100 years of the Boise Airport


Did you know that the Boise Airport is almost 100 years old? Yeah, I didn't either. Sharon Fisher wrote a great story for us today all about the history of the airport, the changes it's gone through and more changes to come, plus some insights on the plethora of public art that our airport has. You can listen to me read this story here.

Enjoy!

SPONSORED BY DOWNTOWN BOISE ASSOCIATION

Alive After 5 starts tomorrow!

Downtown Boise's free live music series, Alive After 5, kicks off tomorrow night with local bands Afrosonics + Mungo!

Alive After 5 takes place on Wednesday evenings from 5-8pm on the Grove Plaza. Splash in the fountain, enjoy local food and drinks, and groove to a stellar live music lineup.

100 years of the Boise Airport

By Sharon Fisher

2026 is going to be a humdinger of a year at the Boise Airport.

That year the airport will celebrate its 100th birthday. But if Rebecca Hupp, director of the Boise Airport, knows what she’s planning to do to celebrate, she’s not telling.

“To be determined,” she said in an email message.

Founding of the airport

The Boise area had its first airplane flight in 1911, but an actual airfield didn't happen until years later.

“In the early months of 1926, Walter T. Varney (who later founded United Airlines) bid for a city-owned marshland on the Boise River to develop a landing strip for the first commercial airmail in the United States,” notes Boise State University (BSU), which occupies the site today.

According to the Idaho Aviation Association (IAA), flying the mail had become so dangerous by 1925 that both the Post Office and the Army were ready to turn it over to private contractors. In October that year, a set of feeder airmail routes was established to serve the main transcontinental ones.

Varney, who operated a flying school in San Mateo, CA, had a crew of pilots and mechanics. “He shrewdly guessed that, of all the proposed contracts up for bid, nobody else would want the dangerous mountain and sagebrush route from Pasco to Boise to Elko,” IAA writes. “He was right. Contract Airmail route 5 (CAM 5) was awarded to him.” Varney ordered six small Swallow biplanes and he was in business.

According to BSU, “The 40 wild acres of willow clumps, brush, trees, flood channels ten feet deep, and populated by animal life, was cultivated with the help of various volunteers, Boy Scouts, and veterans of the Civil War, Indian Wars, and Spanish-American War. The finished landing strip laid 2,000 feet long and 80 feet wide.” It was named Booth Field after William T. Booth, a real estate investor.

The first commercial airmail flight, and in fact what’s considered to be the beginning of commercial aviation in the United States, passed through the airfield on April 6, 1926, according to Boise Airport. For the inaugural flight, Varney hired Pilot Leon “Lee” Cuddeback.

While service was spotty at first, just four years later, Varney began hauling passengers, four at a time. By 1932, the airport had two unpaved runways in an “X” orientation, with a hangar and terminal building (painted with “Boise” on its roof) on the southeast side, another hangar on the northeast side, and the Boise River at the northern border. By 1938, another hangar had been added to the southwest side.

A monument commemorating the founding of Varney Airlines was installed on campus in 1979 in front of the Business Building, where it stayed for more than 20 years.

Moving of the airport

As Idaho aviation took off, the original airport’s days were numbered. Its runways were too short to accommodate the needs of the new generation of jet-propelled airplanes.

“With the development of the Douglas DC3 airplane in the mid-1930s, which became ‘the world standard for passenger carrying for a generation,’ Boise’s riverside airport became immediately obsolete,” noted the 2020 Boise Airport Cultural Resources Report. And that wasn’t something that could be fixed.

Consequently, in 1936 the city began buying and leasing land for a new airport, at its current location on the Boise Bench. By 1938, it had what was then the longest runway in the United States, at 8,800 feet or 2,680 meters.

Varney Airlines moved its hangar in 1939, but in the same way that the original runways were too short for new planes, the hangar was too small for them as well. Instead, the Varney Airlines hangar was converted into the passenger terminal. Concourses were built in 1969 for $1.5 million and again in 1979 for $7 million, both funded by voter-approved bonds.

