SALT LAKE CITY — Ed Larrabee will never forget the freezing morning of Dec. 20, 2013, when he poked his head into an abandoned apartment he manages in Salt Lake City and saw a body on the ground.
He thought the guy was asleep. The aging apartment complex, built in 1923, had been shuttered a few weeks earlier because it produced little revenue and was too expensive to properly maintain. Larrabee’s job now was to get lingering residents to move out — and to keep vagrants and drug addicts from moving in.
“Better get up,” Larrabee said to the figure on the ground, “we’ve got to get everyone out.” No response. A nudge with the foot. No reaction. He reached down, felt for a missing pulse, and called 911. The paramedics called the coroner, who confirmed what everyone suspected — a deadly drug overdose.
Three years later, the Madsonia apartments at 643 East 100 South remain vacant, a magnet for the homeless and drug addicts. Every week, Larrabee repairs the fences and re-boards the windows. Every week, vagrants tear them down again.
On a cold January morning, Larrabee leads a tour into the U-shaped courtyard framed by two long, narrow single-story buildings that look like an old-fashioned motel or military barracks. The courtyard is closed at the end by a two-story clapboard structure. Ducking through a broken window, he picks his way through ankle-deep debris, clothes and garbage, past graffiti-plastered walls, a mattress with filthy sheets, heroin needles scattered on the floor, and at least two piles of human excrement. Every step is accompanied by the crunch of broken glass.
Larrabee manages the property for Audie Leventhal, an emeritus neurobiologist at the University of Utah, whose research focuses on the aging human brain. Leventhal bought the property in 1988, planning, he said, to eventually tear the buildings down and build a dementia care center.
That plan hit a wall in 1993 when the city enveloped the property in a new “historic district,” one of six that now cover much of the city’s northeast side, designed to slow down change and retain the city’s distinctive character and links to its history. Overnight, the Madsonia apartments were protected from demolition or notable changes unless approved by the city’s Historic Landmark Commission, an autonomous body whose members are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council.
In the more than 20 years since then, Leventhal, now 65, rented the rapidly fading apartments to low-income tenants before finally shutting them down in 2013. He’s had offers, he says, but buyers have been spooked by, among other things, the daunting reputation of the historic landmark process.
It’s not a unique conundrum. Historic districts have been established in cities across the country as policymakers struggle to weigh new needs and opportunities against a desire to avoid drastic, regrettable change and honor the past. The balance is never simple.
“Every city in America has faced this challenge since the first building started getting old,” said Michael Allen, director of the Preservation Research Office in St. Louis.
American preservation efforts came in two main phases, Allen says. The first phase began in the 1930s and focused on preserving fading links to the country’s founding period. The second phase, in the 1950s and 1960s, set out to preserve a diverse and livable urban character against a wave of razing and homogenizing redevelopment projects.
The two preservation values — history and livability — share common ground, Allen says. But they do often clash.
“As we build for the 21st century,” Allen said, “preservation needs to be part of a more holistic vision of the kinds of cities we are building. Some architecture was not built to be energy-efficient, or friendly to circulation by foot or bicycle, and it may need to be retrofitted or demolished.”
How we handle change matters, Allen said, because a city’s built environment shapes not only how we understand our past, but also public safety, how we live, move and interact with each other, even how we feel inside.
Often the solution is to negotiate transformations, Allen argues. The first line of defense is to find a user who can repurpose the older building. But if that fails, a fallback can be to persuade developers to retain key pieces of the past — a key façade, the use of space, or an architectural style.
Some think that strategy might be called for at the Madsonia apartments. Others prefer to wait, viewing demolition as premature, banking that a viable use might yet turn up.
There’s a story
Shirene Saddler, executive director of the Avenues Courtyard, an assisted living home next door to the verminous Madsonia apartments, sees nothing worth preserving in them.
“There is nothing good about those buildings,” she said. “I probably called the police 20 times in the last year. It’s horrendous and needs to be gone.”
“Those buildings have historic value in that they show the evolution of the city,” counters Kirk Huffaker, executive director of Preservation Utah. The buildings are not as “cute” as others on the block, he concedes, but he says the role they once played as affordable housing in the early years of the 20th century is important.
At the historic Salt Lake City and County Building, built in 1894 and itself once threatened with demolition, city planner Michaela Oktay lays out maps of historic districts, reports and photo albums.
Oktay and her colleagues know the city’s historic districts intimately, tracking individual buildings and speaking of them in familiar terms, by name. In black cursive ink, a 1980 architectural survey of the Madsonia apartments reports that in 1915 the property was sold to Richard W. Madsen by the Armstrong family, and in 1923 Madsen built the eponymous Madsonia Apartments.
Those apartments, Oktay argues, capture a snapshot of a surprisingly egalitarian time and place. Nearly 100 years ago, in a tony neighborhood lined with modest mansions, a wealthy man built tiny, one-bedroom apartments for working-class families. And still today, the Armstrong Mansion stands, a stone’s throw from those apartments.
“What you may see is just a courtyard and some brick,” Oktay said, “but there’s a story there — about the city, about our families and our culture. And once we kick out those teeth, we aren’t getting that historical integrity on the street.”
At the assisted living center next door, Shirene Saddler is focused on the present. To her, that means quickly finding someone other than drug addicts and vagrants to use the property.
The current suitor for the property is the Other Side Academy, a character development and prison diversion program based at the Armstrong Mansion up the street. Only a year old, the academy needs to expand. It would like to do so on this block, demolishing the Madsonia apartments and wrapping a new facility for 150 students around the assisted living center.
If the academy can’t do that, it will unload its current properties and look elsewhere in the valley, leaving Leventhal to find yet another buyer who can thread the regulatory needle.
