Debbie Wafford remembers as a child being fascinated by what she and her family called the “street with no street.”
Every time they would drive to the grocery store, she said, they would catch a glimpse of the one-block subdivision, running east to west between Main and West Temple at about 1800 South.
Two rows of cottages surround a large grassy courtyard with sidewalks and trees. With gabled roofs, white trim, diamond-pane windows and rounded front doors, the homes looked — at least to a young Wafford — as if Hobbits from a storybook had built a quaint little village in the middle of Salt Lake City.
“It caught my attention from the time I was 10 or 12,” said Wafford, who years later would call the neighborhood — known as Boulevard Gardens — home.
The collection of 23 homes was constructed between 1929 and 1931 and was built in the Tudor Revival and Arts and Crafts styles — strikingly similar to ones built in the city’s pricier Avenues and east-side neighborhoods.
During the latter half of the 20th century, the area surrounding the neighborhood began to change into a commercial and industrial zone. But Boulevard Gardens remained a hidden gem.
Residents, historians and city officials have tried numerous times since the 1980s to get the neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a painstaking process that required gathering old photos, collecting historical documents and getting approval from state and city preservation boards.
While those early attempts fizzled, the most recent application is one step away from success, awaiting final approval from the National Park Service, said Bill Davis, the past chairman of the Ballpark Community Council. (His term ended in July.)
“It’s a fairly arduous process, but we did our research,” he said. “It’s unlikely it wouldn’t be accepted at this point.”
The decision, he said, is expected in spring 2019.
Unlike a historic designations from a city — where officials must review and approve any renovation projects — national recognition comes with only benefits, said Davis, namely a 20 percent state tax credit on renovations and home improvements. Neighbors and city officials see it as an incentive that will encourage voluntary preservation of the properties.
“There are no restrictions,” Davis said. “If someone wants to build a contemporary structure, there is nothing preventing them from doing that, except maybe peer pressure.”
He said the community has no plans to seek local historic district status.
On a recent fall morning, leaves are scattered about the courtyard at Boulevard Gardens, and the vines that have climbed the bricks on some homes have turned red and brown. A sun-bleached Big Wheel tricycle is parked on the grass; close by is a large soccer net that will beckon children when they get home from school.
Besides being a natural playground, the central court is where neighbors chat or plan the annual summer barbecue. “Standing in the courtyard, it’s quiet and you lose the feeling that you are in the city,” Davis said. “It’s magical.”
In a world where some people may never get to know their neighbors, a subdivision with such a communal feel is becoming rarer and rarer. “It’s a nice quality,” Davis said. “It’s something we’ve lost. It’s very hard to create an environment like that.”
David Amot spent hundreds of volunteer hours putting together the Historic Places application. He initially got involved as part of a graduate school assignment, he said, but the project has lasted years beyond the class final.
He has tracked the history of the garden-model subdivision from its early days in England to America at the turn of the 20th century. It’s one of the reasons he was drawn to the project and wanted to push for more preservation.
“The building principles used at that time were so innovative,” he said, "but they are also relevant for us today.”
The garden suburb fell out of fashion decades ago, but in recent years it has made a return, he said, pointing to new developments like South Jordan’s Daybreak development. “Minimum private property with maximum public space — it’s a great way to go,” he said. “Maybe it’s the answer to forging strong communities, forcing people to look at each other and say hello.”
Boulevard Gardens also is the most substantial — or intact — of Salt Lake City’s six courtyard developments, Amot said.
The five other developments that classify as “garden suburb housing” are the Jan and Jo Apartments, 614 E. 600 South (built in 1909); Logan Street Sidewalk Neighborhood, 1617 S. 400 East (1918); the Madsonia Apartments, 647-653 E. 100 South (1922); Green Street Court, 661 S. Green St. (1922); and Noble Place Apartments, 864 S. 800 East (1925).
Amot said Boulevard Gardens, which was designed by well-known Utah architect Slack Winburn, was originally supposed to have more homes, but the project stalled when the Great Depression hit and the developer declared bankruptcy.
The Halloran-Judge Trust Co. took over. “Live in a Park,” the company said in a May 25, 1930, advertisement in The Salt Lake Tribune. “An elite district of its own — drive down and see.”
While each home in Boulevard Gardens has its own design, Amot said, all are unified by their red-brown brick construction, white trim, peaked gables, outdoor lampposts and bungalow-style front porches.
The façades, for the most part, look as they did when they were new, with no extensions, door or window modifications or irreversible architectural changes. Inside, many of the residents have kept the original details, including hardwood floors, wood trim and fireplaces surrounded with Claycraft tile, which was common in homes built during the era.
The houses lining the north side of Boulevard Gardens originally featured subterranean or basement garages accessed from Quayle Avenue. Today, only seven of those underground garages remain, because many homeowners have taken the space to expand their basements. Houses on the south side have an alley they use to access their single-car garages and backdoors.
The neighborhood’s distinguishing attraction — an 80-foot-wide and 800-foot-long central lawn — remains communally owned and maintained by the homeowners.
Justin Neville and his wife are among the newest residents in Boulevard Gardens, moving into the neighborhood in July 2017.
“We had been looking for quite a long time, five or six months and probably 70 or 80 houses,” he said, before they found this home. “We wanted to be in a historical home and fell in love with the area and the house.”
While close to the city, Boulevard Gardens has a suburban parklike feel. And the neighbors are, for the most part, friends, he said. "We have block party in the summer and a progressive dinner around Christmas. The layout lends itself to that, to being a little more social.”
Neville, who works for Overstock, said he supported the new historic designation. “There are several things that need updating [in my home] and the financial incentives make that more attractive and more likely that we will do those things.”
Debbie Wafford is one of the longest-tenured residents, having lived in the neighborhood for nearly 30 years.
“I’ve loved living here,” she said as she pointed out the favorite features of her home, from the original round “Hobbit” front door to the arched walls that lead from the living room to the dining room and the original wood-framed windows.
Later, she shows visitors a framed copy of that 1930 Tribune ad that depicts her house as the model home. “It’s different,” she said. “It’s like living in an exclusive neighborhood.”
People who know about the neighborhood or who discover it by accident “are fascinated by it,” she said. And, when one of the houses goes up for sale, it is snapped up immediately — especially in today’s hot market.
Buying her home in the neighborhood involved a bit of serendipity.
“I can remember the neighborhood from the time I was a little girl,” she said. “We shopped at grocery store on 1700 South and West Temple, which is now a Mexican restaurant. But I was always fascinated when I looked down this avenue and there was no street.”
When she was old enough to buy her own house, her brother showed her a photograph of a Tudor-style home in a real estate magazine, she said. “We realized it was the street with no street.”
The rest, she said, is history.