New terminal

In 2003, the Boise Airport underwent a major renovation and expansion of its terminal, which cost $108 million. There was more wrong with the terminal than just being too small, notes the Boise Architecture Project (BAP). “The airport of the time was misaligned with the runway and its limited capacity could not support any addition of gates,” the organization said. “Seeing as the old structure was made of wood and structurally unsound, a full-scale renovation, as opposed to minor changes, was needed. The expansion project was built with the capacity for future expansion, more appropriate and less combustible materials such as steel and concrete, and a parallel alignment with the runways.”

As part of the process, the original Varney hangar was torn down. That also answers the question of why there isn’t currently a “Concourse A.”

Rebecca Hupp, director of the Boise Airport, explained, “Before the terminal was renovated, there was a Concourse A. This area of the airport stayed in service during construction of Concourse C, baggage claim, and the ticketing lobby to help the airport stay open and operational. Once that first phase of construction was complete, Concourse A was demolished to finish out the rest of the project.” The airport switched from the old terminal, which was in operation throughout construction, in 2004.

Designing for the new terminal started as far back as 1997. Architects from local design company CSHQA traveled to other newly renovated airports such as the San Diego Airport, the Providence Airport, and the Baltimore Airport, to generate new ideas and inspiration for the project.

But the project ran into a roadblock when 9/11 happened. Architects were forced to reevaluate the building’s design, such as needing to institute TSA security and more significant security checkpoints. Some other changes included placing some of the stores and concessions just outside the checkpoint near the domed rotunda, since people could no longer accompany passengers all the way to their gates.

They also ran bomb blast modeling for possible attacks on the curved loading roadway leading up to the ticket lobby, changed the window panes to tempered glass, and strengthened the roof.

BAP also notes that the airport’s design reflects some of the most notable natural characteristics of the Treasure Valley such as the Boise River and the mountains. This can be seen on the ceiling of the ticket lobby and in the wavelike carpet patterns which both incorporate curved lines to represent the Boise River. River rocks were placed in the walls on both the inside and the outside of the building as part of the same river theme. They also used Travertine, which is a type of limestone, and Douglas Fir and other natural woods to give the airport a uniqueness and a sense of place.

Other projects included an air traffic control tower in 2013, which was the tallest building in Idaho at the time. In addition, the East Parking Garage, finished in August 2023, added more than 1,100 parking spaces, Hupp said. Several projects are currently planned or underway at the airport, including a $90 million rental car facility, which began construction in February 2024.

Moreover, the Boise Airport was reclassified by the Federal Aviation Administration from a small-hub to a medium-hub airport in 2020, meaning it required a service animal relief area and a nursing room (as opposed to the previous nursing pod). The airport now also has additional federal regulatory requirements – as well as the potential for less federal funding for airport improvement grants.

SPONSORED BY VISIT SOUTHWEST IDAHO

Out of town tip: Go on a waterfall hike!

Despite being in a high desert climate, SW Idaho has some amazing scenic rivers and waterfalls. Here's a few waterfall hikes in SW Idaho to check out this summer:

  • Jump Creek Falls near Marsing - pack a picnic & make this a long day trip!
  • Goose Creek Falls in McCall - camp at Last Chance Campground & start the hike from there!
  • Hyatt Falls along Hazard Creek trail near New Meadows - stay at the Idaho Heartland Hotel or make it a camping trip!

If you or someone you know is going to visit Idaho in the summer, you should definitely go chasing waterfalls.

Public art

Those construction projects led to a number of new public art acquisitions. That’s because Boise, like many other cities, funds public art through 1.2% of any capital improvement project, explained Stephanie Johnson, Boise’s public art program manager.

In particular, funding coming in through new projects means the art can be part of the design, Johnson said.

In fact, there will be so much new art – in addition to the art the Boise Airport already has – that this spring, the city has hired Savannah Shaon full-time as the airport public art project coordinator. She holds a master’s degree in art history and worked for almost two years at a museum in Alabama.

