The offices and hallways behind the exhibit hall at the Museum of North Idaho are a crowded network. Boxes line the floors. Clear workspace is at a premium. Rarely can two people stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the same area.
“Right here I filled this box because I don’t have shelves to put them on,” said Dorothy Dahlgren, the museum’s director, referring to a collection of un-filed photos. “The table has to be up against the shelves there because it’s so small in here.”
The museum’s paid staff of four and its 50-member crew of volunteers compete for space because as history passes, the museum’s collection of photos, artifacts, maps, directories and other memorabilia only grows. And it is certain that the museum, which is open only by appointment during the five-month off-season, has outgrown its current on-site space, estimated at 4,371 square feet.
But Dahlgren, who has been with the museum since 1982, has her eye on a move.
Last fall, the museum received a rather large donation: It was given a house. And after it was physically moved across Coeur d’Alene in mid-November, the J.C. White House will undergo renovations over the next few years at its new site at the base of Tubbs Hill.
Standing inside it a few weeks later, before giving a tour of the current museum back rooms, Dahlgren walked around the house that will, she expects, be occupied by museum staff by the end of 2020. “I think we’re gonna do all right here,” Dahlgren said. “It’s just so exciting.”
The house dates back to 1903, when J.C. White, manager of Red Collar Line steamboats, built it at 805 Sherman Avenue. He owned it until 1924, and soon after Philip McManamin’s family became the long-term owners. It eventually became an event venue in the 1990s, when it was renovated.
The plan is for the house, currently about 5,800 square feet, to undergo further renovations at its new site and to ultimately be the centerpiece of a much larger space for the museum, which would expand to more than 16,000 square feet, divided into exhibit, office, storage, library and other spaces.
“They opened it when they made it an event center in the ’90s, and that’s perfect for us, to have this openness and the views all the way around,” said Mike Dixon, museum board president.
“This would make a beautiful library,” Dixon said, standing in one area of the house. “We’re rethinking the whole concept, trying to get this right.”
The board is currently raising money for the early phases of the renovation project, which includes the move and the cost of refurbishing the home, said board vice president Julie Gibbs. The museum is required to have a certificate of occupancy by the end of 2020, so Gibbs said the plan is to use the house on a limited basis before completing the entirety of the project over the next few years. They have not settled on an exact date for when the museum would officially migrate to the new house.
But the house is in place, which was in itself a considerable achievement that saved money and materials: Demolishing the house and rebuilding on this new site would have been much more expensive, said Rob Johnson, who oversaw the move.
“My biggest challenge is over,” he said. “Now it’s just keep chugging along and keep people excited about it and keep the fundraising going.”
The house survived the move almost entirely unscathed, Johnson said, noting a few cracks in the ceiling of the uppermost room. The front door can’t be accessed without a ladder, but once inside the allure of the home is obvious: multiple spaces, open staircases, large windows and original wood floors.
“Let them tell the story of the history,” Johnson said of the floors. “We can patch in some boards and it’ll be a great floor.”
Currently the museum sits along Northwest Boulevard, adjacent to City Park and northwest of the Coeur d’Alene Resort. During the summer, parking can be a challenge, Dahlgren said, and plans for later phases of the project include a dedicated parking lot behind the White house.
Jocelyn Whitfield-Babcock, the museum’s development director, said that while the current location is easy to spot when driving by, the new location will make more sense as a destination—and it will have great views too.
“The (museum) is on Northwest Boulevard, and so many people are driving by and seeing us, but what we’re making this into is, instead of making this an afterthought … it’s a destination,” Whitfield-Babcock said. “They’re getting in the car and they’re coming here, and it’s part of the plan.”
And, she said, the museum is certainly visible, being so close to McEuen Park, the library, Tubbs Hill and the Centennial Trail. Just standing in the parking lot for 20 minutes, she said she saw 10 to 12 people drive by just looking at the house.
The idea that a historic building will soon house a museum dedicated to history was not lost on Robert Singletary, the museum’s program and marketing director who, as part of his job, hosts walking tours of Coeur d’Alene.
“The idea of preservation is growing in this community,” he said. “There was an emphasis at the city, for a time, to develop, but I think you can have both: that balance between preservation and development. … Preservation in the long-run means economic development.”
Gibbs and Dixon highlighted the partnerships that made the move possible and that have enabled them to dream big in modernizing the museum. The City of Coeur d’Alene, the Tubbs Hill Foundation, Ignite CDA and others, including Mark Launder, who donated the house, have been enthusiastic in supporting the project and helping to make it happen, they said.
Still, though, the museum hums along. Back at the current museum, Dahlgren and volunteers will keep busy throughout the offseason before the museum re-opens as usual for its regular hours in April. The museum’s 50 volunteers log about 2,000 hours annually, Dahlgren said, updating archives, staffing the gift shop, sending out quarterly mailings and assisting people who wish to come in an access the archives, which anyone, Dahlgren said, is welcome to do year-round.
The museum also has a 4,000-square-foot off-site storage facility with more exhibit materials, a space it will continue to operate after the move. But as it is now, the hallways are crowded, and Dahlgren is ready to have spaces where people can come and look through old maps, directories and other original documents with open tables dedicated to that purpose.
“Our programming is exceeding our ability to handle it with the current staff,” she said, referring to the walking tours, school visits, archivers and researchers who visit. “With the new building we would be able to have more of a presence, and our services could be more accessible to people.”