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In their own version of a late-game Hail Mary pass, opponents of demolishing the Utah Theater won a key endorsement Thursday evening in their quest to list the dilapidated building as a historic site.
Adding the vacant playhouse at 144 S. Main in Salt Lake City to the National Register of Historic Places still needs state and federal approval. Even then, officials said the citation won’t block any wrecking balls by itself and is unlikely to unravel Salt Lake City’s plans to sell the century-old venue to developers who want to raze it and build a residential skyscraper in its place.
In fact, the property’s owner, the city’s Redevelopment Agency, is not involved in the nomination. RDA officials are instead close to finalizing a long-negotiated sale of the theater and land beneath it to Houston-based developer Hines for zero dollars, in exchange for a pocket park nearby and affordable apartments in the new 31-story tower.
But after a review Thursday that set all that aside and focused solely on the theater’s architectural value and place in Utah history, another arm of city government — the Historic Landmark Commission — voted to back the bid by desperate theater supporters in pursuit of a listing from the National Park Service.
“I fully support this nomination,” said commissioner Aiden Lillie, echoing sentiments of seven panel members who voted in favor. “In the context of local, state and national significance, I think the theater deserves to be recognized.”
Nelson Knight, a senior city planner advising the commission, said listing the theater would not prevent its demolition or any future alterations. “Unfortunately, this is a building where perhaps it’s time has past,” said Knight. Yet the panel’s recommendation was legally relevant, he said, to whether the building merits a listing.
Architectural historian Kirk Huffaker said park service officials initially confirmed in early 2020 that the building was eligible — despite major structural alterations as the former Pantages Theater was gradually converted from an early 20th-century performance hall to a popular multiscreen movie venue in the late 1960s.
Huffaker said a request to add it to the register is now in the hands of the State Historic Preservation Office, which has deemed the theater public property.
Backers with a group called Save The Utah Pantages Theater, who hired Huffaker as a consultant, sought the endorsement from the city’s Historic Landmark Commission in advance of a vote on the nomination by the Board of State History later this month, he said. It would then advance to the park service for final review.
“We did not enter into this lightly,” Huffaker said.
The theater “is representative of a rare breed of entertainment venues,” not least for making a transition from vaudeville to active film theater for decades, he said, and was part of the cultural center Salt Lake City represented for all of Utah back then. The run-down exterior facing Main Street aside, much of the theater’s decorative interior remains.
“It was really the eye-catching sort of Italian renaissance design of the interior that people fell in love with, and that is still there,” Huffaker told the commission. “The most significant part of it, the ceiling and the upper part of the proscenium is still there, as well as the entry hallway and the foyer.”
Commission member John Ewanowski noted that a register listing could qualify property owners for tax credits on restoration costs. “I hope the owner of the building, once it’s no longer city-owned, will fully consider that option,” he said.
The city bought the theater in 2010 with hopes of restoring or adapting it for other uses. After several studies indicated restoration and seismic protection costs for the water-damaged structure could top $60 million, then-Mayor Jackie Biskupski authorized the discounted sale to Hines and The LaSalle Group in late 2019, and a divided City Council later endorsed the move.
The RDA has required that the building’s features and history be documented in a digital archive, now housed at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library. It has also insisted on getting the pocket park, a midblock walkway off Main Street and affordable housing units as part of the deal.
An ardent core of theater supporters, film enthusiasts and historic preservationists has fought the Utah Theater sale since, with comments at public hearings, an unsuccessful referendum initiative, online campaigns, hiring of an advertising firm to press the case and mounting several legal challenges.
An RDA spokesperson declined to comment on the commission’s vote, though the person confirmed it would not delay the agency’s plans for the property.
Mayor Erin Mendenhall and members of the City Council, which governs the RDA, have continued to back the theater sale, citing contractural obligations to Hines, other pressing city budget needs and the advantages of park space downtown and much-needed affordable housing.
Hines’ proposed 150 Main Street Apartments building would be 392 feet high, with 40 apartments kept more affordable, 355 dwellings leased at market rates and five luxury penthouse units.
Michael Valentine, a lead organizer of Save The Utah Pantages Theater, said the registry listing could give his group added leverage with Mendenhall and council members in trying to undo the RDA’s deal with Hines by persuading the city to also declare it a landmark.
“This is really a national treasure,” said Valentine, a film enthusiast who in June chained himself to the theater’s doors to protest the city’s handling of the sale. “Putting it finally on the registry honors the theater for the whole country.”
Another group organizer, Casey O’Brien McDonough, said the register listing “is how we fight the fight to save this historic building.”