The best of places always seem more serendipitous than planned. There is a life and history that comes from unexpected juxtapositions of building forms and the different values that created them. These are the places where surprises are common, where world falls as it will. For an architect, these serendipitous places have lessons to share—much of their beauty is difficult to achieve through the more linear logic of design, but the effects are often worth striving for.
Sandpoint has many such places, for in our fairly short history the town has changed and re-shaped itself many times over, and each change has become a layer in the sediment of our past. Sandpoint has been a lumber town, a railroad town, now it’s a tourist town, and it’s seen its share of hard times as well, in between each phase. Progress here has never been steady, or predictable.
The population in 1915 was greater than it is today, there was a train every hour coming through the station, connecting us with the rest of the country. At one point downtown was out by the lake along the railroad tracks, over the years the center has crept landward. City Hall, the Library, and the High School now sit well off the water. With the new by-way, the area is changing again. We are left with a town that has many stories to tell through its architecture and its layout. I enjoy such stories, so I’d like to share a few of my favorites.
The loose workaday pragmatism of the silo and warehouse between Oak and Church, with its wide graveled parking lot and tin roofs, tells tales of old-time farmers and train-men, grain-sidings, large burlap bags stacked on the platform. The present owners have refurbished the place some, but mostly let it be, and I’m glad of it. It has become a curious and perfect setting for one of the town’s more recently acquired tastes –good coffee. The Evans brothers seem to have picked up on, and now encourage, the same joy I find in their location. The area might succumb to progress and be developed as part of Highway 2, but for now it remains one of my favorite unplanned places in town.
Another such place is the back alley between 1st and 2nd , on the block between Oak and Cedar. To me it seems almost like a stage-set for a prohibition-era Chicago movie, with men in broad-brimmed hats, and an ice-wagon pulled by a skinny donkey down the narrow alley. The tall close buildings reference an older world somehow, like the confined old streets of Edinburgh. No one has yet come to modernize and use this small curiosity, I suppose it would be a tough task to accomplish. Still, the charm of it seems to call out for an art installation, or a North African style micro-retail bazaar. Still there is charm in its unkempt and forgotten state as well.
Wandering down to the creek-side, beneath the brightly rambunctious arch at the end of Oak, the back of the buildings on 1st describe a more western story, with their wooden decks and exterior stairs. This is where any old-time Sandpoint gunfighter would be hanging out, drinking whiskey at the 211 while waiting for the train to Deadwood. The tattoo parlor seems to fit right in, serving more modern westerners with a touch of rebellious freedom. Bricks and Barley fits in quite well too, the posts of the porch seem just right for tying a horse– near enough to the tables for a rider spill some beer into his or her hat for the horse to taste. Mostly the area is a parking lot, which we need, but I cannot help but wonder what the potential of the place might be, for there is an extraordinary waterfront setting hidden beneath the parked cars.
Further down the lakeshore lies the remains of another story, told in concrete foundations half-submerged in the lake. These were the old mill buildings that would collect timber floated from across the lake, to load it onto trains. The old masonry has become a canvass for graffiti now, a punk-rock expression of our changes.
All towns are enlivened when they have a few shops in odd and curious corners. The hair-stylist’s on 2cd occupy one such nook of a building, beautifully out-of-proportion to its neighbors. I appreciate the bookseller’s shop next to Fin Macdonald’s, for the way it burrows deep into its building with tall and tightly spaced shelves, so comfortable to bookworms. Coldwater Creek has also provided the town with a serendipitous treat, when they restored the grand old stairway to access their wine bar. The creak of the old wood is music, to certain afflicted aficionados.
Drinking is certainly done best in flavorful places, and Sandpoint establishments are blessed with good raw material to work from. Along with the wine, the bricks at Coldwater Creek are properly aged, the windows have a comfort in their old-style proportions, the wood floor seems old and warm and real. Upstairs at Eichardt’s, the oversized windows of the now-enclosed porch have created a brightly lit perch for watching the street below. It overheats at times in summer, but it’s perfect for the grey cloudy days of winter. Another good refurbishment of space is nearby garden at the Pend O’reille winery, adding a welcome patch of green to downtown. The terraced patio behind the Sandpoint Bistro nestles naturally into the creek-side, and both places offer my favorite sort of ceiling, the wide open sky.
I am glad we still have the Powerhouse, the old Library, the old City Hall, to help tell these stories. The decommissioned High-School is living out a second glory as the Sandpoint branch of North Idaho College, looking like a proud resident with freshly darned socks. Pend O’reille winery is expanding into the historic Belwood’s building and I am glad to see the care they are taking, with the help of architect Tim Boden, to clean the paint that was covering it’s tale of turn-of-the-last-century America. Time and weather can never be designed in to a project, and sometimes architecture is at its best when it does little, letting past days underline the modern uses.
We have lost some good places to progress. The rope swing over Sand Creek, our own Norman Rockwell painting of childhood summers, was sacrificed for the by-way. The second silo, where Kokanee Coffee now stands, no longer offers bags of feed stacked on its sagging platform –the building was blown to splinters a few years ago, with a loud early morning bang.
It is not what we’ve lost, however, but what we can and do have that is worth reflecting on. We have a town that’s full of curious gems and beautiful corners. I believe our city government is forward-looking and works hard for a better Sandpoint. Still the discussion of what Sandpoint should be is one that’s best held in the open as a community. Sandpoint is only limited by the limits of our own imaginations, and that’s not very limited at all. Our town is a work of art, as much as we choose to make it so.