Opinion: Progress is saving classic and wonderfully functional old things

Eyre passed the bond to build Abravenel. Why he says it should stay.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Thierry Fischer conducts a rehearsal of the Utah Symphony at Abravanel Hall in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 25, 2023.

The recent headlines and talk about a new sports and convention center in downtown Salt Lake and about renovating the two blocks between the Delta Center and City Creek are exciting.

But the related possibility of knocking down or moving Abravanel Hall to make it all possible is deeply disturbing and misconceived.

Most Utahns know about this iconic building — know of its classic beauty, its superb acoustics, the elegance of the gold leaf and chandeliers and the grand staircase in its glass-sculpture lobby that looks out of its huge window on our cityscape. And most sense that trying to replace or move this symbol of our commitment to culture and the arts could be a generational mistake.

But what most Utahns do not know is the backstory of how it got there, and the coming together of diverse interests that made it possible. It is a 50-year-old story, but it needs to be told, because the sacrifice and unity that built it is another reason for never letting it go.

In 1975, I was a young political consultant who had the year before managed Jake Garn’s uphill but successful campaign for the U. S. Senate. We moved back to our home near Washington D.C., where the nation was gearing up to celebrate the Bicentennial. Then to my surprise I got a call from the Utah Bicentennial Commission. Would I, they wondered, consider returning to Utah to run a Salt Lake County Bond Election to build a new center for the arts in downtown Salt Lake City? It would be, among other things, the long-imagined home for the renowned Utah Symphony.

And the only way such a hall could come about, they had concluded, was for Salt Lake County voters to pass a bond election—essentially to vote to increase their taxes to fund the concert hall. I was instantly drawn to the cause — my wife Linda is violinist and string teacher — but the idea of the outdoor-loving, sports minded hunters and fishermen of Utah voting to tax themselves to build a costly, high-brow concert hall that they might never set foot in seemed to be quite a stretch.

But it ended up being something much more than that. It was a chance for diverse Utahns to come together, to be unified in a cause bigger than their own personal interests, to make a statement about culture and priorities and the benefit of the arts for their children and grandchildren. And for Salt Lake County residents, it was an opportunity to create balance between sports and the arts — to embrace the professional performing arts during the bicentennial year just as they would embrace professional sports when the Utah Jazz would come to the city. (Interestingly, the timeline for the two converged with Symphony Hall being completed just as the Jazz moved here from New Orleans in 1979.)

As we began the bond election campaign, the early public opinion polls showed little chance of success. The economy was trying to emerge from recession and double-digit inflation, and people were not happy about the possibility of paying more taxes to build a hall for the use of what they perceived as rich symphony patrons.

On the other hand, the numbers showed the growth and health of the city and state economies would benefit from a greater arts presence which could attract more business and more jobs, and there seemed to be a perception that no great city should be without some symbol of its commitment to the arts — a commitment that would trickle down to our schools and our families and to every kid taking piano or violin any kind of music lessons.

The goal was not just to build a center for the performing arts — it was to build one of the great halls of the world — one with unmatched acoustics and beauty. I think it was that vision — of a world-class hall that symbolized Utah’s balanced approach between arts/culture and sports/recreation that brought everyone together in that seemingly impossible bond election.

We built the whole campaign around volunteers, manning phone banks day after day, explaining the economic and cultural benefits to voters. The volunteers were a marvelously varied group consisting of musicians, dancers, actors, and yes, sports-lovers and hunters and fishermen, each reaching out to their own supporters and friends. We felt the strength of being united in a cause that would benefit generations.

The bond election passed by the narrowest of margins. I will never forget that election night. The results came in slowly as we all gathered to watch — all those who had worked so hard, from prima ballerinas to trombone players and from sports enthusiasts to parents of kids taking piano. And when the TV stations announced that we had won, everyone was hugging each other, and giving emotional high-fives. The mental image I still see in my mind’s eye is Obert Tanner and Maurice Abravanel, two majestic, passionate, white-haired arts-patriarchs, embracing each other, tears rolling down their cheeks. A dream had come true.

Abravanel Hall is not a building to be replaced, but preserved. This is not a hall to be moved, but to stay forever right smack in the heart of our city. This is not a beautiful shrine of our past, but a key to the balance and viability of our future.

Progress is not just about building new things; it is about saving classic and wonderfully functional old things.

We need to keep it, and keep it where it is, for the sake of our past, and for the sake of our future. This building is not replaceable, and it is not movable, and if we lose it, we will never get it back. And among the losers will be our children and our grandchildren.

Long live Abravanel Hall. In a time of division and polarization, let it and what it represents pull us together and unite us now, just as it did 50 years ago.

Richard Eyre worked to pass the bond to build Abravanel Hall.