How one person’s dream led to the creation of a hub for the Utah arts community

First envisioned as a dance company’s home, The Rose Wagner grew into a space for theater, film and music.

Linda Smith saw a sign, in January 1994, that the old Restaurant Equipment Supply building was available for lease.

Smith, one of the founders of Repertory Dance Theatre and now its artistic director, had been seeking a permanent home for the company for more than a decade.

“What we were looking for was a kind of warehouse space and clear span so we could have a rehearsal studio,” Smith said.

Smith’s pursuit of the old RESCO building, and a fortuitous meeting with a Utah real-estate legend, led to the creation — on that same spot at 138 W. 300 South in downtown Salt Lake City — of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. The center, affectionately called The Rose, this week is celebrating 25 years as a home not only for RDT but for other arts groups, all striving to create magic in a performance space.

“I’ve experienced art in the building that has left me truly breathless, speechless and has inspired me to work hard and infuse my own work with that same passion and power,” said Jerry Rapier, artistic director of Plan-B Theatre, one of the groups based at The Rose.

The hunt for RDT’s permanent home began in 1983, Smith said, when their most recent makeshift rehearsal space — a World War II barrack near the University of Utah’s medical center — was scheduled for demolition.

Smith’s husband, Ivan Weber, led a group that in the mid-’80s surveyed more than 100 buildings across the Salt Lake Valley. They spotted Restaurant Equipment Supply, known as the RESCO Building — at the site where The Rose now sits, across the street from Squatters — and decided it would be perfect.

“[It] was a warehouse that had three clear-span bays, [where] you could put down a dance floor and perform well,” Smith said. “Many people don’t understand that dancers need a clear space, we can’t rehearse with a pole in the middle of a space.”

There was one problem: The RESCO building wasn’t available, for sale or lease. So when the building was available in 1994, Smith and RDT went for it.

“The entrance to the building was glass, this allowed people on the street a view of our rehearsals,” Smith said.

(Salt Lake County Arts) The old Restaurant & Store Equipment Company — or RESCO — building in downtown Salt Lake City, at the site where the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center now stands.

There was one gentleman, Smith said, who kept coming back to watch the rehearsals. Smith talked to him, she said, and learned that he and his wife, who had died the year before, used to dance in vaudeville shows.

The man told Smith, as she recalled the conversation, that he was born in his family home on the spot on 300 South where RESCO stood.

The man was I.J. “Izzi” Wagner — and when dancing didn’t work out as a career, he helped with the family business, Wagner Bag Company, which his mother, Rose, kept afloat through the Depression after his father, Harry, died.

Wagner went on to become one of Salt Lake City’s most successful businessmen. He is credited with spearheading the effort to remove the oversized “blade” signs and billboards from downtown Salt Lake City, serving on the board that developed the Salt Palace Convention Center, and being one of the partners that bought Trolley Square and transformed it from a bus barn to a shopping center.

Meeting Wagner, who was 79 at the time, “was really the change for us,” Smith said. “He became the lead donor. He just got the vision. He wanted to build a monument to his family and what they had done in the area.”

(Salt Lake County Arts) Linda Smith, left, artistic director of Repertory Dance Company, and real estate legend I.J. "Izzi" Wagner celebrate the ribbon cutting of the second phase of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in 2001.

During the search for a home, Smith said her ambitions grew bigger. She wanted the space to be more intimate, similar to the feel of downtown Salt Lake City’s Capitol Theatre — a former vaudeville and movie palace that was turned into a performance venue.

“We envisioned large rehearsal studios, efficient office space, a black-box theater and a state-of-the-art 500-seat theater, perfect for modern dance,” Smith wrote for a history of The Rose (which was named for Izzi Wagner’s mother).

The search became a joint effort among arts groups. “We decided, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a coalition of users, and maybe achieve something that was grander than something just for RDT?’”

(Salt Lake County Arts) Construction of "phase two" of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in downtown Salt Lake City, which started in 2000.

In 1989, Alice Steiner — who the next year would become executive director of Salt Lake City’s Redevelopment Agency — formed a nonprofit organization, the Performing Arts Coalition, with the purpose of creating an arts center and inviting groups to work there. By 1990, the coalition included RDT, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Ballet West, Children’s Dance Theatre (now part of Tanner Dance), Utah Opera, Utah Symphony and the Nova Chamber Music series.

The coalition hired an international consulting firm, Theater Projects, which, Smith said, studied the feasibility of arts groups developing theaters in the United States.

The coalition soon learned, Smith said, “that there were more performing arts groups per capita in Utah than any place in the United States. It was really gratifying when we started to talk to businessmen, and people in government. They were so receptive and caught the idea of how arts could benefit [downtown] economically.”

Jim Bradley, who served on the Salt Lake County Council in the early ‘90s and again from 2000 to now, noted that arts groups had difficulty booking performance time at the Capitol Theatre. Back then, the Capitol not only was home to Ballet West and Utah Opera, as it is today, but was also the main venue for touring Broadway shows (a role now filled by the Eccles Theatre).

“We needed another stage in Salt Lake City,” Bradley said. “Utah, in general, is blessed by the amount of culture of performing arts we have. We have a lot of performing arts work that is excellent and they all need a stage.”

Building The Rose, Bradley said, meant that those smaller arts groups, such as RDT, “got command of a larger audience.”

(Salt Lake County Arts) Ceremonial shovels, adorned with the image of a rose, were set for the groundbreaking of "phase two" of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in 2000.

