Reading Between the Walls: Lessons Learned from the Award-Winning Restoration of The Mission of the Sacred Heart to the Coeur d’Alene

As many of you know, The Mission of the Sacred Heart is Idaho’s oldest intact building, one of our most recognizable historic sites, and a National Historic Landmark. Designed by an Italian Jesuit Missionary and built by the Coeur d’Alene Tribespeople themselves, this extraordinary piece of Idaho’s history is safeguarded through a unique partnership between the Tribe and the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation (IDPR). At a ceremony on June 13th, 2023, the Idaho Heritage Trust bestowed the first ever Frederick Walters Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation upon these two organizations for their incredible work reroofing and repairing several of the classical columns in one of Idaho’s most important historic sites.

One of the key sticking points from the outset was determining the proper materials and size for the roof. Through thorough examination, Fred discovered that the soffits, the exposed siding underneath the overhang of the roof, were made from the original four-foot cedar shakes. While cedar shakes would have been most appropriate, the cost for fabricating these proved prohibitive. Like shingles, shakes are overlapping pieces of wood that form the outer layer of a roof. Unlike shingles, however, shakes are thicker on one end and taper as they lengthen. This style of roofing is much more difficult to create. Four-foot cedar shingles proved to be the best compromise to preserve the historic integrity of the roof, maintain its distinctive, rustic appearance, and fit within budgetary and material constraints.

With a template in hand for fabricating the desired shingles, the next issue was sourcing enough cedar of the necessary width to cover the entirety of the roof, as any deviations would stick out like a sore thumb. Jill Wagner, Ph.D., Coeur d’Alene Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, was the Tribe’s staff lead in fighting for this time-consuming and costly endeavor and she felt it would be a disservice to the Mission and those who built it to cut such corners. As she so eloquently put it, using smaller shingles would “look wrong.” Fred agreed, and so, too, did the Tribal Council and IDPR. With funding and support from the Idaho State Legislature, the project continued with a renewed dedication to historical accuracy and deference to those who came before.

“It is vitally important to remember who built the building, not just who designed it,” says Jill. While the architectural design was created by a Jesuit missionary, the backbreaking work and painstaking detail fell to members of the Tribe, many of them women. “Spending a week in the attic with Fred was a masterclass in architecture,” Jill recalls. “The respect Fred gave to builders really endeared himself to the Tribal Council and Culture Committee and showed that he was the right person to lead this project.”

As work continued and word spread, Jill found herself flooded with folks who wanted to see the undertaking for themselves. She learned to work the lift up to the attic and would take representatives from the Culture Committee, Tribal Council, and other interested community members up during the roofing crew’s lunchbreak. It was on one such excursion where a basket maker noticed that the walls were constructed using the same method as a twined basket, which stood in stark contrast to the European flat-weave style of wattle and daub construction. “There are handprints in the clay on lower levels, the handprints of those who wove and plastered the walls. The dress on display in the lobby of the visitor’s center belongs to one of the people who made those handprints.”

By comparing the original plans to the current building, it became increasingly apparent how much the designers and Tribe members deviated from the initial design to accommodate local materials and conditions. For example, the original design for a domed roof simply would not work in this climate and with the materials at hand. Attendees of the award ceremony were treated to a trip to the attic and were able to see firsthand the handprints in the mud, the adze marks on the wood, and understand how much knowledge was gained through this preservation project that would have otherwise been lost to time.

“It is really exciting to see a shift in the way we interpret the history of a place like this,” says William Niska, IDPR Manager of Old Mission State Park. “Telling more of the story of the Tribe, the people who built this building, and the people who held this place sacred long before the Mission stood here.” Will is excited to put the $5,000 accompanying the award toward this end, stating they intend to add a pair of display cases in the Parish House to showcase art and artifacts that tell the story of who the Tribe is now. Will and Jill coordinate weekly tasks to stay on top of the upkeep required to keep the building in strong working order, as well as pushing forward painting projects, ADA accessibility retrofits, interpretive sign updates, and management of the grounds. “It’s overwhelming some days,” says Will. “But my main purpose, and the purpose of all of us who work at the Park – Tribe members and staff, IDPR staff, contractors, the local fire department – is to make sure nothing happens to this building during our watch.” Felix Aripa, Tribe Elder, told Jill, “Trees this mature have a strong immune system, that’s why they don’t rot.” While that may certainly be the case, it is heartening to know there is such a resolute team of folks making sure Idaho’s oldest building remains.

Tribe and community members continue to make a pilgrimage to the Mission every year. It is an opportunity to gather together as families and as a community. Thanks to the work of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, and the IDPR team, there is more to learn, share, and appreciate about this sacred place and the building on which it stands than ever before.

IHT would like to say thank you to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the IDPR team for such incredible stewardship of The Mission of the Sacred Heart.

You can learn more about the Coeur d’Alene tribe here, see what IDPR has in store for you at Old Mission State Park here.

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