Photos become a portal to Salt Lake City’s history — on Instagram

Leo Mašić says he’s learned a lot about why Utah’s capital is the way it is, by looking at its past.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Leo Mašić shows a picture of former buildings on 200 South, juxtaposed with the location's current identity as the entrance to the Hotel Monaco, in Salt Lake City, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.

One day in 2018, Leo Mašić said, he was home sick and was just opening his laptop to watch something in his Netflix queue.

“Right before I started watching, I stumbled across this page that the state runs, that is like this repository of hundreds of thousands of old photos of Utah,” Mašić said.

The photos, Mašić said, left him “gobsmacked. … A lot of these pictures really showed a really vibrant city with a lot of people on the street. It just seemed like such a different city in a lot of ways than what we know today to be Salt Lake.”

As he went through the photos, Mašić said, the idea of sharing them with others appealed to him. That process of exploring became something of a treasure hunt, he said, because “you’re not actually looking for anything, but it just kind of comes up out of nowhere. It’s a fun little surprise.”

So in 2019, Mašić launched his Instagram account, OldSaltLake. The account now has more than 14,000 followers — people who, like him, are interested in the city’s past.

“I want to know why [Salt Lake] is the way it is today, through learning the history of the city,” Mašić said.

Some of his most popular posts include: one about Mount Majestic Manor at Brighton ski resort, a shot looking east on 400 South in 1980 (before Rice-Eccles Stadium or a TRAX line existed), a picture of the old Acord Arena in the Salt Palace where the Utah Jazz played before Delta Center was built; an image of the old Oak Hills Drive-In on the East Bench; and one that captures the aftermath of a tornado that hit downtown Salt Lake City in 1999.

Mašić pulls most of the account’s photos from the website he discovered all those years ago, he said, adding that he credits the original source of the photos. He tends to focus on the Salt Lake Valley — though he occasionally posts about Park City and Bingham Canyon.

“Salt Lake is very much home, I love it here,” Mašić said.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Leo Masic poses for a photograph on Salt Lake City's Main Street, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.

Change over a century

Salt Lake City been Mašić's home since he was 4 years old, when his parents — refugees from the former Yugoslavia — fled the Bosnian war in the 1990s, and were permanently resettled in Utah.

The Instagram account is a sort of “love letter” to his adopted home, he said. It also reflects his interests, as someone who majored in urban planning at the University of Utah and has a master’s degree in public administration.

“I’ve always been interested in Salt Lake as a city and how it’s developed,” he said. “Why do we have the massive blocks and the grid system?”

What has stood out to Mašić during his searches, he said, is how different Salt Lake City was a century ago.

“One hundred years ago, you saw a Salt Lake that’s very walkable,” he said. “There’s so many people in the street at all times of the day, in all weather conditions. You see streetcars close to the brim going to every neighborhood in the city. You see all these small corner stores dotted across the entire city.”

Today, he said, Salt Lake City is more “oriented around the car,” there aren’t as many people out on the street, and “there’s not nearly as many corner stores — there’s a lot of big supermarkets.”

His parents told Mašić that they love the United States and Salt Lake City — but something they missed about Europe was “public spaces where there’s people. … They miss main shopping streets that always have a lot of people. They just miss that energy.”

That nostalgia, Mašić said, “has been instilled in me from a very young age. … So when I found these pictures, I was just so fascinated with them. Because all this stuff that my parents told me growing up, this city used to have.”

Many people, Mašić said, tell him that Salt Lake City was built around the car — but, looking at the city’s history, “there’s so much of Salt Lake that was built before the advent of the car,” he said.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Leo Masic gestures towards the First Security Building at Main Street and 100 South in downtown Salt Lake City, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.

Surprises and omissions

Though so much of Salt Lake City has changed, Mašić said one of the biggest takeaways from this project is that “you can still see legacies and remnants of the way we used to be, if you just know where to look.”

He’s also been surprised from time to time — like when he learned about Reva Beck Bosone, who in 1949 became the first woman Utah ever sent to the U.S. House of Representatives. She was one of 10 women in Congress at the time.

“When I learned that, I was blown away. I had never heard her name before, let alone heard the fact that Utah elected a woman to Congress,” Mašić said. (After Bosone, Utah voters also have sent Karen Shepherd, Enid Greene, Mia Love and now Celeste Maloy to Congress.)

“I grew up in Utah, and I took Utah studies in fourth and seventh grade, [Bosone’s] name was never once mentioned. It wasn’t ever in a textbook,” Mašić said. “She just did so much with her life, in a time where women were obviously very, very underrepresented in these positions.”

Mašić said he hopes his Instagram account can help debunk misconceptions people might have about Utah — such as the historical influence of the home of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“There’s this conception that Utah’s only recently become less homogeneous in its religious makeup,” he said. “But there’s actually a time where, in the 1920s and 1930s, there [were] so many people that came from outside the country or state, for mining and other sort of economic opportunities that Utah always had.”

There have been gaps in the history that Mašić has noticed in his digging through photos. For example, he said he wishes there was more information and photos depicting Salt Lake City’s west side.

There are lots of photos taken east of the railroad tracks, Mašić said, but “the west side, especially, is a glaring omission in all this material that I’m looking for.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Leo Mašić shows a picture of the intersection of Main Street and 100 South in Salt Lake City, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.

‘How do we grow as a city?’

Today, Salt Lake City is “kind of at an inflection point,” Mašić said. “There’s so many conversations about like, ‘How do we grow as a city? How do we adapt as a city? We’re obviously growing and what steps should we take to accommodate this growth?’”

When those conversations happen, he said, “Salt Lakers can benefit from a better understanding of what we used to be as a city.”

He cites the idea, proposed in 2022, of building a streetcar line down Salt Lake City’s Highland Drive, through Sugar House.

“For a while, some of the neighbors in that neighborhood in Sugar House, they put up these lawn signs that said, ‘This is a neighborhood, not a railroad,’” Mašić said. “What a lot of those folks maybe didn’t realize when they came to that conclusion is that their neighborhood was built around a streetcar line. Highland Drive used to have a streetcar that went all the way down to Holliday. … That neighborhood exists and looks the way it does today because that streetcar was built there.”

Mašić said he never expected his Instagram account to garner the following it’s received.

“It’s actually been phenomenal to see that,” he said. “To see that folks care about Salt Lake as much as I do. I’ve learned that there are a lot of people that care about the city. They want to know the history of the city.”

Mašić recommends other online resources on Utah and Salt Lake City history, including Rachel’s SLC History, the Forgotten Salt Lake City Tumblr account, and the Demolished Salt Lake podcast.

“The more folks learn about the city, the more folks will feel engaged with it,” he said, “and that’ll make our city a better place.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.