Two Utahs: The Vernacular Architecture Forum in Salt Lake City, 2017
words and photographs by Mike Walker
The Vernacular Architecture Forum differs from most academic or professional associations in a variety of ways, but most notably so in that while it holds annual meetings and these meetings are an opportunity for scholars to present their research as paper presentations — very common to academic conferences — the VAF also holds a number of tours of the locality where the meeting is held. And these tours are not simply a diversion to fill in between paper sessions but consummate educational tours designed to inform the VAF membership about the locality of that year’s meeting. The local hosts go to great lengths and much preparation to provide tours that are fun, diverse in content, deep in introspection, yet also very scholarly and able to enhance the research objectives of the VAF membership. This membership includes architectural historians, preservationists, practicing architects and professors of architecture, plus general historians, material culture scholars and more.
What all these people share is a deep interest in vernacular architecture, which is architecture designed not by professional architects or within the mainline practices of architecture but instead via folkways or trends which develop in response purely to user demand. So your dogtrot house of the American South would be vernacular and somewhat of an archetypical example thereof, but a donut shop designed by a contractor to meet the utilitarian needs of the shop’s owner could also be vernacular. Indeed, most of the built environment is vernacular and the presence of architect-designed buildings with clearly academic aesthetics are the rarities statistically speaking, not the rule. Yet vernacular architecture has been at times neglected by mainline architectural historians, but not by the VAF which strives to not examine these buildings as isolated objects or the canonical works of their builders, but instead as part of the vast, complex, and ever-evolving built environment.
So it is the overall built environment which is of greatest interest to VAF members and not the placement of a specific building within it: This situation leads to a great deal of essential introspection into social history, current sociocultural dynamics, and other factors as well as the actual architectural aspects of the buildings concerned. In the case of the Utah conference, “Two Utahs” represented the contributions of both the Mormon faith and secular industrial pursuits such as mining to the formulation of Salt Lake City’s unique built environment and those of nearby communities such as Park City where mining and latter recreation guided their formation.
Simply put, there is no other city in the world with the unique history of Salt Lake City. The city was established in the Great Basin of Utah by the Mormons as the capital of their proposed state of Deseret following the Mormon exodus after their persecution in the Midwest. A Deseret alphabet was even designed — a separate orthography from the latinate one we use for English and the territory was to function under a combination of Mormon holy orders and secular American law. There was nothing else like this in America: while other religious minorities such as the Moravians of Winston-Salem, North Carolina were successful in establishing their own communities and some even went as far as to propose territories and bring religious canon law into the confluence of church and state powers, none took it as far as the Mormons. While the State of Deseret became Utah and the final state greatly curtailed the Mormon religious influence, there are still ample traces of it today in the social fabric of Utah and Salt Lake City. What is especially interesting however is that an equally vibrant counterculture has arisen over the past few decades in Salt Lake City: walking around you’re as apt to see young people with tattoos wearing Vans sneakers as clean-cut Mormons in dark business suits.
All of this was taken into account in the superbly-designed tours for the VAF. The amount of research the local scholars and authorities who volunteered to put together these tours undertook is truly staggering: For each tour, a small, tastefully designed booklet was printed, providing highly-researched, comprehensive, information on the history of the area toured complete with both contemporary and historic photographs, architectural drawings, and other visual aids as well. All the little booklets were provided to conference attendees in a specially-crafted artboard case, making for an awesome souvenir of the event.
What is more, the local expertise came from true experts including some of the top historians of the Mormon Church itself and various academics working in the region. Gracious home-owners, architects, and others opened their doors to us and allowed us to come into their homes and projects underway and see first-hand not only the exteriors of contributing buildings on the tours but their interiors. The very nature of the VAF’s focus on vernacular architecture meant that not only stately buildings such as courthouses or office buildings were viewed, but also ordinary homes. Our ability to visit and witness in the most intimate detail such structures is rare even in scope of “inside” professional courtesy architects sometimes enjoy.
Salt Lake City I found to be a very friendly place, and the Temple Square is highly worth seeing even for non-Mormons if you have a strong interest in architecture and history. With both secular and sacred architecture, we have an evolution of needs which is well-illustrated by the Temple Square: what was once a leading hotel designed to cater to Mormons visiting on church business is now an office building for the church instead. That said, the church needs for its international headquarters a lot of office space and also built sometime in the mid twentieth century a towering International Style office high-rise on the Temple Square. Nothing however overshadows the original temple building: the Salt Lake City Temple is the prototype of other Mormon temples across the world and the most-holy of locations to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. With its gilded statue of the Angel Moroni atop it, the temple evokes many core aspects of the visual iconography and identity of the Mormon Church and is very compelling; while non-Mormon visitors (and only certain Mormons for that matter) are allowed inside it, visitors are free to wander its grounds and admire its exterior.
The Mormons envisioned their state of Deseret as one built not only on ardent religious beliefs but also a land of plenty symbolized by the honeybee, from which the term “deseret” comes. This state was seen clearly as a utopia, a place where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints could thrive unimpinged by intolerance and one where divine providence would provide the makings for agiriculture and industry despite all obstacles of the arid land and remoteness of the territory. The original Salt Lake City Temple factored in heavily alongside the Deseret alphabet and other icons of Mormonism in the image provided of the territory in early publications, coinage, and other material culture items of the faith.
