As Main Street Rebuilds and Old Town Revitalizes

Text: Ann Zimmerman

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Old Town renovation by Architect Jonathan DeGray

The buildings and homes of Park City’s historic Main Street and Old Town tell story of a $400 million silver boom, a bustling Old West mining town of 10,000 people, a near ghost town revived by the ski industry in the early 1960s, a yearly magnate for the world’s independent film enthusiasts, and home to many 2002 Winter Olympic events. Mining towns have been lost both to neglect and progress in Utah and throughout the West, making the preservation of historic Park City and its current renaissance of new building, improvements, and its rising marketplace popularity all the more remarkable.

Vision to Maintaining History

Stories from the first wave of skiers who took up residence in Park City abound about the flimsy and drafty neglected miners’ shacks with leaking roofs and only a wood stove for heat. Many newcomers drawn to town by the ski industry wanted the comforts of newer solid construction. “Oh, yes,” recalls community activist and leader Tina Lewis, who served on the Park City Municipal Council in the turbulent 1980s. “During the 1970s, historic buildings in Park City were tumbling down or being torn down at an alarming rate.”

When asked what changed the direction from destruction to preservation, Tina Lewis recounts, “A tourist survey by the newly organized Park City Chamber Bureau showed that people came to Park City because it was a ‘real historic town’ and that they loved to experience Main Street and its surrounding collection of tiny houses.” Lewis continues, “The town’s architecture told not only the story of Park City’s past, but the history of the American West. Main Street’s buildings were not built at one time, but reflected the decades of Park City’s development with different architectural styles ranging from tiny wooden storefronts, to substantial brick businesses, to the amazing Egyptian Theatre, and to the bold art deco Memorial Building. The city needed to establish a Historic District, set up Historic District Guidelines, put a governing Historic District Commission in place, and set an example by restoring its own historic properties. We had to work quickly. It is difficult to explain today how controversial that was back in 1980. We felt that we had an overwhelming responsibility to preserve this priceless gift of the past that made Park City so unique.”

While elected to the council during struggle to implement these changes, Tina Lewis worked closely with Bill Ligety, long-time Park City resident and now a realtor, who served as Park City’s planning director from 1979 to 1986. “It was an interesting time, and while it may seem surprising now, there was a great deal of emotional opposition to the preservation efforts,” Ligety explains. “There was charm, a pleasant scale, details, and design elements in the old buildings worth saving. We hired a planning consultant who conducted a series of workshops, and with support from the City Council and Tina’s energy behind it, we created guidelines and a Historic District Commission that functioned like a planning commission.” Is Ligety surprised by the appeal of Old Town and Main, and the reports that residential properties may soon reach a cost of $1,200 per square foot? “No, in fact, I am surprised it hasn’t taken off sooner. Downtown is unique and walkable, and it will only get better. Park City and Aspen have the most interesting downtowns of all the resort areas.”

In any historic district, there is an inherent push-pull between building for today’s lifestyle while respecting and preserving buildings built a hundred years ago or more. These opposing forces are at work in Park City, but the community is committed to resolving differences through the framework established in the 1980s.

Architect David White arrived in Park City in 1978, and in addition to his architectural practice, he has served on the Historic District Commission and the board that replaced it, the Historic District Review Board. “The greatest concern is preserving the historic structure, but also, we have been concerned about massing and the outside appearance—its presence. The intent is not to create a museum, and very few buildings preserve the same space in the interior because it is not usable for today’s people and their lifestyle.” David White also notes that now there are departmental grant funds available for financing preservation.

Old Town Has Challenges and Rewards

Realtors Brigid Flint and Michelle Eastman maintain a close eye on Old Town and have a reputation as a savvy team for Old Town listings. Eastman observes, “The new construction maintains the façade, and the city has preserved the charm of the mining spirit. In Old Town, we have some really good builders, and great architects like Jonathan DeGray, David White, and Craig Elliott.” Flint adds, “It takes a special person to build here. It isn’t for the faint of heart with the risks and rules.”

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The Washington School Inn, housed in a building dating back to 1889, is one of Gardner & Boswell Construction’s many Old Town building projects.

Architect Jonathan DeGray’s first Old Town design renovation was in 1990, and he continues designing for Old Town in addition to other areas. He observes, “Old Town is an interesting area. It is not suburban; it’s really urban, but within 600 yards there are ski runs and biking trails.” The Utah Heritage Foundation announced an award for one of DeGray’s projects at 929 Park Avenue. He comments on the award, “We just finished it last fall. It involved stabilization, renovation, and a compatible addition.”

DeGray admits the challenges. “Sure, sometimes it’s difficult to work with the historic forms and deliver clients what they want. We have considerable latitude on the interior to make it livable and more contemporary, and we can open up the flat miners’ ceilings and gain more volume. You have to remember, these picturesque miners’ homes with their eclectic forms were temporary construction at best—they weren’t built to last. With homes in poor condition, we take the building apart and build a new building. Then we hang the preserved façade. The trick is to handle it so that it looks never touched or just gently renovated.”

