Historic parts of Utah prison shouldn’t get torn down, groups argue

Draper • Its notorious concrete walls and iron bars might hold some of Utah’s ugliest memories, but many believe portions of the old state prison should be saved.

Questions of preserving part of the 70-year-old Draper prison took on new urgency Monday with the state’s announcement of stepped-up planning efforts to develop the coveted land beneath it.

The hulking penitentiary, which has housed prisoners since the mid-1950s, is currently headed for demolition sometime in 2022 once operations and nearly 4,000 or more inmates are moved to a new prison now being built in Salt Lake City.

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) The Utah State Prison in Draper Thursday on May 21, 2015.

Proponents say future development on the vacated 700 acres of state-owned land in Draper — which is likely to have a high-tech focus and lots of housing — could be the biggest economic opportunity in state history.

But historic preservationists, longtime Draper residents, former prison workers and advocates for inmates say they want in on the conversation, arguing there are also vital and important stories and artifacts at the lockup that need to be retained for future generations.

“Just wiping away any remembrance of that place — all the prisoners, the parole officers, all the people who worked there, all the volunteers — to just wipe it away willy-nilly doesn’t make sense at all, especially for Draper,” said Todd Shoemaker, a retired teacher and member of the Draper Historic Preservation Commission.

Shoemaker said the commission will submit its ideas to the mayor and City Council soon and has been frustrated, according to some members, that elected leaders haven’t already offered guidance on a preservation plan.

“This is the time for them to tell us exactly where they stand on the prison,” Shoemaker said.

The Land Authority, created by special law to govern the project, officially renamed the plot beneath the prison “The Point” in a marketing campaign launched last week. The panel is also seeking proposals from consultants to start writing a definitive master plan, beginning in January.

Situated in a rapidly growing suburban stretch between Salt Lake and Utah counties along Interstate 15, the choice locale’s development could ultimately generate thousands of jobs, new roads and TRAX routes, and billions in tax revenue for the benefit of all Utahns, panel members say — not just those who live nearby.

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) The Utah State Prison in Draper on Thursday May 21, 2015.

Nobody in a position of power over the site is publicly ruling out some element of historic preservation just yet, but in light of demands for a substantial financial return on the land, there are emerging differences on how far that might go.

“I want to see some preservation of history, but we don’t know what that looks like yet,” said Draper Mayor Troy Walker, who also sits on the land authority board. “Our mandate is to develop it to the highest and best use and get the most return for the taxpayer.”

The mayor also said any preservation efforts would need to strike an appropriate balance: “Keep in mind, it’s a prison,” he said. “Violent and notorious criminals have lived there. Preservation of a jail is interesting, but it’s not a celebration.”

Some physical aspects of the prison complex — an iconic guard tower or portions of its cellblocks — might be kept or repurposed, Walker added, “but the authority’s mission is not to preserve the prison site. It is to develop the prison site.”

Prison history

The prison on Draper’s Bitterbrush Lane replaced the state’s old territorial prison at Sugar House Park in 1955. The Sugar House prison was then razed virtually without a trace.

Draper was mostly farmland back when Wasatch, the oldest section of the prison, first started housing inmates. The area has since been surrounded by homes and offices for hundreds of technology firms in what is now called Utah’s Silicon Slopes.

Over the years, the prison has held high-profile criminals such as serial killer Ted Bundy, forger and convicted murderer Mark Hofmann and death row inmates including Ron Lafferty and Ronnie Lee Gardner, among others.

(Tribune file photo) Mark Hofmann.

Double murderer Gary Gilmore drew worldwide attention when, in 1977, at his own insistence, the Texas native became the first person in nearly a decade to be executed in the United States when he was shot by a firing squad.

The prison is also home to a rare manual locking system on its Wasatch blocks known as “the Johnson bar,” brought there from the Sugar House prison and thought to be only one of two such systems still in use.

‘Part of the landscape’

For longtime residents of Draper, Bluffdale and other southwest Salt Lake Valley cities, the prison has also been woven into the fabric of their communities for nearly three generations.

LaRayne Day, 83, remembers her father playing on a community baseball team for Bluffdale that regularly competed with a team of inmates. The prison, she said, “was a big part of my growing up.”

