When Gloria Munns bought her home in Salt Lake City’s Liberty Wells neighborhood in 2004, the appraisals indicated the historic Victorian was built of wood.
On the morning of March 18, after a magnitude 5.7 earthquake shook her awake, she discovered you can’t always trust everything you see in real estate documents.
Stucco broke on the exterior walls, exposing adobe and brick, not much wood.
“I used to live in Los Angeles, but I never experienced anything like this,” Munns said Monday. “This was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced.”
The home’s interior plaster walls are riddled with cracks. The east wall no longer looks plumb, and walls are separated from window frames. Their experience should be of interest to every owner of an older home from Logan to Provo.
Masonry buildings give Wasatch Front cities their historic character, but a walk around Liberty Wells gives a sense of how Utah’s dominate method of construction a century ago may not be well-suited for quake country.
Home after home in this south-central section of Utah’s capital shows telltale signs of damage from the March 18 temblor, particularly an elegant mansion on corner of 400 East and Westminster Avenue.
The historic home, built by Salt Lake City business magnate Septimus Sears in 1896, was the hardest hit in Liberty Wells, where the earthquake left a damage cluster within a two-block radius around 500 East and Westminster. Experts suspect the soils there are less stable than in surrounding neighborhoods.
The mansion’s east gable and its chimneys have collapsed into piles of brick on the ground, and the home is now surrounded by fencing to keep people out.
The current owners had bought the home only recently and were renovating it, but now they face some hard decisions about whether to save the neighborhood’s most distinctive home.
Also damaged was the mansion brewer Albert Fisher built around the same time on 200 South along the banks of the Jordan River. Salt Lake City bought this mansion and its carriage house in hopes of integrating them into the adjacent Jordan River Parkway Trail and converting the carriage house into a nature center and a place to rent kayaks.
Hit and miss
Historic mansions built by the city’s industrial pioneers exemplify Utah’s uniqueness as a place and a state and are worth saving if practical, said David Amott, interim executive director for Preservation Utah.
“Sears was born in England and immigrated to Utah [as a religious convert] to become head of ZCMI,” Amott said. “He really built that mansion to advertise the products you could get at ZCMI and the refining power of those products.”
Sears’ brickwork shows a rich craftsmanship that is rarely seen in modern construction. But the magnitude 5.7 quake highlighted the seismic perils associated with using fire-kilned clay blocks and mortar.
After the March 18 quake, the state’s Historic Preservation Office, or SHPO, conducted a “windshield survey” of Magna and Salt Lake City, cataloging historic buildings that sustained visible damage. In some places, the shaking took a toll on unreinforced masonry structures, while many other historic neighborhoods emerged unscathed.
The center of a historic mining district in the shadow of Kennecott Utah Copper’s operations, Magna’s Main Street took a beating. These rows of century-old commercial buildings dropped tons of bricks. Worst hit was Colosimo’s deli, where a wall collapsed. Also badly damaged was Magna’s Cyprus High School.
The western portions of downtown Salt Lake City saw extensive damage, although large buildings that had undergone seismic retrofits, such as the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral, West High School and City Hall, fared well.
The SHPO team produced a report featuring 145 damaged historic structures. With the possible exception of the Sears mansion, none will require demolition.
“In Magna, there was significant structural cracking, brick wall and gable collapse, and fallen parapets," the report said. "For the rest of Salt Lake County, the damage ranged from major structural cracks, to failed parapets and masonry walls, and damaged or collapsed chimneys.”
‘Fix the Bricks’
Severe damage to three buildings in downtown Salt Lake City, however, have rendered parts unusable until they are repaired. These include the Jackson Apartments and the Rio Grande Depot, which houses the historic preservation office. While the historic rail station’s interior was heavily damaged, the reported noted, its exterior remains pristine.
The report also examined 30 homes that had been retrofitted under Salt Lake City’s “Fix the Bricks” program and found that nearly all escaped damage aside from the occasional cracked stucco. The program was launched in 2016 to help homeowners shore up masonry homes by covering 75% of the cost of a retrofit, which typically consisted of bracing chimneys and tying buildings to foundations at an average cost of $20,000 to $25,000, explained Chris Merritt, the state’s historic preservation officer.
To date, more than 300 homes have been retrofitted, with hundreds more in line.
“For those homeowners who invested, their buildings survived better,” Merritt said. “The money hasn’t expanded. There is a four- or five-year waiting list. I hope we can use this wake-up call and take this initiative to stabilize more homes before we have a worse earthquake.”
About 90% of the 2,600 deaths and 10,000 serious injuries that are predicted to occur in a major quake would be associated with collapses in these structures. Around the state, there are 147,000 unreinforced masonry, or URM, dwellings, all of them at risk in the event of a magnitude 6.7 quake, which seismologists believe there is a 43% chance of striking in the next 50 years.
“Due to the relatively high mass and the low ductility of URM materials, these dwellings generally perform poorly in moderate to large earthquakes. Previous earthquakes have shown that URM structures are the most vulnerable of all building types to the forces generated by a seismic event,” states a homeowners’ guide released in 2016 by the Utah Seismic Safety Commission. “Relatively small levels of ground shaking can cause significant damage to a URM structure. Moderate to large levels of ground shaking have the potential to cause structural collapse to a portion or all of the structure.”
No homes collapsed last month, but along the 500 East blocks of Garfield, Westminster and Hollywood avenues, many showed obvious signs of stress. Chimneys fell; structural cracks run across entire walls; porches and rooflines are slumped.
“Every one of us sustained some pretty substantial damage,” Munns said of her block. As with many Utah homeowners, Munns has no earthquake insurance and is now looking at repairs that could cost up to $300,000.
Assistance is available to her and at least three dozen neighbors whose homes were damaged. The Utah SHPO administers a tax credit program that covers 20% to 40% of the cost of fixing earthquake damage to historic buildings.
Word of the program cheered Munns a bit.
“The bids coming in," she said, “are not cheap.”