Saddler has nothing but praise for the academy and its students and is visibly saddened to hear that they might leave. She worries about the drug users and vagrants next door, locking down her facility every night at 6 p.m. And she worries about fire, with her own building separated only by a narrow alley from the abandoned buildings. Several years ago, another vacant home behind the apartments burned down, the fire lit by a vagrant burning candles.
“If the city were going to do something with those buildings,” Saddler said, “they should have done something before they became a dilapidated mess. And if the city now still wants to keep them, then it needs to take the financial responsibility and get it done. It’s the city’s job to protect the safety of the neighbors.”
The question of who should pay is touchy. The state and the federal government do offer substantial tax credits to help owners preserve and restore properties. But multiple developers interviewed for this article point out that tax credits only work if there is a viable economic use for the building once it is restored. And so far, no one knows what to do with these.
“It’s a taking,” Leventhal says, referring to the clause in the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that promises, among other things, “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
Legally, the idea of a “regulatory taking” is complicated. Outright seizure of property has always required just compensation by the government, but the courts have never quite decided what to do when regulations leave property technically in the hands of the owner — but with little economic worth.
The city does have an arbitration and appeals process, but Leventhal, who is 65, views that option as long, onerous and uncertain.
“The buildings are worthless to me,” Leventhal said, noting that last year he paid over $12,000 in property taxes on those buildings and an adjoining vacant lot that cannot be developed separately.
People with a stake in the downtown neighborhood disagree on what should happen to the Madsonia apartments. Some point to another building nearby.
A mile south of the Madsonia apartments is a beautiful 1896 bungalow, the last building Salt Lake’s Historic Landmark Commission approved for demolition in 2011. The property was similarly decrepit, home to vagrants and suffering from fire damage.
After the commission approved the demolition, a general contractor from San Diego bought it. “I took one look at the house,” Larry Myshyniuk said, “and knew this house did not need to come down. It had lots of miles left on it.'”
Peering up with a flashlight in the basement, Myshyniuk discovered the house was built of redwood, still in phenomenal condition. Six months later, Myshyniuk had re-created a piece of Utah history, which he then sold. The restoration proved infectious. Neighboring homes began to spruce up their yards, and on the lot behind, another restoration was launched.
The Myshyniuk serendipity carries great weight in Utah’s preservation community.
Still, a quaint bungalow is one thing. What vision of practical use might preservationists offer for an aging courtyard framed by a two-story clapboard home and two long rows of tiny 550-square-foot apartments, with inadequate crawl spaces, all nearly 100 years old?
“I don’t have an answer for you on that,” Huffaker said.
One solution, some think, may be found in a much larger property downtown.
The 1963 Prudential Building at 115 South Main in Salt Lake City was designed by William Pereira, the architect who designed San Francisco’s Transamerica Building. The city was thrilled to have a piece from such an eminent designer, and it was widely admired for its soaring, airy atrium.
But after decades of struggles to find tenants, the Prudential Building was demolished in 2013 to make way for the new Eccles Theater and an adjoining 24-story office building, both completed last year.
“That was a tough one for me,” said Vasilios Priskos, a developer who has built, renovated and owned many of the major downtown buildings and at one point owned the original Prudential Building. “It was architecturally significant, and it had one of the most beautiful interiors of any building in town.” But it proved ungainly for office space, Priskos said. As the building aged, finding tenants became nearly impossible.
Yet the new building does pay homage to its predecessor.
An instant landmark, the new Eccles Theater has a graceful soaring interior and an airy, six-story luminous lobby, with elegant but slightly whimsical décor. The lobby evokes the best of the early 1960s era of the building it replaced, from its design even down to its retro furniture. The stunning, 2,500-seat Broadway-quality venue, along with an adjoining 24-story office building that is literally integrated into the theater, is both a modern landmark and a tribute to the past.
That’s a way to solve the preservation dilemma, Allen suggests — find pieces of the past that can be incorporated into new construction, paying tribute to the past while creating new possibilities.
“I’d say those are the buildings now that need to be preserved,” Priskos said of the new pair of landmarks on Main Street. “They were built to withstand the test of time.”
Allen agrees, noting that much of what is most admired in world cities like Paris and Vienna came at the expense of older, historic buildings.
“If Manhattan had prevented the construction of skyscrapers during the 1930s to preserve the old 19th century townhouses and row houses, Manhattan would be far less important to American culture,” Allen notes.
A possible solution
Just as the Eccles Theater evokes the building it replaced, some think a similar balance could be achieved with the Madsonia apartments, preserving the courtyard shape but replacing the buildings with something more useful to house residents or offices.
That proposal was floated by Simon Sorenson, a local Salt Lake architect and former City Council member, who has been a volunteer consultant with The Other Side Academy. It’s an approach endorsed by Michael Allen as well — preserving aspects of what made the old building special, such as a façade, a sense of space, or the feel of an era, often with a plaque to recall the past.
Not everyone is ready to let the Madsonia apartments go, and certainly not those now in a position to decide. The Historic Landmark Commission, still haunted by its near disaster with the Myshyniuk bungalow, is unlikely to jump anytime soon, preferring to wait for an elusive buyer.
Meanwhile, the vagrants continue to use the property in their own way. Ed Larrabee continues his vigil, repairing fences, replacing window boards. In the past, he’s been threatened with knives, had bricks and shards of glass thrown at him from a second-story window.
But today, things are quiet, and the courtyard itself feels almost homey. In one corner stands a charcoal barbecue, obviously in frequent use, with fresh charcoal and cooking implements under the lid.
“This bunch that’s been here this winter,” Larrabee said, “have been pretty decent.”
Information from: Deseret News, http://www.deseretnews.com