Today, as chairwoman of Draper’s historic commission, Day said that the group’s attempts to officially broach the subject of saving prison history have been sidelined for at least two years. “Any time we’ve tried to get feedback,” Day said, “they just tell us it’s a ways down the road.”

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) A Utah State Corrections officer looks through glass at a wing of cells in the Oquirrh unit at the Utah State Prison in Draper in 2014.

Jerry Pope, now retired and living in West Jordan, was a prison guard for 32 years, one of thousands of Utahns who worked there over the decades. Pope said there is a host of prison relics — from old logbooks and weapons systems to some of the prison’s multitiered cellblocks and its distinct locking mechanism — that might fill a museum some day.

“It’s been part of the landscape,” Pope said of the prison’s presence on the Wasatch Front. “If you took a building and had a place where people could see how it used to be, with the old bars and those kinds of things, it would certainly be a nice piece of history for Utah.”

There is also “a human story” to be told with the firsthand accounts of inmates, their reasons for being there and day-to-day culture inside those gray walls, according to the Utah Prisoner Advocate Network, a nonprofit that campaigns on behalf of prisoners and their families.

“It’s just a much bigger part of Utah’s unique history that we have here, and I don’t think it can be found anywhere else in the state,” UPAN spokesman Shane Severson said. “Hopefully, there will come a time when crime and punishment are handled differently, but for now it’s important to have that knowledge about the past.”

The recent heightened public awareness of social justice and societal inequities have also given new weight to the importance of acknowledging and documenting the history and culture of prisoners, one historic preservationist said.

“How do you represent a difficult history on a site that a lot of people want to erase, but that deals with a population that deserves recognition in terms of social and racial justice?” asked Kirk Huffaker, who runs a Salt Lake City-based consulting firm. “There is something there that is very powerful and of the moment today that needs to be factored into this planning.”

Slow-moving process

There’s no question that debate over the Point of the Mountain development has been slow going. The Utah Legislature officially approved the prison move in 2015, after years of discussion, and the idea has since been dissected and studied extensively in hearings on Capitol Hill.

A detailed set of rules passed by state lawmakers in 2018 to guide how The Point is developed calls for high-quality jobs, strategic housing and commercial growth, vibrant urban centers, extensive trails and open space, recreation opportunities and “world-class” mass transit.

It makes no mention of historic preservation.

A preferred vision for The Point and large swaths of privately owned land around it, created by the planning agency Envision Utah, has recommended using parts of the existing prison as a way “to provide historic context and authenticity.”

That vision, based on extensive surveys of public sentiment, suggested saving Wasatch’s A-Block and a guard tower and exploring the conversion of other buildings “for incubator, research, classroom or other space.”

That is about as specific as the state’s initial plans have gotten so far on preservation, said Rep. Lowry Snow, co-chairman of the Point of the Mountain State Land Authority. The St. George Republican said the panel “certainly hasn’t dismissed” the notion, “but we haven’t had a chance yet to really define that or know what is being proposed.”

How the prison could be reused

Alan Matheson, executive director for the Point of the Mountain State Land Authority, said he has talked with historic preservationists and remains receptive to their suggestions.

Members of the authority, Matheson said, have looked at several other renovated jail and prison sites across the nation that are now tourist destinations and some have even stayed at Liberty Hotel in Boston, converted out of that city’s Charles Street Jail.

“It’s kind of cool,” he said.

Others pointed to Alcatraz outside San Francisco, Sing Sing in New York, Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and similar historic sites in Idaho and Arizona that are now major cultural attractions.

Matheson said the land authority also continues to hear from high-tech companies that “are really intrigued with quirky historical sites as potential offices.” Some on the panel have recently toured other “adaptive reuse” projects in Salt Lake City’s Granary District that have modernized industrial sites.

And as state officials finalize their site plans, Matheson said, “we’re open to ideas and we’ll kind of see where those ideas go.”

The head of Preservation Utah said the state would be missing major economic gains by not saving some of the prison’s features and its style of midcentury modern architecture as part of a broader development.

We sometimes don’t think well of those buildings that are crowded with all sorts of memory and unpleasant associations,” interim Executive Director David Amott said. “But the fact is, refreshed and rehabbed and rethought buildings can live a thousand different lives moving forward.”