David Amott: Historic preservation still matters, despite current chaos

(Photo from Utah State History Collection) Salt Lake Mattress & Manufacturing Co., Aug. 13, 1907

A recent Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency meeting highlighted the perilous condition of the 1892 brick Salt Lake City Mattress Factory located in Salt Lake’s Depot District at 535 W. 300 South.

The discussion was illuminating, not just in terms of what the future of this one building might be but also because it raised larger questions about the relevance of historic preservation in the current moment.

Why should historic preservation merit space on anyone’s radar in the here and now as we face exponential growth and escalating home prices, crises created by COVID-19, social justice-related issues, homelessness, windstorms, earthquakes, falling budgets, etc.? This question hung over the Salt Lake City RDA discussion about the Mattress Factory, a building that one of the RDA’s board members described as “kind of a square box that doesn’t have a lot of personality.”

I am the first to acknowledge that investing in old buildings will not immediately resolve the pressing problems of the present. I do believe that preservation matters, however, even in our current chaos. At its best, preservation addresses the need we all have for community and continuity.

At its best, preservation does not retain old buildings as much as it saves lived experience as manifested in the built environment. This record of triumph and tragedy, success and defeat encoded in the brick, cement, wood and glass brings the past into the present and suggests a collective way forward into the future.

The Mattress Factory is a good example of how even the most modest historic buildings convey important stories about transformation and endurance.

The Salt Lake Mattress Co. building was constructed by pioneering entrepreneur Frederick Eberhardt and his son, Alex Eberhardt. Frederick arrived in Salt Lake City in 1891. For some reason, Fredrick’s career took hold in Salt Lake City in a way it had not in other places. Utilizing cotton from the South and wool from the North delivered via developing railroad systems, Frederick and Alex built a booming mattress business headquartered in their new brick building on 300 South.

Once established, Frederick went on to serve as a trustee of Salt Lake City’s Methodist Church. Alex likewise served on the Salt Lake Commercial Club Board (now the Salt Lake Chamber) as well as Salt Lake City Board of Education president and Utah Manufacturers president.

(Photo courtesy David Amott | Preservation Utah) Salt Lake Mattress & Manufacturing Co building, 2020

The Salt Lake City Mattress Factory can be described as “kind of a square box that doesn’t have a lot of personality.” This same building can also be described as the embodiment of tremendous individual and collective effort — effort that, despite difficulty and opposition, ultimately transformed the pioneer Deseret\Utah Territory into the modern, pluralistic state of Utah.

The stories recounted by buildings like the Mattress Factory are just as (if not more) relevant to us today as the stories recounted via Utah’s proudest landmark buildings standing in the most established neighborhoods.

People like to tell preservationists like myself “We can’t save them all.” To this comment I reply, “I agree, but we are in absolutely no danger of ‘saving them all.’”

New development brings benefits, of course, but also the risk of separating us from an understanding of how we have achieved what we have and how we might likely succeed in the future. We must, for the moment, remain socially distant from one another. This does not mean, however, that we must abandon our appreciation of the generations that preceded ours or miss the inspirational stories and even solutions to pressing problems that these generations left for us in the built environment.

David Amott

David Amott, Ph.D., is executive director of Preservation Utah.