Downtown's Past and Present | Urban Living

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Downtown's Past and Present

Posted By on December 11, 2019, 4:00 AM

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There's plenty happening in Salt Lake besides the coughing and watery eyes of an early inversion season. When I was in college, I would take my bike downtown and photograph old buildings. Back then, there would be no one downtown on a Sunday morning unless it was spring or fall LDS General Conference. Really, there weren't homeless camps or Trax trains—just blocks of silence.

One of my favorite structures is the Kearns Building at 136 S. Main. Los Angeles architects John Parkinson and George Bergstrom borrowed the style of Louis Sullivan, "the father of skyscrapers." There's an identical woman's head placed every few feet toward the top, which I think was modeled after Sen. Thomas Kearns' daughter. The 10-story high rise was built in 1911, and according to The Salt Lake Tribune, it housed one of the finest buffets in the U.S. That's right, a Chuck-A-Rama-style buffet restaurant (called the Mecca Café) that opened its doors on the main floor. "The buffet is becoming an essential feature of all modern office buildings ... and he [Kearns] insisted that the buffet should be a credit to the city," the Trib reported. Mind you, the outside of the white terracotta-faced building is beautiful to this day, but the inside, well, there's the surprise.

Kearns installed stained glass main entry doors bound in heavy brass. There was an art window representing the rising sun with murals of cherubs dancing, drinking (oh my!) and bathing. They were painted by famous Utah artist H.L.A. Culmer. By then, SLC had electricity and the chandelier's radiating prism-effect graced the café, with smaller brass fixtures complimenting the surroundings.

This building has stood the test of time and is now getting a $25-million beautification from its current owners, Hines real estate. Much of the original plumbing and wiring needs to be replaced. The developer is baring some walls to expose metal and brick and old boarded up windows will be uncovered. The murals, too, will be restored. In 1982, the Kearns Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Next door is the Utah Theater. Our city council voted in November to sell it for zero dollars and let developers demolish it. Sadly, that glorious piece of history will no longer stand but be replaced by a modern residential skyscraper of 300 apartments, 30 of which will be for lower income tenants. 

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