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Gavin's Underground

Positively 4th Street

by Gavin Sheehan
- Posted // 2008-09-01 -

For well over three decades, downtown Salt Lake City has been privy to an underground musical landmark. But most are completely clueless to it, driving right past it on the way home.

Positively 4th Street has been sitting on the corner of 4th South and 4th West since the early 1900's, undergoing several changes until becoming a practice space for the majority of Utah's musicians and bands over the years. Giving people a place to play and hone their craft in a building full of fellow artists, without the complaints of the neighborhood or the high electric bills. I got a chance to tour parts of the place this past Saturday and snapped some pictures for you all to see. As we'll have a chat with the man in charge over there named Russ about how the place got started, the changes it's made over the years, where it's headed and a few other topics that came to mind.

Russ The G.M.



Gavin:
Hey Russ. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Russ:
I was born and raised in salt lake city except for 4 years and 4 months I spent in the navy as a hospital corpsman from 1970 - 1974. Then I went to salt lake community college and graduated with an associate degree in building construction. I started a custom cabinet business with my brothers for 6 years when in the early 80's inflation/recession we decided to quit the cabinet business. Around that time The Wagner's asked me to manage Positively Fourth Street after having gone through 2 other Managers. This management Job has been a part-time all the time Job for the past 16 years taking it from chaos to the smooth social experiment we have today.

Gavin:
For those who are unaware, what is Positively 4th Street?

Russ:
A place where bands can practice any time 24/7 without the fear of the neighbors calling the cops to knock it off.

Gavin:
The building itself is one of the oldest in Salt Lake City. Can you tell us a little about it's history before it became an artistic building?

Russ:
As I understand it, the building was build in 1904 for Armour and Company, a meat processing and packaging plant. The plant was still in operation in some form in 1948, and at some time after that year was occupied or even owned by the Salvation Army, but then must have changed hands or their lease expired, because in 1952 Eugene Wagner bought the building from I. J. and Rose Wagner (no relation) to house the Precisa Calculating Machine Co. for which Wagner had the sole distributorship for the US. Later he would also add the Olivetti line from Italy, and in the early 60's most of the facility was used warehousing artificial limbs, and a small part upstairs was remodeled for residential use. By 1971 Wagner had invented the first flexible artificial foot and subsequently the manufacturing and distributing of these feet took place there also. Then in 1980 Wagner sold the artificial limb business which was moved to California.

Gavin:
What finally brought about the decision to turn it into a practice space?

Russ:
Two years later in 1982 the building was sold to a U of U professor who has to be credited with starting the art space for painters and named the building Positively Fourth Street in honor of Bob Dylan's song. Of course there weren't enough painters to rent space to and so he decided to also rent to heavy metal musicians, however, the painters couldn't handle the noise and moved out. Eventually in 1986 Wagner had to take back the building. Then in 1991 Mr. Wagner's wife brought the building up to code and with the aid of the current General Manager developed the business to fit the present use. So for over twenty years now Positively Fourth Street has been THE practice venue for musicians. Inside, one can still find the old smoking chambers with their peculiar smoky odor from a hundred years ago, the chimneys, and the screechy iron gates left in place from the meat processing time. (Marinette Wagner). Current economic climate has created a dialogue in examining the possibility for the tenants/musicians to form a non-profit association in which to apply for grants to offset rising cost in keeping Positively Fourth Street an affordable place for musicians.

Gavin:
I understand the professor had it for a while and then sold it back to Wagner. Why so?

Russ:
Yes it was sold on contract to college professor who first converted it from a manufacturing/warehouse to studios for artists. I am only guessing financial difficulties on being able to have enough income to cover the overhead.

Gavin:
So how and when did you get picked to start running 4th Street?

Russ:
I use to rent space from Wagner's for my cabinet shop. after the owners went through 2 other managers (problems with accounting for missing money and one that was reported of having carried a gun to collect rent...) the timing was right on me closing the cabinet shop and their need for someone they could trust and had a knack for communication and problem solving.

Gavin:
What were some of the changes the building went through during the 70's and into the 90's?

Russ:
Biggest changes were when I took over management. The park and the viaduct in front of building was haven for drug deals. I called Pioneer park Drive Through Drugs. Addict could find their way into the building to shoot up and flush their trash down the toilet. I had to pull the toilet as often as 3 times a week to get the syringes and aluminum can bottoms out of the toilet. New locks, surveillance camera made a big improvement.

Gavin:
In recent years the building has undergone some renovations and changes to keep it thriving. Can you tell us about those changes?

Russ:
The biggest change came in the 90's when the city closed the building requiring a major overhaul to bring this 90 year old building up to code. This last year we decided to be a Green building. Installed hand dryers in all the bathrooms and recycling containers for the trash

Gavin: Something a lot of people may not know is that the building is only for practice and has no recording studio. Have there ever been plans to put one in, or do you believe it works better as just a practice area?

Russ:
It is impossible to effectively (economically) sound proof for a recording studio. The economic climate and limited financial resources of most of tenants is increasingly making it difficult to buffer the bottom line. there maybe hope on the horizon. There are rumors for the tenant's to form a non-profit association of musicians to qualify to receive grants to help subsidize their rents.

Gavin:
What do you think when people say it's a musical landmark in the scene?

Russ:
I have not given it much thought. I have been associated with this building for about 22 years. It has been so gradual for me I have never noticed this business as a land mark. I guess it is much like watching a tree grow... it just happens without much notice for those of us that live it every day.

Gavin:
A little on the local music scene, is there anything you believe could be done to help make our scene bigger or better?

Russ:
Today money is a big problem for everyone. Dialog with the performing art community and new struggling musicians could be a big help. Positively Fourth Street is sensitive to the financial struggle young musicians are faced with.

Gavin:
For musicians who don't know the setup, tell us how people would go about renting space and the details behind using the space.

Russ:
Send me and email positive4thst@aol.com if you want to get on a mailing e-list to receive notices when a unit becomes available. First month's rent in advance and a security deposit. There are incidentals such as a lock change charge for re keying the lock on the door, also a fee for security pass and proximity key to enter the building. the proximity key is used to enter and exit the building which also track who is in the building at all times. Guest are discouraged but not prohibited. it is our mission to provide a clean, secure place for bands to practice (not a place to hang out and party - a big problem in the beginning).

Gavin:
What can we expect from Positively 4th Street the rest of the year?

Russ:
New is the proximity card entry system replacing the old sign in log, a welcome improvement on security for the tenants and management. We are recent E-Myth converts and are working on systematizing the business.

Gavin:
Is there anything you'd like to plug or promote?

Russ:
This is a unique business that fills a need in the community; other places for musicians to practice are needed.

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