The historic Kearns Building on Salt Lake City’s Main Street gets a $25 million renovation

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Windows that have been restored to the Kearns Building in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. Hines, the global real estate firm that owns the Kearns Building, has launched a $25 million renovation of the 108-year-old building at 136 South Main Street.

The historic Kearns Building in downtown Salt Lake City holds a special place for its owner — in more ways than one.

Hines, the global real estate firm, bought the 10-story building at 136 S. Main St. in 1988. Constructed in 1911, the steel-reinforced concrete structure with a white terra cotta facade was among the first ever purchased by the Houston-based company.

Three decades later, Hines is one of the world’s largest privately held real estate powerhouses, overseeing a global portfolio worth some $120 billion.

The firm recently announced it has embarked on a $25 million overhaul of the Kearns Building’s interior and its electrical, plumbing and other support systems — a testament, one official said, to its enduring commitment to the city’s downtown.

“As you can imagine, owning this building for 30 years, we’re quite interested in Main Street and how everything goes here,” said Dusty Harris, Hines’ senior managing director in Salt Lake City.

The Kearns Building and its renovation hold a special place for Hines in another sense. Owning Kearns, it turns out, has given Hines the inside track to reimagine the aging Utah Theater next door, which the city now owns.

Details of the renovation were released simultaneous to news that Hines and Utah-based LaSalle had clinched a deal with the city to buy the historic theater — located just to the south of the Kearns Building on Main Street— with plans to tear down the 101-year-old venue and build a skyscraper.

Under a little-known provision that lets the city’s Redevelopment Agency give preference to adjacent property owners as it seeks to develop its landholdings, Hines and LaSalle — which owns 160 S. Main, just south of the theater — have been in exclusive talks with the city for more than three years.

Now, with a sales agreement penned by Mayor Jackie Biskupski in early November, the developers are poised to buy the aging venue, demolish it and build a 30-story, glass-clad tower in its place.

Though LaSalle has developed several popular restaurants in Salt Lake City, the skyscraper would be Hines’ first major project in Utah’s capital.

The prospect of razing the Utah Theater has upset supporters of the historic performance hall, who have accused the mayor and officials with the RDA of not adequately involving the public as it has decided the building’s fate.

The RDA has estimated the costs of refurbishing the Utah Theater at between $45 million and $60 million — an amount Biskupski has deemed beyond the city’s budget without asking taxpayers for more money, something she’s not willing to do.

Harris said that during Hines early involvement with the Utah Theater project, “we spent all our time trying to save the theater.” He said the company now supports the decision by the mayor and RDA “to move in a different direction.”

As that project starts to ramp up, Hines will be putting the finishing touches on the three-month Kearns Building renovation, which is set to be completed by year’s end.

The office building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, was designed by California architects, reportedly using aspects of the style of Louis Sullivan, dubbed by one biographer as the “father of skyscrapers.”

(Tribune file photo) This undated photograph shows the Kearns Building.

The Main Street structure is seen as one of the best-preserved examples of that architectural approach in the Intermountain West, according to its original application for National Register status.

Much of the current renovation work — designed by the Salt Lake City firm HKS Architects — is based on original historic 1909 drawings, the owners say.

Designers and Utah artists have also drawn from anecdotes from the life of the building’s creator, Thomas Kearns, a wealthy mining executive, onetime U.S. senator for Utah and part owner in The Salt Lake Tribune.

The renovation has already created a new interior courtyard and artists are finishing a three-story, open-air mural above it, featuring Helen Kearns, the former senator’s youngest daughter.

“We’ve been working on this for a long time,” said Daniel Stephens, a Hines executive involved in the project.

Crews are retrofitting and modernizing much of the building’s 166,939 square feet of office spaces, creating new light-filled common areas and spreading new Utah artwork installations throughout.

On some floors, the overhaul is creating new windows and exposing brick walls and steel girders to give office spaces a popular vintage feel. Harris said Hines is hoping the renovation, which also includes opening a newly remodeled coworking space, will help lure high-tech companies as tenants.

Hines and LaSalle, meanwhile, have submitted initial plans for the residential skyscraper on the Utah Theater site, with 300 or so apartments and new a midblock walkway cutting westward from Main Street.

If the project goes ahead, the 30-story tower would rank among the city’s top five tallest buildings — but that lineup is changing fast.

The proposed skyscraper is one of at least half-dozen new and tall towers now being pursued in Utah’s capital amid a spurt of commercial and residential construction.

Hines, which also owns the Cottonwood Corporate Center in Cottonwood Heights, announced in March that it had purchased a 49.5-acre property in West Valley City with plans to build a four-building, 727,000-square-foot logistics park.

That industrial project has been billed as Hines’ first major development deal in the Utah market.