North Idaho College restores old powder magazine
History is written on the walls – literally and figuratively – of the 128-year-old powder magazine on the campus of North Idaho College.
After a laborious three-year restoration, this Army fort relic is ready for visitors to discover its 19th-century rustic appeal – along with a bit of 21st-century technology tucked discreetly into the corners.
As part of NIC’s 80th anniversary celebration, college officials gathered Wednesday evening to dedicate the 700-square-foot space as a new meeting room, study area and history exhibit. It’s authentically retro and cozy, and comes with wireless Internet, security cameras, heating and air conditioning.
Panels on the newly uncovered brick walls speak to the legacy of the college, Fort Sherman in the late 1800s and the native people who gathered here for generations before white settlers arrived. Artifacts – reproductions, mostly – bring the past to life: a bugle, a cavalry saber, a lantern, a spittoon.
The man behind the vision for the project is Mike Halpern, NIC’s director of facilities operations. For years he thought the college should return the building to its original state and incorporate exhibits about the site’s past.
“There was education going on here way before the college was here, between the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and then the Fort Sherman Chapel, which was the first school in Coeur d’Alene,” Halpern said.
Rhonda Smalley, NIC Copy Center operator, was charged with researching and designing the exhibits.
“Once we got into the research, it became my own personal connective tissue,” Smalley said. “It connected me to those who went before us. We are here because they were here first. They designed this, they developed the land, they pulled up those stumps in the middle of a muddy night. They got the hard work done, broke it open for us.”
The powder house – one of a few surviving buildings from Fort Sherman – was built in 1885 to store arms and artillery.
After the Army abandoned the fort, the building was converted to a private residence. The college acquired it in 1941, continuing to lease it as a house as the campus grew up around it. The old powder house became the first home of the Museum of North Idaho in the early 1970s, and the museum continued to lease it for displays until recently.
The college began restoration in spring 2010, with NIC’s maintenance and landscape crew doing much of the work. In time, workers revealed the early architecture. A false ceiling with asbestos above was removed, exposing wooden rafters. Sheetrock was torn out and white paint stripped from the brickwork. Linoleum was pulled up off the wood-plank floor. A long-hidden window was exposed. Iron shutters on the outside were restored.
“Getting this thing gutted and starting over was the biggest thrill for me,” Halpern said. “Everything kind of snowballed from there.”
The room is furnished with one large and several small tables, and it’s available for small receptions and catered events.
Near the front entrance stands a replica of an 1841 field cannon – the same shown in an old photo taken at Fort Sherman.
NIC on Wednesday also dedicated a new veterans memorial next to the powder house.