‘We’re losing these unique places’: A historic Sugar House community known as ‘Hobbitville’ faces an uncertain future

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gretchen Graehl brings some of her belongings out of her house in Allen Park, which is closing, all residents have to be out by the end of the day today, Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Gretchen Graehl has learned how to live “very small” over the past 13 years in the tiny log cabin fourplex she’s rented during that time, with appliances that are so small she jokes it’s no surprise the 8-acre community earned the nickname “Hobbitville.”

The wood inside is crumbling; the porch upstairs is rickety and has long needed repairs; and she and her neighbors have been harassed for years on weekends by groups of high school and college students who drive through, honking their horns and occasionally damaging property as they look for the dwarfs rumored to live in the area.

But for all the neighborhood’s flaws and challenges, Graehl still said she felt as though she’d lived in a “fairy tale” this past decade — one that ended Monday as she and the seven others who still lived in this community said goodbye to Allen Park for the last time.

“To be here at the very end feels like an honor, you know?” she said. “[To] say the grand goodbye to this place, it really means a lot to me.”

Residents in this eclectic Sugar House neighborhood in Salt Lake City, which is across the street from Westminster College on 1300 East, were told Dec. 6 that they would need to find a new place to live by Dec. 31. After a two-week extension, Monday was their last day in their homes.

“It was shocking,” said Tom Webster, who’s lived in the private community for seven years. But, he conceded, “it seems like we’ve been on borrowed time really for a long time.”

First established as a bird sanctuary in the 1930s by George Allen, a surgeon who served as president of the Sugar House Businessmen’s League and the Salt Lake Zoological Society, the area has recently served as a refuge for its residents from a growing city. But it’s unclear now what will happen to the property after the death of its owners and landlord.

Becky Allred, a partner and manager at Stagg Fiduciary — which is managing the estates of Amy Allen Price, Allen’s daughter, and Ruth Price, Allen’s granddaughter — stressed that the property’s future won’t be settled for a while. The details are being hammered out in probate, which deals with the property and debts of the deceased, in 3rd District Court.

But Allred said it had become a cost and liability issue to continue housing tenants, given the neighborhood’s crumbling state and expenses to fix it that far outpaced rental revenue.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, but noted it has long been in disrepair. “I don’t know if we can salvage it. I don’t know if we can’t.”

Losing ‘unique places’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gretchen Graehl has removed most of her belongings from her house in Allen Park, which is closing, all residents have to be out by the end of the day Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Every day, Graehl would feed the six midnight blue peacocks that live in Allen Park. She would cross the bridge over the stream and enter the log cabin using its gnarled doorknob. Some days, she’d open the four windows that look out over the natural landscape and listen to the sounds of the stream outside and the birds chirping.

“I’m going to miss these windows,” she said as she opened them for the last time and let a cold gust of winter air inside. “Especially the water element, it’s been very healing for me.”

Though Allen Park is just walking distance from grocery stores, restaurants and bars on bustling 2100 South, Webster said it’s one of the few areas left in Salt Lake City where people can forget they’re in a growing metropolis.

“You can look out your window and not see any lights,” Webster said. “Like you can see lights from that house,” he pointed, “and if you really look around the corner, you can see those houses. It feels like you’re in the forest, but we’re right here in Sugar House.”

Graehl hopes for a “miracle” that would preserve Allen Park but said the uncertainty of what will happen to this unique community — which is in a prime area for real estate development amid an affordable housing crunch — is one of the most difficult parts about leaving.

“It’s sad,” Graehl said. “It’s life. It’s change. But I really do hope that this place continues in some iteration. If it’s a park, if it’s, you know … that they don’t just bulldoze it.”

Kirk Huffaker, executive director of Preservation Utah, believes there’s a solution for the area that would maintain its artistic environment, natural climate and historic character.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) One of the many mosiacs in Allen Park. All residents of Allen Park have to be out by the end of the day Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

“This is really where the Allen family, a very prominent early Salt Lake family, had their base, and we’re losing these unique places that really help tell the story of the city,” Huffaker said. “And I think we have to judge if there is some balance in our values between more dense development and being able to tell our story through these places and preserving them.”

The organization hopes to work with any developers who may be interested in the property in the future, he said, noting that preservation would likely entail building upgrades and some small-scale new development.

Whatever the future may hold, Graehl and Webster said they’ll never forget the time they spent in this neighborhood as they packed the last of their belongings into their car and prepared to move across town, into the Avenues neighborhood in Salt Lake City.

“How do you ever replace this?” Graehl asked, looking in awe at the tall trees and the old buildings. “You just take it in your heart. It just is forever in our hearts. How could it not be?”