Local firm offers look inside historic Utah Theater before planned demolition

The Utah Theater is pictured in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019. The Salt Lake City Council, acting as the city’s Redevelopment Agency board, voted Tuesday to greenlight a $4 million write-down for the sales price of the property, effectively to give it to a developer planning to raze the 101-year-old theater and replace it with a 30-story, 300-apartment skyscraper. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, KSL) (Photo: )

(Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, File)

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SALT LAKE CITY — To the disappointment of many locals, Salt Lake City decided in 2019 that the historic Utah Theater would be razed and turned into a skyscraper. Ahead of the building's demolition, a local design firm extensively documented the space for an online catalog of photos, drawings and renderings that will give the public a peek inside.

The firm Modern Out West won the city contract to document the space, according to Lauren Parisi, project manager for the Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City, which met to discuss the project during a Tuesday meeting. That documentation included extensive research, experimental drawings, architectural drawings, photographs, drone video footage, a virtual tour, and a 3D scan of the building at 144 S. Main Street.

The Utah State Historic Preservation Office is currently in the process of digitizing historic archives on the theater space, Parisi said, which will eventually be hosted by the Marriott Library at the University of Utah for public access. Modern Out West also created a website, the Pantages Theatre Archive, that showcases "archive material that they created as a part of this project," Parisi said.

The Pantages Theatre is another name for the Utah Theater and refers to Alexander Pantages, the Greek immigrant who became a theater mogul in Utah and beyond in the early 20th century.

"I highly recommend that you all check out the interactive website that was created by Modern Out West," Parisi said.

The Modern Out West documentation was done as a contingency for the redevelopment of the historic theater space. In 2010, the Redevelopment Agency acquired the property "with the thought that it potentially could be used as the site of the Salt Lake City Performing Arts Center," which is now the nearby Eccles Theater, project manager Tammy Hunsaker said.

In 2015 the Redevelopment Agency began talks with adjacent property owners on the building's future. By 2019, the city had determined it was untenable to preserve the theater, citing astronomical costs for upgrading the structure to modern building and seismic codes. Over widespread public objection, the city gave the building to its adjacent property owners, led by Hines, for the development of a high-rise tower with commercial and residential space.

Extracting several promises from the developers, the city transferred the property for free. Among the contingencies was that the new tower include affordable housing and a mid-block walkway, and that there be a "historic repurposing" of Utah Theater elements.

The city also mandated that there be documentation of the Utah Theater space before demolition, leading to the Modern Out West project. The firm began surveying the space in July 2020, Parisi said.

Salt Lake City Councilman Chris Wharton asked Redevelopment Agency officials whether some of the theater's more iconic elements might eventually be salvaged rather than simply documented. Hunsaker said a developer-led study "identified historic features that could be reclaimed and reused" in the tower space. "That is an ongoing negotiation," she said, "that Hines and the RDA (Redevelopment Agency) staff are working through."

Parisi said Modern Out West has "connections with other universities that might be interested in going into the theater and salvaging additional pieces" when the land sale occurs. She said the Redevelopment Agency hasn't "explored the city keeping those pieces," but could if desired.

Wharton and city councilman Darin Mano advocated that the pieces be kept local and publicly accessible, if possible. "I think it's really sad that we're losing the structure," Mano said, "and whatever we can do to do the best to preserve some of the elements, I think it's at least a small consolation prize."

The Pantages Theatre Archive is accessible at pta.lib.utah.edu.


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Graham Dudley reports on politics, breaking news and more for KSL.com. A native Texan, Graham's work has previously appeared in the Brownwood (Texas) Bulletin and The Oklahoma Daily.


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