The concept of the Great Basin being able to provide a land of plenty despite its arid nature carries over from Mormon doctrine into secular aspirations for Salt Lake City from the earliest of days as well and is still readily evident in the city today. With towering bank and office buildings ranging in date from the early twentieth century to quite recent construction, the prosperity of Salt Lake City as a regional hub of commerce is very apparent.
Like other great cities of the American West such as San Francisco, its pioneer spirit lives on today. Walking down Main Street, this is immediately apparent as is the current-day commitment to the preservation and reuse of period buildings dating from the early twentieth century heyday of commercial growth here. In example, the Clift Building is currently undergoing an extensive renovation and I was very fortunate to get a private tour of it courtesy of a construction crew there including seeing things such as the original elevator wiring diagrams from the 1910s and the work being done to preserve the lobby’s marble details and letterbox.
Salt Lake City faces many of the same problems that other major American cities currently face, however, a number of provisions the city has made over the course of the past century have helped it prepare for these challenges — perhaps better than most of its peers. In example, there has long been an emphasis on light rail in Salt Lake City. In the tour entitled “Two Rails, Two Transit-Oriented Developments” we as VAF participants got to see first-hand how light rail opened up areas of the vast Salt Lake City region such as the Sugar House district — which gained its name due to a sugar mill being there — to commuters who worked in the city’s downtown yet like many mid-century Americans, longed to live in the suburbs. This same tour visited the Central Ninth district and the economy of scale of suburban homes there really underscored how suburban homes do not have to be expansive plots of land but can be small, smart, houses on reasonable yards. Also of great interest was the current revitalization of Sugar House into a mixed-use commercial district, which appears to be very successful.
An interesting aspect of these early commuter neighborhoods was that contrary to current trends, they were not planned as what we’d today consider “mixed-use” at all. The Central Ninth in example was almost totally a residential area, and what businesses it contained were indeed businesses such as professional offices and very few retail stores. Residents apparently did their shopping while downtown or elsewhere. The reach of the light rail, a situation which continues to this day, allowed for this.
The VAF, aware its members are strung across the nation and beyond geographically and also in various academic disciplines, was gracious to provide several cocktail receptions so that members could network and make new friends and colleagues. One of these was held at the incredible Romanesque Revival McCune Mansion, which is as stellar a setting as you could possibly desire for any event.
When I arrived in Salt Lake City, speaking of the trains, I was delighted to find a train left the airport and went to within a block of my downtown hotel. It was the easiest transition from airport to downtown I’d ever made in any city, especially any American city. These trains are clean, affordable, run on schedule, and most essentially they actually go directly to places people need and want to go. I attended a soccer match between the US Men’s National Team and Venezuela on Saturday at the Rio Tinto Stadium, which is the home ground of Real Salt Lake, the city’s Major League Soccer team. It was easy to hop on the train at the Main Street station a block from my hotel and remain on that same train all the way to a station within about a block from the stadium. When I boarded the train, there were already a lot of passengers wearing US soccer jerseys: it was clear this was a preferred method of transit to the game and I even chatted with a group of high school history teachers from out of state who were in town for a teachers’ convention, heard about the game, and decided to attend. They noted that had there not been such easy and ready transportation, they probably would not have attended. This is the type of economic and quality of life difference things such as effective public transportation can bring about for residents and visitors alike.
Beyond the tours, the conference’s paper sessions were also very informative and enjoyable. I presented a research paper in a session with two faculty members who were also presenting on regionally-unique trends in cultural landscape — one gentleman presented on German schools in a specific county in Texas while the other on the agricultural Clover Tract in Kansas. My paper concerned the architecture and material culture of turpentine camps in Florida and Georgia and fit in nicely with these other agricultural/rural topics. Even though I was a brand new member to the VAF and also just a student, these two veteran presenters and our session chair all made me feel extremely welcome and over an early breakfast the Saturday of our sessions they also provided great advice on not only the presentation at hand but my research in general. Other sessions I attended — including one which contained a paper on historic preservation issues in Detroit, an especial interest of mine — I found to be extremely informative and useful.
Salt Lake City is to many either just the largest metropolis of its region or else ambiently associated with the Mormon Church—but it is so much more. It has one of the nation’s most-thriving outdoors and ecotourism scenes at its doorstep and it thus has become something of a broad basecamp for explorations in that storied wilderness of the Great Basin. As its downtown makes obvious via its architectural prowess today, it is also a great business and financial center. Its architecture, from pragmatic bungalows in its suburbs to the aspirational commercial skyscrapers built in the early twentieth century downtown to the glass office towers which dwarf their 1910s counterparts — all these and more inform our understanding of this unique city. The VAF did a tremendous job of showcasing the very diverse and complex heritage of Salt Lake City and communicating that via the superb tours while providing an engrossing, entertaining, setting for our meeting and paper sessions.
Mike Walker just completed a BFA in Architectural History at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He is also a sports journalist, athlete, and coach with an emphasis on soccer, track and field, and action sports. His other journalistic work and work as a translator has focused on sociopolitical issues, aviation, and sport in the former Soviet states and Eastern Europe and includes credits in Slate, The Moscow Times, Gently Read Literature, CroatiaWeek, SEE: A Fortnight in Review, Porter Briggs, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Tottenville Review, Coal Hill Review, The Bold Italic, Untapped Cities, Translation Journal, Multilingual Computing and Technology, the Tipton Poetry Review, and elsewhere.