Sacrificing Main Street’s run-down Utah Theater for a residential skyscraper project is supposed to bring other benefits to Salt Lake City.
As part of a controversial pact to “sell” the vacant 102-year-old relic to co-developers Hines and The LaSalle Group for zero dollars, city leaders who agonized over giving up on fixing the building sought guarantees in return: affordable homes in the resulting tower, a midblock walkway cutting west off Main and a new pocket park in a part of downtown where public open space is scarce.
Another big condition for the city’s land discount was perhaps the hardest to fulfill: Create a digital repository to fully capture the crumbling grande dame of Utah’s performing arts past for future generations before she gets demolished.
The city this week welcomed a new online archive for the once-majestic former Utah Pantages Theater, to be hosted at https://pta.lib.utah.edu by the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library.
Virtual-reality tours and 3D scans, drone video footage, watercolors, charcoal sketches and a mountain of historical documents, photos, streetscapes, playbills and news reports are now part of a copious visual and written record. The venerable hall has been damaged and shuttered for years, and the new repository is the public’s most recent glimpse inside.
For those who had hoped to save the historic theater, the archive brought mixed emotions. While praising the quality of the online repository — a prelude to salvaging some of the theater’s key interior features and tearing it down, possibly later this year — some remain bitter about seeing virtual reality replace the real thing.
“Any consolation,” said Pete Ashdown, an internet entrepreneur who helped organize a campaign to save the theater, “other than saving the theater for movies and shows is dressing a corpse.”
Put together since July by the city’s Redevelopment Agency and a team of experts with the Salt Lake City architecture and interior design firm Modern Out West, the repository reflects some of Utah’s highest standards for historical documentation and preservation, according to Lauren Parisi, RDA project manager.
“We’re really grateful to Modern Out West for not only producing a substantial amount of archives,” Parisi said, “but preserving the theater’s memory forever.”
Theater attracted top stars
Opened in 1918, the neoclassical playhouse, which reaches deep underground and into that city block, served as a venue for local performances and touring acts such as Abbott and Costello, Will Rogers and baseball legend Babe Ruth. The spot at 144-158 S. Main may be best known today as a popular movie house from the 1930s through the 1970s.
While rigorously documenting its history in more typical ways, Parisi said, the RDA-funded effort also pushed boundaries in deploying new technologies and approaches, including use of drones and lidar scanning of the hulking space.
The effort also commissioned artists and involved deep research into news clippings and a host of other documents and resources spread over a century, under exacting standards set by the state’s historic preservation office.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to kind of dive into this treasure from Salt Lake City’s past,” said Trent Smith, architect with Modern Out West and adjunct U. professor of architecture.
But Tuesday’s digital milestone also bought back sore memories for some around the 2019 deal that has all but sealed the Utah Theater’s sale and razing. The city bought it in 2015 as a possible site for what is now Eccles Performing Arts Center across the street and studied scores of ways it could be reused — all to no avail.
Segments of the city’s arts, history and movie buffs and other residents wedged into public hearings at the time to hotly oppose the land discount for Utah Theater, hoping instead to save and restore it as a cultural asset for some kind of public use.
Virtual reality vs. the real thing
David Amott, head of Preservation Utah, on Wednesday called the new repository “a beautifully produced archive. The quality is particularly high.”
“I’d much rather have an archive than not have an archive,” Amott said. “But I don’t want us to ever think that’s an appropriate substitute for the real thing, no matter how good virtual reality gets.”
After years of talks, then-Mayor Jackie Biskupski and the City Council balked at a projected $35 million and $60 million in needed repairs and seismic upgrades to restore the city-owned structure and instead voted to sell it to adjacent property owners at a $4.07 million write-off.
Councilman Darin Mano, elected after that deal was finalized in the closing weeks of Biskupski’s term, on Tuesday called it “really sad we’re losing the structure.”
“Whatever we can do to do the best to preserve some of the elements, I think it’s at least a small consolation prize,” Mano said. His council colleague, Chris Wharton, also lamented the loss, but said he saw no other options then and fewer now, with added demand on the city’s budget due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I know that at this point it’s salvaging really,” said Wharton, who keeps a piece of theater rubble at his desk. “But historic preservation is so important to me and to the members of my district that we feel like documenting it and making that information available online was the bare minimum.”
Wharton said he’s also a stickler for preserving some of the theater’s interior features, including a unique Tiffany chandelier and skylight. Parisi confirmed some of those artifacts will be incorporated into the new skyscraper, pending talks with Hines, while others will be preserved and displayed elsewhere.
Casey McDonough, who fought the sale, told council members the city is giving too much away. “But if we’re going to let that theater go,” McDonough said, “we need to make sure we get every dollar value out of it, not just simply the land value.”
Ashdown, the founder of XMission who fought to save the theater, renewed criticisms over city transparency in the deal and raised questions about campaign donations from developer Joel LaSalle, managing partner of The LaSalle Group, to Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s campaign.
Mendenhall, who once almost fell through a section of the theater’s decaying floor on a tour, backed the sale while a City Council member. Councilman Andrew Johnston opposed the deal as did Councilwoman Ana Valdemoros, who now heads the RDA board.
The nonprofit Utah Investigative Journalism Project reported the $2,000 in campaign largesse from LaSalle in December, which Mendenhall said Wednesday was well within legal bounds under the city’s campaign finance rules, calling claims otherwise “baseless.”
Although LaSalle did have a contract with the city at the time — regarding exclusive negotiations over the Utah Theater site’s future — the nature of that agreement didn’t preclude him under city law from making the campaign contribution, the mayor said.
“Absolutely no illegal or unethical action took place,” Mendenhall told The Salt Lake Tribune through a spokesperson. “Perpetuating this narrative is a convenient way for this group to disparage what is an otherwise thoughtful project that pays respect to the history of the space while creating positive opportunities for the future of our downtown core.”
Meanwhile, with Hines in the lead, developers are pressing ahead with plans for a new 31-story skyscraper at 150 S. Main, contingent on the city’s conditions and a waiver to build the tower, to be called Main Street Apartments, beyond the city’s 375-foot vertical limit for that downtown property. That is now pending before the city’s planners.
According to blueprints filed in January, Main Street Apartments will rise 392 feet, with 400 new apartments, 40 of them more affordable, 355 at market rates and five luxury penthouses. It’s one of at least five skyscraper projects proposed or underway in an unprecedented spree of vertical construction pushing the city skyline upward.