Holladay • A historic home faces certain death nearly 150 years after its construction, but the impending demolition may breathe life into efforts to preserve Holladay’s significant structures in the future.
Barring a sudden change of heart from Sandy-based Sequoia Development, the house at 4880 S. Highland Circle soon will be leveled to make way for 11 town houses, and there’s nothing opponents can do about it because the land is privately owned and Holladay has no preservation ordinances on the books.
The home, which belonged to one of the city’s founding families, was built in the latter half of the 19th century, according to Kim Duffy, a member of the Holladay Historical Commission.
“It’s that old, sitting there on a street in Holladay,” she said, “and somebody is just going to come in and tear it down.”
Historian Rachel Quist wrote in a social media post that the house was built about 1879 for Alwilda Nancy Andrus Brinton and her husband, Franklin Dilworth Brinton, both children of large polygamous families who were among the first to settle Holladay.
The home was built with adobe and finished with brick. Square nails that were likely crafted in the Brinton family’s blacksmith shop were used to construct the house, she wrote, and many remain visible.
“This house,” Duffy said, “is just like a museum of historic building materials.”
The home was sold out of the Brinton family in 1957, Duffy said, and served for decades as sort of a community center. It’s currently home to The Finishing School, which offers sewing and cooking classes.
“It’s very integral to the community,” Duffy said, “even though it’s kind of in a little, hidden spot.”
Developer considered other options
The project first appeared on a planning commission agenda in October.
Kevin Ludlow, president of Sequoia Development, said his company followed all the proper procedures, including hosting a neighborhood meeting and going through public meetings with the city, and never ran into opposition.
“It’s just kind of strange that now, all of a sudden, we get anonymous letters,” he said. “We don’t even know who the people are that are upset about it. They’ll send us mail but with no name, no address, no return address. We did what we were supposed to do. We feel good about our efforts.”
The company looked at relocating the home on the property, Ludlow said, but it wasn’t feasible.
It also looked at incorporating the existing structure into the plans for its project as an amenity for future residents, but the home was too wide to meet standards for emergency vehicle access to the rest of the property.
Ludlow said his company also heard from a person who claimed to have a perfect place to move the home.
“I said, ‘Feel free to talk to another house-moving company and see if there’s a way to take it and move it,’ but we just found that it couldn’t be done,” he said. “It’s not like we went into this not recognizing it was an old home.”
Holladay Mayor Robert Dahle said concerns about losing historic structures are legitimate, but the property is privately owned and the city has no options.
“There’s only so much the city can do in terms of controlling what happens with it,” he said, “and that’s kind of where the rub is.”
Because the developer’s proposal does not require a zoning change, it does not need City Council approval.
Balancing history with property rights
Dahle said the city’s historical commission has garnered empathy from council member Dan Gibbons, who wants to study what preservation in Holladay could look like in the future. The mayor said the city wants to ensure it gets a legal opinion on any potential legislation and receives feedback from the public.
“The big concern,” Gibbons said, “is that we lose our history, at least that one aspect of the history — the architectural history of the city — which is very rich and very old.”
Gibbons said he’s in study mode for now, calling for work sessions with council members to learn more about preservation.
If he were to propose an ordinance now, he believes it would get voted down.
Gibbons said he wants to work through all the fallout that could come from adopting a preservation ordinance, including legal threats, logistical issues and staffing needs.
He said there are concerns about a preservation ordinance inviting legal challenges from developers and property owners. In almost every case, he said, a city’s insurance won’t pick up the legal tab.
Gibbons said he’s heartbroken by the impending demolition of the home, but the challenge of protecting other buildings in the future hinges on balancing the desire for preservation with property rights, the potential for legal liability and financial impact.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘Yeah, we would love to have an ordinance,’” Gibbons said. “It’s another, though, to understand what we would be getting into.”
Preservationist David Amott, former executive director of Preservation Utah, is adamant that cities can protect their history without trampling on the rights of property owners.
“It is so completely and entirely possible for a city to maintain property rights,” he said, “while still having an active, healthy preservation plan, and ordinance even.”
Amott pointed to Provo’s ordinance as a model for protecting property rights while offering a way to shield historic buildings.
The Utah County city’s rules allow property owners to opt into a program that places more protections on historic buildings. Subsequent owners of those buildings would need the historic commission to sign off on property changes.
Although the number of property owners who seek historical designation is limited, Amott said the program’s availability through the years has led to a collection of protected properties that tell Provo’s story.
“Some of the best architectural moments in Provo,” he said, “are represented in that collection of properties.”
No firm date has been scheduled for the demolition of the Brinton house in Holladay. But the wrecking ball is coming.
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