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Salt Lake City Formica house part of midcentury home tour

Published June 12, 2014 4:09 pm

Heritage Foundation event • Emphasis is on space over stuff.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Countertops made with granite, marble and other natural stones may be what everyone wants for today's kitchens and baths, but 50 years ago, Formica was the ultimate symbol of a modern lifestyle.

And during that era, one specific home in the high Avenues neighborhood of Salt Lake City stood as a national showpiece for this hard, durable plastic laminate in a wide array of colors.

The Formica World's Fair House was designed by the Salt Lake architectural firm of Brixen & Christopher and completed in 1964. It was one of 10 houses built around the country — and sponsored by a national company — to demonstrate the different types of modern living products that had been exhibited at the World's Fair in New York City.

The Formica house also is one of four midcentury homes that the public can visit as part of the Salt Lake Modern Tour on Saturday, June 14. All the homes are in the Northcrest and North Hills neighborhoods.

Visitors to the 4,000-square-foot Formica house will find classic midcentury elements, including an open floor plan, sleek design, flat roof and walls of windows that bring the outdoors in.

"The house was very contemporary and constructed early in our practice," 84-year-old architect Jim Christopher recalled during a recent visit to the house he designed some five decades ago. Christopher and his partner were hired to build the house by the contractor, Williamson & Associates.

"We had done previous work with Williamson and this house was a continuation of that," he said, noting that they designed the house to fit into the Salt Lake City hillside. And for the interior: "We were told to use a lot of Formica."

Brixen and Christopher also designed Williamson's award-winning Better Homes and Gardens Editor's Choice Home for 1965.

Christopher graduated from Rice Institute (now University) in Houston in 1953 and received a master's degree from MIT, where he studied under Pietro Belluschi and Louis Kahn, leaders in the modern movement of architecture. He came to Utah to teach at the University of Utah School of Architecture.

During his career — he recently retired — Christopher designed well-known places in Salt Lake City, including the earliest buildings at Snowbird Ski Resort, Kol Ami Synagogue and more recently the Rowland Hall-St. Mark's McCarthey Campus. Christopher describes his design philosophy as an emphasis on context and energy efficiency.

"Clean lines, that's what I was taught," he said.

When the Formica World's Fair House was finished in November 1964, it was featured in a special section in The Salt Lake Tribune (see attachment at left).

Martin and Glynis Gregory, the current owners of the home, still have a copy of that newspaper section they like to show visitors. While much of the house, including the kitchen and baths, was updated long ago — and no longer contains Formica — the Gregorys enjoy showing a visitor the one remaining piece of the iconic laminate, copper in color, in the laundry room.

"It was here when we moved in 12 years ago, and we thought it should stay," said Martin Gregory.

In recent years, midcentury homes have become more popular with younger home-buyers, said Kirk Huffaker, executive director of The Utah Heritage Foundation, whose midcentury committee sponsors this architecture tour. Social media and magazines such as Dwell and Atomic Ranch also have helped to "popularize this way of living."

He said the homes built in this era were significantly different from those built before World War II. "There was more of an emphasis on space and reducing the amount of things," he said.

The trend is cyclical.

Homes built in the late 1990s and early 21st century were large and "had a room for every hobby," Huffaker said. "Today, there is a movement back to reducing. The focus is less on things and more about quality space."

Which is why the homes in the Northcrest and North Hills neighborhoods are especially popular among today's home buyers, he said.

Salt Lake City's Northcrest neighborhood encompasses land from 13th Avenue to the foothills and between I and R streets. Development in the area began about 1949 when the first 25 lots of 300 were offered to the public, according to the Utah Heritage Foundation. By 1950, it was reported that 11 of the lots had been purchased by physicians, with an average home price of $25,000-$30,000.

North Hills, originally known as North Hills Village, includes all lots and structures on North Hills Drive and Northmont Way. Advertisements for available lots began in earnest in fall 1957, touting "best breathtaking view of valley and mountains," "individual original design" and "no carbon copies." The styles of design listed include Split-Level, Two-Level, Early American, Conventional, Tri-Level and Ramblers.


Salt Lake Modern Tour

Tour four homes and a neighborhood swim club in Salt Lake City's Northcrest and North Hills neighborhoods.

When • Saturday, June 14, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where • Tour begins at Northwest Swim Club, 839 N. Hilltop Road, Salt Lake City.

Cost • $20 in advance and for Utah Heritage Foundation members; or $25 on the day.

Details • slmodern.org or 801-533-0858 extension 101.