Jeremy Pack of Mountain Builders is a green builder, and he focuses on LEED homes in Old Town. Asked about Old Town challenges, he responds, “Yes, the lots can be steep and narrow, the area congested, and the sites very tight for the staging of materials and equipment. I’m building two homes on Ontario, and the solution in this case is a special trailer for both material deliveries and the storage of waste debris. Because the road is so narrow, I have an employee dedicated to moving the trailer whenever a car needs to pass. I think it takes a different builder who is able to plan, troubleshoot, and work through the challenges that Old Town presents. At the same time, I think sites that are walking distance to Main Street are exceptional and can be compared to beachfront—even more desirable than ski-in/ski-out. By building to the LEED standards, I am able to bring higher performance, extremely efficient, and more comfortable homes to Old Town. Both Ontario homes are from-the-ground-up new construction, so I will bypass many of the challenges associated with remodels. But there are inherent Old Town challenges that make these projects constantly exciting,” answers Pack.

Gardner & Boswell Construction, a Park City company, has completed a considerable number of building projects in Old Town, including the award-winning renovation of the Washington School Inn. Owners Dave Gardner and Gary Boswell reflect on this and other work in Old Town.

“The Washington School is essentially the same building on the outside that it was in 1889. Improvements to the foundation, roof connection and earthquake resistance have given this great old building structural integrity well into the future. The function and beauty of the new interior design makes it a highly desirable destination,” reports Dave Gardner.

Gary Boswell praises the building and planning departments, the excellent local architects, and the historical committee for their efforts in maintaining the character of Park City.

“Historic preservation is just one of the challenges of working in Old Town. In addition, the narrow lots and streets leave little room for parking, equipment, and construction staging,” Gardner notes.

Boswell agrees, adding, “Often overhead lines limit the use of cranes for lifting structural beams and materials, so we need to approach the job with other more labor intensive techniques.”

Both Dave and Gary enjoy the challenges and the aesthetics of Old Town and its union with beautiful and innovative design work in the interiors. “We are building very cutting edge finishes into these projects,” Boswell reflects.

“Lately the market in Old Town has been very lively. It’s a reflection of its great appeal,” concludes Gardner.

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(Four Images Above) “Swede Alley” in Park City’s Old Town, gutted and renovated by Jeremy Pack of Mountain Builder’s

Main Street Revitalized

Brigid Flint and Michelle Eastman observe Main Street is undergoing significant investment, building, and revamping.

Architect Craig Elliott and his firm the Elliott Workgroup are leaving a mark on Main Street with commissions that date back to the Sky Lodge at Heber Avenue and continuing with current projects that include the update of the Main Street Mall at 333 Main, the revamp of the Silver Queen, 692 Main, and the excitedly awaited new Kimball Art Center. For the Kimball Art project, the Elliott Work Group is the local firm teaming with internationally acclaimed BIG, the Bjarke Ingels Group.

Elliott agrees that in five years the combined projects will add to the existing character of Main Street. “The work is expressive of this era while compatible with the historical design—a tricky task. The mixed-use environment will add to the health of the street, and it responds to a shift in some of the population who are more interested in interaction and a community setting with easy access to what you would expect in an urban environment.”

Elliott describes the changes, beginning with the Sky Lodge. “That project won an AIA award. It rehabilitated three historic buildings and added a new hotel along with a terrace in front of Zoom. By placing the Sky Lodge and Zoom on one level, it created a great community gathering space on Main that was just used for the Olympic Parade.”

The community has had a close eye on the demolition and rebuilding of the Main Street Mall, a project built before the historical guidelines kicked in. Discussing the new design, Elliott describes it as having covered walkways along Main, all retail on the street level compatible with the other shopping experience on Main, and 15 residential units plus a penthouse above with balconies that maintain the character and tradition of watching the Main Street parades. “We broke up the massing, broke down the scale, and varied the color palette. It is more a pedestrian experience.”

Elliott observes a break from the past. “There has been an interesting shift in the buyers looking at Old Town and Main from say their parents’ generation. For a home in a ski town, they want a more urban living experience, and their aesthetic is drawn to contemporary and modern interiors.”

“I think it takes a different builder who is able to plan, troubleshoot, and work through the challenges that Old Town presents. At the same time, I think sites that are walking distance to Main Street are exceptional and can be compared to beachfront— even more desirable than ski-in/ski-out. -Jeremy Pack

The Silver Queen will be similarly transformed to multi-use with commercial at the base and residences above with historic qualities merged with modern elements. Across the diagonal corner, the Kimball Art Center will “be a brilliant expressive solution that anchors the corner site with a cultural component,” says Elliott.

With these projects to look forward to, it appears that Main Street will continue to be the place Parkites traditionally gather at Savor the Summit’s grand table down Main Street, along the sidewalks and balconies for the Fourth of July and Miners’ Day parades, among the meandering crowds at Sundance, and between the busy restaurants and the Egyptian Theater on performance nights. Images of Main Street quickly identify Park City in people’s minds. With the forethought of earlier policymakers, the continuing commitment of the city, and the skill of Park City’s design and construction community, its identity appears intact.