Opinion: We can’t get back what is lost. Preserving Utah’s historic places is investing in our future.

Historic places in Utah are not mere relics of the past; they are living testaments to the cultures and communities that have shaped our state.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The remains of the Fifth Ward meetinghouse on 300 West in Salt Lake City, Monday, April 1, 2024. On Sunday, March 31, the historic building underwent an unauthorized demolition, which was halted by Salt Lake City officials.

In the wake of recent developments with the Fifth Ward meetinghouse and ongoing discussions about the significance of historic places, it is crucial to emphasize why these old and storied sites matter, especially here in Utah.

Established in 1966, Utah Heritage Foundation — now Preservation Utah — was the first statewide historic preservation organization in the western United States. Through dedicated efforts, we’ve campaigned to save and protect historic architecture foundational to Utah’s character. Our efforts can be seen in the saving, rehabilitation and reuse of countless residential and commercial structures, historic districts and Main Streets throughout Utah, such as the Heber Tabernacle, Brigham Young Academy in Provo, Salt Lake City & County Building, Cache County Courthouse in Logan, the Marmalade neighborhood and two First Security Bank Buildings in downtown Salt Lake City. These, and many more historic spaces, are the places that make up the unique character of our towns, cities and neighborhoods.

Historic places in Utah are not mere relics of the past; they are living testaments to the cultures and communities that have shaped our state. From the ancient petroglyphs etched into canyon walls by Indigenous peoples to the Victorian-era mansions that line the streets of Salt Lake City, each site represents a chapter in our history.

Preserving historic sites fosters a sense of place and continuity in our rapidly changing state. They provide landmarks that anchor our communities and serve as focal points for civic pride.

Think of Temple Square in Salt Lake City. This iconic location encompasses several significant landmarks, including the Salt Lake Temple, the Tabernacle and the Assembly Hall. Temple Square holds deep religious and historical importance for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and visitors interested in Utah’s pioneer history. Or the Golden Spike National Historical Park, located at Promontory Summit, that commemorates the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, where the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads met in 1869, connecting the East and West coasts of the United States.

One of the most compelling reasons to protect our historic places is their economic benefits to our state. Heritage tourism, fueled by interest in historic sites, contributes significantly to Utah’s economy. Visitors from across the globe are captivated by our state’s unique historical offerings, which translates into significant revenue for local businesses and sustained job creation. Temple Square stands out as a prime example of how heritage tourism drives economic growth. Millions of tourists and pilgrims come here each year, attracting visitors who spend on accommodations, dining, transportation and souvenirs. Park City exemplifies the economic impact of heritage tourism, as well. Originally a silver mining town, Park City has preserved its historic Main Street and numerous Victorian-era buildings. The historic charm of Main Street enhances the visitor experience and generates revenue for local businesses. The ghost towns of southern Utah offer a different yet equally compelling draw for heritage tourism. These abandoned mining towns, like Grafton and Silver Reef, transport visitors back in time, offering a glimpse into Utah’s pioneering days.

Cities and towns that embrace their heritage and allow it to persist often acquire a vibrant, diverse ambiance — an effect that even the most skilled architects struggle to replicate in new construction.

Preservation boosts real estate values and nurtures local businesses, ensuring that historic main streets and downtowns remain economically viable. Heritage tourism emerges as a substantial economic driver, particularly evident in places that have retained their historic character. Developers are realizing that funds spent on rehabilitating historic buildings are investments in the future, potentially transforming these structures into the centerpiece of a revitalized city.

Central to this narrative are the core principles of the National Historic Preservation Act — improving quality of life, fostering urban functionality, enhancing livability and infusing cities with vitality. The nation is beginning to recognize that staying connected with its past is essential; we need not resign ourselves to a homogenized Utah where individual identities and our sense of place are lost. The preservation of historic spaces is not merely a matter of nostalgia or sentimentality; it is an investment in our future. What we invest in now is what we have in the future, and once gone, we cannot get back what was lost.

(Photo courtesy of Brandy Strand) Brandy Strand

Brandy Strand is the Executive Director of Preservation Utah, and has been working for community revitalization for Utahns for over 20 years.

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