A recent story on The Statesman’s front page reported that the infamous curse of Billy Fong may at last be lifted from Downtown Boise. No one would like to think so more than I would.
Dignitaries gathered at “the hole,” formerly the site of the Eastman Building, to break ground for an 18-story tower and listen to a Native American prayer intended to “bring balance to the site,” our perennial eyesore. The specter of Billy Fong again made news, mostly in the hope that it was gone for good.
Billy Fong was a Chinese gentleman who lived downtown when much of it was being demolished to make way for a regional shopping mall, which resembled nothing so much as a collection of giant quonset huts and mercifully was never built. Billy was the last person living at ground zero, which ultimately became the site of the Grove Hotel. He was said to have cursed it in retaliation for being evicted, and one failed plan after another to build something there seemed to prove the curse’s efficacy.
To this day, the name of Billy Fong gives me the shivers. It was my bad luck to be the new reporter on the urban renewal beat the day he was evicted. It was my very first story, so naturally I wanted to make it memorable. It was, but not in the way I’d hoped.
My assignment on that cursed day was to interview Billy, but unknown to the editors, or hardly anyone else, he was already gone. Desperate to salvage the story with its subject missing, I reported that he had left to live with relatives in San Francisco and described his recently vacated home. My undoing was one of those sentences writers wish a thousand times they could take back:
“If the three-foot stack of tuna fish cans in the living room is an indication, the cleaning lady hasn’t been in lately.”
When I arrived for work the next morning, the phone was ringing.
“Are you the person who wrote that vile story about Billy Fong?”
And that was one of the nicer calls. Furious that I had entered a man’s home and publicly belittled his housekeeping habits, readers called and wrote letters to the editor for weeks. The most colorful accused me of being so heartless that I must be incapable of loving my wife.
Billy Fong didn’t just curse the site of his former home that day. His curse stuck to me like Gorilla Glue. Years passed – literally – before people stopped talking about the vile story and the insensitive jerk who wrote it. So it’s with heartfelt sincerity that I join the city’s leaders in hoping the curse has finally been expunged.
Still, it’s hard not to have doubts. It is, after all, an uncommonly tenacious curse.
One hotel after another was planned for the Billy Block. My personal favorite was a 54-story, orange and white Howard Johnson’s. It was so outrageous it was hard to believe the developers were serious. Imagine a 54-story hotel – more than two and half times taller than what still is the state’s tallest building, in white and orange.
On the other hand, who knows? If they’d made it Bronco orange and blue, they just might have pulled it off.
One developer after another tried to beat the curse and failed. It was so powerful that not even the highly regarded Oppenheimer Development Corporation could prevail. The Oppenheimers’ successes include what in my opinion is downtown’s most attractive recent addition – the triangular, Wells Fargo building. They wanted to build what would have been an equally attractive Embassy Suites Hotel on Billy’s former digs. That it never happened is the city’s loss.
In 1987, when the Eastman Building burned in one of Boise’s more spectacular fires, attention shifted to filling the hole that was left when the rubble was cleared. Forsaking aesthetic considerations almost entirely, the city pinned its hopes on the 25-story Boise Tower.
In fairness, it should be noted that there were those who thought the Boise Tower was a good-looking building. Not everyone has an eye for architecture, so it wasn’t necessarily their fault that they didn’t recognize a monstrosity when they saw one. My favorite assessment was that of a local architect, whose wickedly succinct appraisal was that it looked “like it should have laundry hanging off of it.”
The Boise Tower, like so many other downtown will-o’-the-wisps, never was built and for that we should be truly grateful. The questions, now that work has begun on another attempt to fill the hole, is whether the curse of Billy Fong applies to the new tower and whether the curse has finally run its course.
We should be optimistic about that. For the sake of ridding ourselves of an eyesore and bringing new businesses to our downtown, we should have faith that a beautiful new tower will rise up and exorcise the demons of Billy Fong. We should hope that soon both hole and curse will be fading memories.
But it won’t be easy.
Look at what happened at the Grove Hotel site.
Yes, there’s a building there now.
But it’s the Grove Hotel.
Maybe Billy’s ghost is still up there somewhere, laughing at us.
I can’t decide from looking at the artist’s renderings whether the new tower will be beautiful. I hope so. After all the years of setbacks and frustration, downtown deserves a beautiful building for what has been called its last signature site. But to be frank, it doesn’t look to me like it’s going to sweep the architectural awards.
On the other hand, that’s just one man’s inexpert opinion. And perhaps we should be grateful. At least it doesn’t look like it should have laundry hanging off of it.
The good news on the architectural front last week was the release of revised plans for Jack’s Urban Meeting Place. The revised version has a more conservative design and color scheme than the original, which looked like a set from “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” But a little color would be nice. Maybe green window glass to go with the parklike lawn?
Next: The Great Train Ride, Part I, will appear in The Idaho Statesman Life section on Sunday Aug. 5 and will be posted here on Monday, Aug. 6. Tim and his wife took a long-delayed train trip through the Midwest and South, where they visited enough intriguing places, met enough interesting characters and, yes, had enough travel mishaps for several columns. Stay tuned.