Music Conservatory will make its home in Coeur d’Alene
By Jillian Chandler
Photo by Cindy Nunn
“We are tired and well-worn out from this 13-month long battle, but every minute has been well worth it. We have met some amazing people [and] accomplished what many thought would be impossible.” - Cindy Nunn
Until last month, a piece of Coeur d’Alene’s history was in jeopardy. The home that sits at 627 Government Way in the historic Forest Heights neighborhood was nearing possible demolition. But thanks to the determination of a few women—and a Hail Mary during the final moments—the Historic Hamilton House has been saved, and the sound of this news could not be sweeter to our ears.
“The past has been saved to remain as a tangible piece of history for future generations,” smiles Cindy Nunn.
On October 9, after more than a year of trying to raise awareness and funds to stop the Hamilton House from demolition, $501,000 was enough to purchase the property and continue its long legacy. Local businessman Donald “Pepper” Smock and Mayor Steve Widmyer stepped up to the plate after all else had failed, with the final bid that was accepted. And now, the Hamilton House will be home to the new Coeur d'Alene Music Conservatory.
But without the unwavering determination of Cindy, Deborah Akers Mitchell and Zoe Ann Thruman, combined with the vision of Julienne Dance, the fate of the Historic Hamilton House could have ended much differently.
It was Zoe Ann who created the initial campaign by starting a petition to save the house, with neighbors of the historic Forest Heights neighborhood in favor—as they did not want to see a multi-story office building or a parking lot tarnish the look of their historic neighborhood, which was dedicated in 1905.
Growing up in Coeur d’Alene and having family that has been in Kootenai County for more than 120 years, Deborah has always been fascinated with the town’s history. She volunteers at the Museum of North Idaho, and it was there, in the spring of 2019, that she first discovered the plight of this house, which Deborah knew as the Hawkins’ house growing up, from historian Robert Singletary.
For Cindy, she first learned about the house’s fate later that year, in September 2019, when the local newspaper reported that a petition had failed due to a lack of any evidence that the Hamilton House had historical significance. “At that time, I only had an interest in photographing the exterior and interior as a record for future generations and also felt it would make a good chapter in the next book I was planning on writing,” she shares. After taking the photos she began to research the history of the house for her chapter draft she was writing. It was during this time that she found out that the original plot of land had been a part of Fort Sherman and had been purchased by J.J. Browne, for whom Browne’s Addition in Spokane is named for.
Through her research, she crossed paths with Deborah, who she had first met online while living in Dalton Gardens, who too was digging into the house’s history. “From that moment on we joined forces, and the history that was revealed to us proved that this was not just an ‘old house,’” says Cindy. “We felt that we now had the crucial evidence needed to try and save the Hamilton House from demolition.”
The pair had discovered that the house had been built by the second mayor of Coeur d’Alene, Boyd Hamilton, and sought help from the Kootenai County Historic Preservation Commission and from the City, via Mayor Widmyer. “The history was exciting. It had to be told, and the house had to be preserved,” shares Deborah. “We immediately began calling it the Hamilton House and made an effort to publicize the name.”
Both Robert Singletary and Mayor Steve Widmyer concurred that this house was indeed worth saving,” according to Cindy. “Deb then approached the County Commissioners with our information, and with the mayor and Robert Singletary backing us up, the commissioners decided to put a hold on demolition while we figured out how to proceed.”
A few months later, Zoe Ann invited Cindy and Deborah to a meeting of citizens who wanted a music conservatory in Coeur d’Alene. “And not just anywhere in Coeur d’Alene—they wanted it in the Hamilton House. Julienne Dance was the visionary,” says Deborah. “At that point, we were like a three-ply cord: those that wanted to preserve history; those who wanted to save a neighborhood; and those who wanted a music conservatory. We became an indomitable force.
“Cindy and I began investigating the histories of the people who lived there, and we found some great stories. But we were compelled by the synchronicity unfolding,” says Deborah. “Many of the former residents were professional musicians. It was as if this house was meant to have music once again.”
Originally, they were in talks with the county about leasing the building. “But in March, COVID hit, and suddenly nothing was certain,” recalls Deborah. “Then in June, we were given an ultimatum to buy the house—and do it in 90 days. I was stunned. How could we be expected to raise a half-million dollars in 90 days in the middle of a pandemic?”
As Cindy shares, “It was our misfortune to be trying to save this house with limited time, resources and so many strictures placed on us. “The County Commissioners worked with us as well as they could, under the circumstances, but we came across quite a few bumps in the road and one or two nasty surprises that we were not expecting. At times we were nearly ill with worry. Deb and I remained determined that if this effort failed, we would continue trying to save it until we succeeded, or the house came down.”
They utilized whatever means they could to spread awareness, from newspaper articles, radio and presentations, to social media. Cindy created a website, two Facebook pages, visited multiple websites and forums daily that were focused on historic house preservation, history and music. Deborah stayed busy with phone calls, emails, letters and presentations to the community through the museum and historical societies. “It is also largely due to Deb’s tenacity that the house is now pre-qualified for historic status on the National Registry,” smiles Cindy.
“We also set up a booth at the Farmers Markets and began a series of Open Houses to allow people to look inside the Hamilton House and hear about how it would be used as a music conservatory,” says Deborah. “In August we had three phenomenal outdoor concerts on the lawn, and the attendance increased for each one.”
The very presence of the Hamilton House is something that everyone can enjoy and appreciate. “As a music conservatory, it adds to the culture of not just Coeur d'Alene but to all of Kootenai County,” affirms Cindy, adding, “These two men (Smock and Widmyer) have given this community such a wonderful and special gift with this act of kindness.”
The women are now focused on repairs and safety and code requirements for the house, which still displays its original wooden floors, doors, windows and hardware. “Honestly, for a house that is 112 years old and has sat empty for three years, it's in remarkably great condition,” says Cindy.
With hopes for the conservatory to open its doors to the community sometime this winter and provide an opportunity for serious musicians to take their talents and skills to a higher level, it will also enrich the lives of those who find communication difficult but are reached by the language of music, such as those with Autism, according to Cindy. Julienne, who already has instructors lined up and a list of interested students, will be offering instruction at all levels and to all members of the wider community, including for special needs and disabled veterans. They hope to have a music library with instruments that can be loaned out, music instruction for children and connections to mentors. Three beautiful pianos have already been donated. And as not everyone is interested in traditional classical music, Julienne also plans to accommodate those who seek to learn a more modern interpretation.
“We hope to see the music conservatory thrive and grow into a nationally recognized institution of superb instruction that produces classically trained musicians with unsurpassed talent,” smiles Cindy.
For those who would like to learn the fascinating and in-depth history of this remarkable house, Cindy invites you to visit HHHCdA.wordpress.com. A continual work in progress, new information is added regularly. For information about classes and other possibilities, contact Julienne Dance at email@example.com or visit the website CdAConservatory.org. In addition, Cindy and Deborah are now dedicated to continuing their venture, Documenting North Idaho, for those interested in learning the history of their home, property or business.
The Music Conservatory is 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and donations can be made online at CdACconservatory.org or by check made out to Music Conservatory of Coeur d’Alene and mailed to 10507 N. Strahorn, Hayden, ID 83835. For questions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.