By Steven Branting
This article adapted from Hidden History of Lewiston, by Steven Branting (The History Press, 2014). Above, Lewiston Orchards School, 1919, designed by James Homer Nave.
“Architecture is inhabited sculpture.”
~ Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi
Famed American designer Phillip Johnson once observed that “all architects want to live beyond their deaths.” Few residents of Lewiston and surrounding towns know how true that has been for James Homer Nave, whose surviving buildings are icons on town skylines and in older neighborhoods.
Nave lost his mother when he was fifteen. His carpenter-father died in September 1881, leaving James in the care of his sister and her husband. After marrying Mattie DeFever in 1887, he worked in Kansas, Missouri, and Texas before bringing his family to Lewiston in 1903 and purchasing land in east Lewiston, where the Clearwater Paper Company is now located, near the forebay of the old Washington Water Power dam. The area was once the center of intense agricultural development. He cultivated one and a half acres of grapes, realizing in one year 1,500 crates from 1,000 vines and $1,500 ($40,000 today) in sales. His fame, however, would not rest on the fruitage of plants, as would the legacies of famed vintners Robert Schleicher and Louis Delsol.
The extent and nature of Nave’s training as an architect are unknown, but his career as Lewiston’s most prolific early designer began in 1904 with several commissions, the largest of which was the new St. Stanislaus Church, a Gothic-style church constructed of stone quarried locally. The first Mass was recited on June 11, 1905, in ceremonies commemorating Pentecost. Nave’s blue prints for the church have been recently rediscovered and made available for study.
Nave next turned his attention to the development of the Blanchard Heights neighborhood, now just north of the Lewiston Shopping Center. Initially, all of the homes constructed there were required to cost at least $1,500 ($40,000). From 1904 to 1907, nine homes, all of which survive, rose in the development, including that for local realtor Gaylord Thompson. The dominant style was Colonial Revival, characterized by large, two-story frame houses with bay windows and large porches.
In 1906, Marcus Means approached Nave to design a large brick structure that would become the Means Block, a Romanesque-style edifice destined to be the focal point of Means’ regional wholesale brokerage business in seeds and heavy hardware. Noted agronomist Ardie Gustafson experimented with the genetics of peas in a laboratory set up in the basement.
The next year Nave created the plans for “a handsome administration building” for the North Idaho Insane Asylum in Orofino, the design of which showed “a building of stone with granite trimmings, with wide verandas supported by large columns, two stories, attic and basement.”
After three failed attempts, Lewiston voters approved a 1909 levy to build two new schools. Lewiston High School had no gymnasium at the time. Nave designed a combined $43,000 ($1.2 million) manual arts–gymnasium building, which was expanded in 1914 to house the upper grades and became the home for one of the nation’s first junior high schools. Garfield and Orchards Schools arose from Nave’s familiar Colonial Revival theme, with large hallways, stairwells and the sash windows that were popular during the period.
In 1909, Nave’s contractual work began to expand regionally with designs for the Presbyterian Church in Lapwai and the Bank of Juliaetta. His design for Grangeville’s J.C. Penny store, a prized local landmark, still retains its tin ceilings, and most of the school buildings on the Camas Prairie were constructed from his plans.
In 1914, Nave set about designing a building for himself, a Swiss chalet–style structure to house his studio, his family, and provide income with apartments on the upper floors.
Nave’s largest project was a commission from Claus Breier, chairman of a vast chain of regional retail stores. Breier came to Lewiston in 1904 from Helena, Montana, and opened his first store. In 1921, Nave designed a five-story, Chicago-style building for the corner of Seventh and Main Streets to serve as the chain’s headquarters. The structure cost more than $150,000 ($2 million) to build and contained 102 rooms on the upper four floors that were rented as offices. An elevator that was for many years one of the most adventuresome rides in Lewiston served these floors. Several of the rooms were designed as suites. The ground floor and the full basement housed the new Breier store. When the building opened on November 25, 1923, it was festooned with lights, two orchestras played, and the Rusty Hinge Quartet serenaded visitors on every floor.
For all his successes, Nave’s career did suffer one noteworthy setback. In early 1908, Frank McGrane considered an addition to the Bollinger Hotel. Nave learned of the plans and approached McGrane for the job. Sketches were prepared, but the project was temporarily abandoned. McGrane later revised his plans, but for an even larger structure, only to abort that idea as well. Nave sent him a bill for $240 ($6,400), later renegotiating the bill to $120 ($3,200). In December 1908, McGrane finally decided to go ahead with plans to erect a larger and more substantial building than originally intended. Nave sweetened the deal by offering to apply $60 ($1,600) of the previous bill to a new contract. The new building was to consist of one story with a basement, although the structure had to be capable of carrying three additional floors. That’s where the disagreements started.
McGrane was not a satisfied customer. When he became doubtful of Nave’s plans and asked him to strengthen the building by putting in iron pillars to take weight off the partitions, Nave became angry and refused to make any changes. McGrane retained the services of Spokane architects and received entirely new blueprints for the building. He took Nave to court to recover the costs of Nave’s design work, contending that his drawings would not produce a suitable building. Nave counter-sued for costs based on a purported agreement for three percent of the construction costs. A local jury sided with Nave. McGrane appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court, which overturned the decision, stating that “clearly, according to the authorities on architecture, engineering contracts and specifications, said plans and specifications were not sufficient for the purpose for which they were intended.”
After the completion of the Breier and Morris buildings, Nave’s work as an architect ebbed. By the late summer of 1926, his professional card no longer appeared in the Lewiston Morning Tribune. He moved to Clarkston after Mattie’s death, operating a sand and gravel pit, and maintained mining interests in the Ten Mile District, near Golden, Idaho.
His last years spent in quiet retirement, Nave died on October 5, 1949, at the age of eighty-five.
Although his career did not span as many years as other regional architects, his legacy can be no better expressed than by the twelve structures on the National Register of Historic Places to which his skills as a structural designer are attributed. His mantle passed to brothers Curtis and Hugh Richardson, but that is another story.