time there had already been some incursions into the visual frame of Capitol Blvd. The Bank of Idaho, for instance was the first one that really kind of destroyed that view. Set too close to the street.

But I have to tell you, you know, the city held off fully enacting that plan until they had already approved the design of the Grove Hotel, which didn't respect the setback one inch. Basically destroyed the visual effect that the planners had for the Blvd, but on the other hand, the city also picked up the ball to do some other things, you know, the Capitol Park, across the street here, the way in which the street was divided around the Steunenberg Monument. Those are things where the city and the state cooperated. So they've made a nice setting for the Capitol, but the grand boulevard scheme has never been realized, except the city is doing its best with landscaping and trees and things of that kind.

Charles Hummel, and capitol blueprints.

In the 1960's you worked on some modifications to the Capitol that changed what your grandfather had done. Yes, I did. It all started really with a study that I was asked to do in 1967 for a legislative committee. That study showed that there's only so much you could do to satisfy the needs of the legislature, and we did as much as we could, considering the limitations of the building. One of the biggest changes was changing the Senate and the House chambers to the configuration that they have today, with the walls around them that walled them off from adjacent hallways.

We tried to create new hearing rooms. We did some damage which has been acknowledged, but it's all being fixed now with this wonderful new renovation. It was a whole succession of projects from that time. Trying to satisfy the real needs of the legislature, which were never satisfied at that time, so this great new renovation and the underground wings are finally taking care of all of the needs of the modern legislature, which wasn't possible to do then.

The early '70s renovations were absolutely necessary. The legislature couldn't exist without those admittedly minimal improvements at the time. The legislative chambers were echo chambers. You couldn't hear yourself think. They had to put in a voting machine in the House. Public address systems were necessary. They had practically no hearing rooms worth anything at all, and that's in spite of the fact that other agencies were moving out of the capitol and making more room for them. The Supreme Court had left, the law library had left, the state museum had left, and the state auditor was going across the street. The legislature was getting into the 21st century, and it couldn't exist the way it was, so that work just had to be done.

But there's been some criticism of those modifications done back then. One of the things that was clear was that we did some damage, also. We tried to get some air conditioning into the building. We didn't have enough money to conceal it properly. There were all kinds of things, but the thing that really sparked where we are today, was the New Years Eve fire, which almost burned down the north wing. When that was put back together again with fire sprinklers, and everything done right, that was an example of how it could be done today. We put a lot of false ceilings in, that kind of thing, and there's been a lot said about that, and I confess I'm guilty for that. But it wasn't irreparable.

So you're excited with this latest renovation? I'm particularly pleased that the addition to the building is the underground extension and not an above ground extension, which would've ruined the balance architecturally, of the building. That committee worked hard through three sessions. That was hard work to convince their colleagues that this is what had to be done.