By Julie Gibbs
| June 5, 2020 1:00 AM
A close look at the three-story building dominating the southwest corner of Sherman Avenue and Fifth Street reveals two clues to its history. The words “City Hall” appear above the elaborate arched entry and the inscription, “Erected 1908” is chiseled on the cornerstone.
Between 1900-1910, Coeur d’Alene’s population and prominence as a regional commercial center grew rapidly. City administrative duties also expanded, prompting the need for a new city hall.
By 1908, architectural plans for the new building were complete and construction activities frequently made front page news in the Coeur d’Alene Evening Press. The news stories portray a colorful history of the building’s earliest days.
In April 1908 the city council awarded a building contract to W.P. Smith for $35,420. E.T. Barnum of Detroit won a separate contract to build four jail cells in the basement for $458.
The ink had scarcely dried on the contracts when preparations began for a “mammoth” ceremony to dedicate the building and lay the cornerstone.
On the afternoon of June 9, 1908, downtown businesses closed and a large crowd gathered. At 3:30 one of the largest parades ever witnessed in the city made its way along Sherman Avenue. The leading float carried the cornerstone, followed by the police force in full uniform, the fire department, the Coeur d’Alene band and numerous organizations and dignitaries.
The festivities included musical performances and impassioned speeches. Deputy Grand Master J.C. White conducted a “beautiful and impressive” ceremony as the Grand Lodge of Masons lowered the cornerstone into place. The grand finale was a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by the Coeur d’Alene band.
Construction was complete by Dec. 21, 1908. News reports heralded the city hall as “one of the handsomest as well as one of the most substantial buildings of its kind in the state.”
It was not long before the building was back in the news. On Dec. 26, city police arrested H.J. Speede on charges of forgery and locked him in the old city jail. Chief of Police Patrick McGovern discovered Speede trying to cut his way out and moved him to the new jail in the basement of city hall. Deemed a “clever crook,” Speede promptly broke the padlock and escaped. To add insult to injury, he left a taunting farewell note: “Speede is gone, how did he do it.”
The police found Speede later that day attempting to board a train bound for Spokane. The wayward crook was arrested once again. Speede’s escapade earned him the dubious honor of being the first prisoner to escape from the new city jail.
The Museum of North Idaho (MNI) preserved the former home of J.C. White, to become part of a new museum. To donate, send tax deductible donations to P.O. Box 812, Coeur d’Alene, ID 83816-0812 or contact Jim Faucher to discuss larger donations at 208-660-0571. See the museum’s website for ways you can become a valued museum member.