Salt Lake City's Regent Street, once a haven for brothels, is getting a facelift

Published January 30, 2014 1:44 pm
The area has evolved from a hub of commercial activity to a red-light district in the 1870s to the home of a printing press. Six buildings will be torn down to make way for the 2,400-seat Performing Arts Center, set to open in spring 2016.
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The gaping hole in the wall of what used to be the Newspaper Agency Corporation's printing press building on Regent Street signals more than the coming of the Utah Performing Arts Center — it's the first glimmer in a new chapter for a storied lane that once was home to brothels.

The street between Main and State that runs from 100 South to 200 South began as Commercial Street and was characterized, as its name suggests, by commercial activity in downtown Salt Lake City in the latter half of the 1800s.

But with the coming of the silver boom in the 1870s, more than hardgoods stores and saloons popped up downtown. Regulated brothels were accepted, if not heralded, by polite society, said Jeff Nichols, professor of history at Westminster College. Salt Lake City was among many American cities and towns to have them.

But neither Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker nor the board of the Redevelopment Agency plans on bringing brothels back to Regent Street, said Helen Langan, the mayor's communication director. The vision for what has become a bleak corridor is something like a "Festival Street," she said.

Although a formal design for Regent Street has yet to be adopted, the general idea is for a zone of restaurants, clubs and retail shops that would be enhanced by performance activities, like small concerts, dancing and even outdoor movies.

That's pretty tame stuff compared to the activities that took place there until about 1910, when the city began to crack down on brothels, Nichols said.

It also was about the time Commercial Street got its new name — a change that city fathers, no doubt, hoped would signal a new era there.

According to a bit of persisting lore, it was the first street in Salt Lake City to be paved. NIchols said he could not confirm the account, but it is said that Regent Street was characterized by red dirt and during stormy seasons some Salt Lake City gentlemen were moved to concoct tortured explanations for the red mud on their footwear.

The hole in the wall at the old NAC press plant is the beginning of demolition of six buildings that will come down to make way for the 2,400-seat Performing Arts Center, scheduled to open in spring of 2016, said Justin Belliveau, the RDA's deputy director.

Other structures slated for the wrecking ball include 107 S. Main, 115 S. Main, 125 S. Main and 135 S. Main.

The RDA project includes the $116 million theater as well as a new office tower on the southeast corner of 100 South and Main.

Construction of the theater — heralded as an economic driver by the mayor — also is an opportunity for the city to remake Regent Street as a bridge between the City Creek Center and Gallivan Plaza, Langan said.

"Our hope is that on the heels of the completion of [the theater], Regent Street will begin to have that Festival Street feel," she said. "It's an important part of the ongoing success of that part of downtown."

Kirk Huffaker, executive director of the Utah Heritage Foundation, said the new theater and upgrades to Regent Street could bring new life to what has become, for all intents and purposes, an alleyway. But it might not happen overnight, he cautioned.

"History never stops. The idea that this street is evolving will take decades," he said. "What's happening there now might well help it along."




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