Iconic Salt Lake City art installation to take flight again downtown

In storage since 2014, sculpture called “The Gulls of Salt Lake City” to go up again near Main Street’s George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater.

(Utah Division of State History) Tom Van Sant's "The Gulls of Salt Lake City," a bronze-on-nickel sculpture as it was installed in the Prudential Federal Savings building in Salt Lake City in 1964.

The popular downtown sculpture known as “The Gulls of Salt Lake City” is finally slated to rise from its boxes and take wing again.

The towering bronze-on-nickel depiction of wheeling sea gulls in flight, created by the late California artist Tom Van Sant, was long a fixture on Salt Lake City’s Main Street, attached to what was the Prudential Federal Savings building at 115 S. Main Street.

Its immense metal birds and connecting rods remain dismantled and in storage since the artwork’s 2014 removal to make way for demolitions and subsequent construction of the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Theater, which opened in 2016.

Almost a decade later, the city Redevelopment Agency’s latest proposed $84.7 million budget includes spending $55,323 to explore reinstalling the dramatic sculpture somewhere on that same city block.

The agency is considering several potential locations, according RDA Director Danny Walz, including somewhere on McCarthy Plaza on Regent Street or adjacent to the Eccles Theater. The new cash — if approved by the City Council — would cover initial design and engineering “for how we can make those happen,” Walz said.

Following that initial analysis, the RDA, Salt Lake County and the Salt Lake City Arts Council will reportedly all have a say in where the sculpture gets re-displayed.

“I’m really excited,” City Council member Chris Wharton said. “They’ve been gone for a long time and as we’ve found out, it’s not just me who really loves those.”

History, including gulls gone missing

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Glen Richardson with a part of "The Gulls of Salt Lake City" shortly after the iconic sculpture was removed from the old Prudential Federal building in downtown Salt Lake City, in May 2014. The sculpture is set to be reinstalled downtown.

“The Gulls of Salt Lake City” was privately commissioned in 1962 and Van Sant, who died in 2023, produced 100 light-weight birds in several poses using electroplated nickel and bronze, with stainless-steel connecting rods.

In collaboration with the Prudential building’s chief architect, William Pereira, the sculpture was incorporated into its original design. In 1964, strings of the gulls were installed vertically across the building’s full 120-foot-tall facade, extending from a sunken garden below ground to the tower’s apex.

“The Gulls” would become a memorable fixture for downtown visitors and tourists over the next 50 years.

“One almost gets the feeling they’re actually alive and are rising purposefully skyward,” read one jubilant newspaper insert published for the Prudential building’s grand opening.

The building saw modifications in 2001 due to structural issues and somewhere around 35 of the art display’s birds located below ground level got chopped off when that part of the tower was eliminated.

According to an RDA spokesperson, city officials have since discovered that leftover birds were handed out as souvenirs to contractors and others who did the work.

“There’s some still floating around,” said the agency’s Amanda Greenland, who added one gull had turned up in a pawn shop and another was featured at a ranch home in Saratoga Springs.

“They’re just kind of scattered,” Greenland said, “which is a bummer.”

The RDA bought the Prudential building in 2013 in its pursuit of constructing the Eccles Theater and the remaining gulls and supporting structures were carefully removed and put away in cardboard boxes for safekeeping — with an official promise they would someday reemerge.

‘Just grateful’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Parts from "The Gulls of Salt Lake City" pictured in 2014, shortly after the sculpture was removed from the old Prudential Federal in downtown Salt Lake City and placed in cardboard boxes for storage. The sculpture is now set to make a return to public display.

Reinstallation of the art, however, was then “sort of put on hold,” Greenland said, as RDA officials monitored patterns of public usage of the remade Block 70, where the 2,500-seat Eccles Theater, Regent Street Plaza and other amenities added as part of its redevelopment now stand.

Greenland said the RDA’s up-to-date hand count tallied 58 birds, all safely kept at an undisclosed, city-owned location.

Seen up close, she said, “there are different variations of them in flight — some with wings really spread, some with their mouths open — which is really cool.”

The metal birds are tarnished and dirty, having been stashed after being taken down, Greenland said, and will likely undergo a restorative refresh before being put up again.

Van Sant, a prolific and prominent painter, sculptor, cartographer, teacher and innovative kite designer, died March 6, 2023 at age 92 in Guadalajara. He completed more than 60 public murals and sculptures in his lifetime, according to his obituary, many of which are now displayed in airports, civic centers and corporate buildings around the world.

Van Sant designed and built “The Gulls,” installing it with the assistance of master welder Timothy Smith. In a 2014 interview, the artist told The Salt Lake Tribune that “The Gulls” came to be “one of my first large architectural [projects].”

“I connected all those birds, on scaffolds in February, with snow on the planks,” Van Sant said. “I wasn’t scared until I got right to the last ones” on the top floor.

He also said he was flattered that the sculpture had been saved 50 years after it was installed — and even after the building it was originally designed for got reduced to rubble.

“I’m just grateful,” Van Sant said, “they’ve served this half-century of service.”

Greenland said the RDA and Salt Lake City Arts Council are currently working on an agreement to loan three of the gulls to Cypress College in Santa Monica for a retrospective of Van Sant’s work in September.

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