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'It comes from the heart'

by BILL BULEY
Staff Writer | March 8, 2023 1:07 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — Ruthanna Rauer grew up in the Hamilton House on Government Way. Her parents, Jim and Agnes Hawkins, bought it in 1940.

"Mom and Dad raised three kids and two big trees in that house," she said, smiling.

Rauer didn't hesitate when asked what made it special: "Mom, Dad and music."

There was a grand piano in the bay window.

"Dad would be beating on something or playing spoons," Rauer said. "Mom played. If you hummed a tune, she played it."

Music still echoes at 627 N. Government, the home of the Music Conservatory of Coeur d'Alene.

But it almost fell silent.

In 2020, it was nearly torn down.

"This house got that far from being demolished,” said Walter Burns, president of the city's Historical Preservation Commission, as he held his fingers an inch apart.

Due to the tenacity of volunteers and the generosity of two community leaders, the house was saved from the wrecking ball.

"It means a lot we were able to get this done," Burns said.

"A huge accomplishment," added Sandy Emerson, commission member.

The Coeur d’Alene City Council and Historic Preservation Commission on Tuesday honored that dedicated core of Hamilton House volunteers, founders of the Music Conservatory, visionary leaders and property owners with the first "Heart of History" award.

They are credited with "engaging effectively and steadfastly in rallying the community to act in saving this historic residence, representative of the period and the iconic Government Way neighborhood character."

Their efforts resulted in the home being listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"I don’t think anybody needs to be told about the Hamilton House," Emerson said. "This has been kind of the cornerstone in my view of the whole Government Way corridor."

The 5,000-square-foot home was constructed in 1908 for Coeur d'Alene's second mayor, Boyd Hamilton, and wife Alta Brown.

It was later home to a number of notable residents of local, state and national prominence, including opera singer Florence Gregory and Idaho Supreme Court Justice William McNaughton.

But progress nearly took it.

Zoe Ann Thruman recalled hearing county plans to demolish the building several years ago to make way for a building or parking lot.

That launched a furious campaign of petitions, research and fundraisers to save it. One woman said she would tie herself to the front door if necessary.

"The bulldozers were warmed up, they were ready to go," Thruman said. "I just want to tell people don’t give up. Don't stop."

Historian Deborah Mitchell was part of that effort.

"It should be a banner to the community that working together can save our history,” she said.

Still, it wasn't safe until then-Coeur d'Alene Mayor Steve Widmyer and Windermere/Coeur d'Alene Realty Inc. owner and president Don "Pepper" Smock stepped in. They bought the property for $500,001 from Kootenai County and leased it to the Music Conservatory.

Both men grew up in Coeur d'Alene and said they were glad to help.

"I want to save and preserve special homes," Smock said.

Mayor Jim Hammond praised its preservation.

"We are lost without our history," he said.

Julienne Dance, a founder for the Music Conservatory of Coeur d'Alene, said everything in the home today was donated, from the pianos and other instruments to the paint, the landscaping and the rugs.

"Something like this doesn’t happen without a huge team of people," she said.

The award states: "The volunteers who saw its higher and larger purpose, the visionary leadership, the donors and particularly the generous investors who purchased it and continue their stewardship and generous philanthropy for community use are collectively recognized. They truly have exhibited a “Heart for History.”

Emerson said had the Hamilton House been lost, it would have changed the character and culture of that part of town.

"It's part of history, but it comes from the heart," he said.