My favorite room

My hometown, Boise, is relatively young.  It started as a U.S. Army fort in the years before the Civil War, just a distant outpost for scouting tribes.  It didn't even incorporate until 1864, and became a dusty frontier capital with unpaved streets and a few two-story sandstone buildings.

Boise only grew because nearby mining towns boomed.  Then the city's boosters built a good irrigation system, and Easterners started to move in along with the money.  In the 1890s, Boise had mansions, a trolley system, and iconic buildings — an 
opera house, an aquatic center, a city hall that looked like a castle.  It was a jewel in the middle of nowhere.  But over the decades, most of those early buildings got knocked down by time and new tastes.

Among the few that survived is a one-story brick building on Grove Street, a couple blocks from the Idaho Capitol, which didn't exist when the building was finished.  From the street, the place seems unremarkable.  But if you walk in and cross the small foyer, you open a door and it's like walking into another time and another place.  And you get to see what I think is one the coolest rooms in the city, maybe the entire Northwest.

It's an enormous room, about 105 feet long and 50 feet tall, with cream-colored walls on three sides and a lined concrete floor.  About half of it is below ground-level and half above. It's a fronton, a court for Basque handball or pala, an equivalent played with thick wooden mallet.  That the room is still used every day almost 100 years after it was built is remarkable, and it's a unique intersection for Western, Basque, architectural, and sports history.

Among the groups that helped settle Idaho were immigrants from the Basque region of Spain, most of whom found work herding sheep.  On breaks from the open range, many Basque immigrants would stay in boarding houses, including the one on Grove Street built by the Anduiza family right before World War I. 

Like other Basque boarding houses across the West, Anduizas' was as close to a home as most Basques had when they first immigrated.  They slept in sheep wagons and tents for months, so they must have relished staying in a place with a roof and a dining room.  At some point, the Anduizas added the fronton for their boarders.  It might have been like U.S. soldiers putting up a basketball hoop on a faraway base.

Frontons have been central to Basque towns for centuries, and Basques brought the tradition to the West.  Most large Basque communities built courts, and some still stand today — in Elko, Nevada; Jordan Valley, Oregon; and Mountain Home, Idaho.  San Francisco probably has the best facility in the United States, a relatively new, beautiful fronton where athletes from all over the world compete regularly.  Basques in Bakersfield, Chino, and other California towns have built nice private courts.

But the Anduiza fronton is the oldest active fronton in the United States.  It seems to have been heavily used from the beginning.  In January 1915, not long after the court was finished, the Idaho Statesman reported that "shouts and hurrahs coming from the vicinity of Sixth and Grove Streets caused some conjecture as to what might be the matter Friday afternoon."  It was Boise's introduction to "an odd game [that] means as much to the Basques as baseball and football do to the Americans." 

And the game is a little odd.  The Basque handball is about as hard as a baseball and has almost no bounce.  Accomplished players spend years practicing daily to toughen their hands for the punishment.  Basque immigrants in Idaho didn't have that luxury.  They played cold. 

One elderly Basque man once told me that the young guys (and it was just the guys back then) would whack a pelota around for a while, and their hands swelled immediately.  When they couldn't take it anymore, they went to the boarding house owner, Big Jack Anduiza.  "He'd use this wooden board to step on their hands to take the swelling out.  They'd go back and play five more points.  Those guys from the Old Country were tough." 

I don't know if that's true.  Maybe it was. It was a good story.

After the 1940s and '50s, Basque immigration declined.  An engineering firm bought the Anduiza boarding house, but the fronton remained even though it was rarely used.  The dust gathered and the building aged.

I remember first going there as a kid in the 1970s.  It was a musty, dark place with lots of echoes.  Shafts of light came through the few windows at the top and spread over the walls, on the hundreds of marks on the wall from all those balls over all the decades.  You could hear pigeons in the beams.

Then people began to travel back and forth more.  They'd learn to play in Spain and brought it back to Boise, and sometimes players would come from California.  A couple Basque handball players came for a competition when I was little.  I got to shake their hands, which were small and rough, and it was like shaking hands with a brick.

Our hands were too soft, so we stuck to pala.  We were okay players, not great.  We lost precious balls in the chicken wire at the top of the front wall.  Sometimes we'd lose one through a hole in the ceiling and find it rolling in the alley outside the back door. 

It was suffocating in summer.  It was freezing in winter.  The rain leaked down the side wall and pooled in the corner, froze overnight.  But we kept playing.  We learned the dead spots in the floor, like the Celtics memorized at the old Garden.

Now, there are organized leagues for both men and women, and people use the fronton almost every day, probably more than when it was first built during the Wilson Administration.  They have patched up the building, painted it, added lights.  It looks amazing.

Not long ago, watching a pala tournament on that court, it struck me how few active 100-year-old sports facilities there are in the United States.  Fenway Park is 100 this year.  Soldier Field in Chicago, the oldest NFL stadium, was built in 1924 and even that has been rebuilt. 

After the games, I talked to a very good pala player from California and congratulated him on his win.  Then I asked if it was disappointing to play on a cramped, hot, quirky, old court like that after being used to the nice big one in San Francisco.  "No way," he said.  "We love playing here.  To us, it's like playing at Wrigley Field."

(Black and white photo courtesy of Boise by Burns; color photo from Boise Basque Tour.  Both sites have excellent collections.)

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