Out-of-the-box construction

Construction of the Rose Wagner began in 1995. Two years later, with “phase one” completed, RDT moved in. (Phase two started in 2000, and added the center’s biggest auditorium, the 500-seat Jeanné Wagner Theatre, named for Izzi Wagner’s wife.)

Izzi Wagner brought in architect Prescott Muir, who counted Wagner as his first client when he launched his firm, Prescott Muir Architects, in 1976. After being interviewed by the Performing Arts Coalition and winning the commission, Muir and his colleague Lisa Arnett (now a partner in the firm) designed phase one.

A big part of the project, Muir said in an email interview, was seeking inspiration from black-box theaters across the country — and seeing that few of them were dedicated to dance.

“Both the process and design were very innovative for the time, with few even knowing what a black-box theater was,” Muir said. “A keen sense of good faith was required in envisioning a new prototype for the performing arts that had few precedents.”

According to Muir, Wagner “desired the project to be respectful of his memories of the site and his wife,” Jeanné, who died in 1993.

(Salt Lake County Arts) In 1942, I.J. "Izzi" Wagner joined the U.S. Marine Corps and was stationed briefly at Guadalcanal, where he contracted malaria. That same year, he married Jeanné Rasmussen. Izzi and Jeanné stayed together until her death in 1993.

The challenge for the coalition and the architects, Muir said, was to “design a new building that was conducive to interpretation,” while inviting “artists to leave their mark” and respecting “the dignity desired by the donor.”

The result, still standing 25 years later, is a grand building, with a polished granite façade designed to make the audience feel “reflected,” Muir said.

Looking back, Muir said, “the idea that a bunch of arts groups could come together, develop, design, build and then turn-key deliver the project to a public entity like Salt Lake County was groundbreaking.”

(Nathan Sweet | Repertory Dance Theatre) Repertory Dance Theatre's dancers perform "Brio" in 2013 on the stage of the Jeanné Wagner Theatre, the largest auditorium of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in downtown Salt Lake City.

The magic of The Rose

The Rose’s popularity grew fast. By 2005, just four years after “phase two” was finished (and the year Izzi Wagner died, at age 89), the building had played host to 150 events in the first four months of the year, The Tribune reported at the time.

“You can look around and see how many smaller companies have launched in the 25 years the Rose has existed,” said Rapier at Plan-B. “That tells you a lot right there. People just needed the opportunity to have access to something they could actually afford.”

The size of the three venues within The Rose — the 500-seat Jeanné Wagner Theatre, the smaller black-box theater and the even smaller studio theater — are appealing to smaller companies. They may not be able to sell out the city’s larger venues, like the Eccles, the Capitol or Kingsbury Hall.

The Rose now is home to RDT, Ririe-Woodbury, Plan-B, Pygmalion Productions, SB Dance, and the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition. For many years, it has been one of the Salt Lake City venues for the Sundance Film Festival — including for the annual Salt Lake City gala screening.

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune File Photo) Actor Tom Hanks arrives at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center for the Salt Lake City Sundance Film Festival premiere of "The Great Buck Howard" on Friday, January 18, 2008.

Rapier credited Smith for creating a space that focuses on smaller companies’ needs. “It really is this sense of community that isn’t available in other venues,” said Rapier, who has seen Plan-B thrive there for 20 years.

When Rapier first visited The Rose, to watch an RDT performance, it was “barely a building,” he said. Sheets of plywood, no insulation, a huge pile of dirt on the other side of a wall.

But the excitement — particularly from the artists — was palpable, he said.

“It’s been our home,” he said. “I think a lot of people feel that way once they’ve worked in the building.”

Smith said she can’t believe The Rose has been around for 25 years.

Back in 1997, she said, “when you went downtown, there was nobody on the street. Very few people.” The Rose, she said, “helped restaurants, small businesses. This kind of partnership and thinking of how the arts can benefit the community in a variety of ways: It’s just smart.”

‘Rose Exposed’

For more than a decade, the resident groups at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center have put on a combined show, called “Rose Exposed.”

Frances Pruyn, artistic director of Pygmalion Productions, described the event’s origin like this: “11 years ago, Linda [Smith, the artistic director of Repertory Dance Theatre,] said, ‘A whole bunch of people don’t even know what goes on inside this theater. We need to do something there to bring some recognition to it.’”

The first event, Pruyn said, was special not just because of the audience, but because of all the groups in the building getting to work together.

“It’s a taster of each company’s talents and the type of work we do that’s representational,” Pruyn said.

This year’s “Rose Exposed,” the 11th to be held, carries the theme “Birthday Suit(e).” It’s set for Saturday, Aug. 27, starting at 8 p.m., at The Rose, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.

It’s an hourlong show, featuring short works from the Gina Bachauer International Piano Festival, Plan-B Theatre, Pygmalion Productions, Repertory Dance Theatre, Ririe-Woodbury and SB Dance.

Tickets are $15, available at arttix.org.

Also for The Rose’s 25th anniversary, a new mural has been painted on the venue’s west wall. The work, “Shape Shifting,” was created by Salt Lake City-based artist Lenka Konopasek, and commissioned by Salt Lake County Arts & Culture.

A public anniversary party is set for Saturday, Aug. 27, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The event will include live performances — in the lobby and outside on the venue’s west side — by 1520 Arts, Busker Bus Theatre, Jyoshsna Sainath with Nitya Nritya, and Warehouse 5 Drum Theatre. People can contribute to The Rose’s community art piece, sign a 7-foot-high anniversary card, or record their memories for The Rose’s Oral History Archive (the recording booth will be open from 10 a.m. to noon).