Boise passed the “percent for art” ordinance in 2001, said Tilley Bubb, cultural planner, who was Boise’s public art manager at the time. “Leadership is very supportive of public art, because it’s the landing place for all of southwest Idaho,” she said. “It establishes where you are, with a strong sense of place, and it communicates our values and our focus on the environment.” Public art is also increasingly present in airports nationally, she added. “We’re geographically isolated, but we’re connected to the national zeitgeist,” she said.

The Boise Airport began collecting public art earlier than 2001. The Boise Wings project, initiated in 1996, was the first public art piece the airport decided to fund independently, Bubb said. It was inspired by the Birds of Prey Center and was intended to look like a hawk’s wing – both as a reference to southwest Idaho’s reputation for raptors and as a reference to flying, she said.

The piece, which is made of neon, was designed by Adam Leventhal from California, and assisted by local artists Wil Kirkman, owner of Rocket Neon in downtown Boise, and Noel Weber Jr., with Classic Design Studio in downtown Boise. “It was a great example of selecting a national artist through a competitive process and using the engagement and presence of local contractors in the fabrication process,” Bubb said.

Boise Wings has been in continuous operation since 1997, which is sometimes a challenge. The city has two people in charge of maintaining Boise’s total collection of 1,000 public art pieces, such as cleaning the outdoor pieces and rotating the indoor pieces so they’re not too exposed to light, temperature, and humidity changes, Johnson said. Boise Wings requires a lift. “Boise Wings are in a precarious location on the parking garage, and it’s not easy to switch out a light bulb,” particularly since it’s neon, said Johnson. “It’s part of the fun.”

That said, not everyone loves Boise Wings, Bubb admitted. “It brought a lot of attention,” she said, noting that it was the first piece funded by the city. “People love it or hate it, but it created a conversation about the percent art ordinance.”

The new terminal in 2004 also created the opportunity for more public art, six new pieces in all, according to the Boise Airport Arts Master Plan. The public art pieces include steelhead sculptures, an Idaho compass floor mural at the base of the domed rotunda, a mountainous wall backdrop above the ticket lobby booths, and some wooden benches that were formerly at the Boise Depot.

Altogether, the Boise Airport has about 46 permanent public art pieces, as well as 10-25 pieces in the Boise Visual Chronicle, which change periodically. “For our size, and a destination airport, we have a really large and robust collection,” Bubb said, noting that the original terminal didn’t have any art at all.

Exactly what will be added during the new construction is still being determined, Johnson said. The Boise Airport Arts Master Plan lists almost 40 places where new public art could be placed, including space for performances or short films. There are a number of community engagement aspects too, such as including community members on the selection and design teams, surveys, focus groups, and community conversations.

“For the airport it’s interesting because it’s different from how we do our general fund and public works, where we’re looking at the city in general,” Johnson said. “The airport is concentrated on the airport, travelers, and people who use and work at the airport. The design teams and selection panels might look a little different.” That said, she expects one or two art opportunities in the next six months.

Future plans

In addition to the rental car facility and other projects, the terminal itself will also see an update. “Passengers will also start to see a changeover of all our restaurants and gift shops in the terminal later this fall,” Hupp said. “We are refreshing the concepts and partnering with local businesses to help the terminal feel more like ‘Boise’ for our passengers.” (BoiseDev spilled the beans on the new restaurants, read that here.)

And in 2025, the airport plans to revisit its Master Plan, last published in 2020, to help ensure Boise Airport will continue meeting the needs of the Treasure Valley in its next hundred years. “As a general guideline, we aim to revisit the Master Plan every five years,” Hupp said. “We have a Master Plan update included on our fiscal year 2025 Work Plan.”

As well as a 100th birthday party to plan in 2026.

Thanks for reading!

With love from Boise,

Marissa

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A weekly newsletter & podcast about what's going on in Boise, Idaho. Every week we share stories about people, places, history, and happenings in Boise.

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