Many of the mall’s defining features have been removed in preparation for its reconstruction as a mixed-use building with both retail and residential
Many of the mall's defining features have been removed in preparation for its reconstruction as a mixed-use building with both retail and residential spaces. Photo illustration by Christopher Reeves/Park Record
Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on the Main Street Mall. This article focuses on the history of the project and the controversy surrounding it. Next week's article will include a look at the plans for the remodeled building and a discussion of the state of preservation and new construction in Park City's Historic District.

Other than the more recent Banksy creation on the side of the Java Cow Café, it could be the most famous - or infamous - piece of graffiti in Park City history.

It appeared on the front of the Main Street Mall, then under construction, in July 1984. In crude spray-painted block letters scrawled across the tan brick façade, it expressed what many others had been wondering: "THIS IS HISTORICAL?"

Although the design of the mall had been the subject of discussion at City Hall since 1982 and publicized in numerous newspaper articles, it wasn't until construction was well under way that the graffiti appeared and the public controversy really erupted.

In a letter to the editor of The Park Record, Val Thurnell, then a Park City resident, expressed her dislike of the modern design but chided the graffiti artist for "the ignorance behind such a mindless message."

"I would like to say - you obviously don't keep yourself informed about happenings in Park City or maybe you would have protested a long time ago when the Historical Commission did an about-face on the long-held tradition of keeping the mining flavor of the town intact and declared that heretofore they didn't want any historical replicas," Thurnell's letter said, in part.

"The blame for the modern façade should be on your shoulders, mine and everyone else's in Park City who sits back, doesn't attend input meetings and fight for the preservation of Park City."

Objections to the mall focused on two major issues: its size and its design. In a street where most lots are 25 feet wide, the massive structure loomed over the surrounding buildings. And its design, with tan-colored brick, arched buttresses and a sloping glass roof over the atrium, had little in common with the mining-era structures on the street.

But that wasn't how the building looked in the first set of plans. The first design in March 1982 "resembled a small village with a network of walking lanes," Rick Brough, then a Park Record reporter, wrote in a 1984 story. "Both advocates and opponents have used the word 'gingerbread' to describe it."

However, mall partner Randy Fields told Brough that he got the message from the city that the plan's replica style would face tough sailing. "They never directly said so, but they made it clear that the approval process would be torturous and long," Fields said.

Nina Macheel, then a member of the Park City Historic District Commission, said that replicative architecture was more than an aesthetic problem. If a replica had damaged the look of Main Street, she said, the whole area might have lost its National Historic Register status.

Two members of the Park City Council in the early 1980s, Tina Lewis and Helen Alvarez, also argued that a new building that tried to imitate historic buildings on the street would do more harm than good to Main Street.

Mall developers submitted a revised set of plans to the Historic District Commission in May 1982. According to city minutes, architect Rick Brighton proposed a conceptual, contemporary design of glass and concrete. "Stephanie Churchill of the Utah Heritage Foundation praised the approach," said the 1984 story. The building would be broken up into steps and ramps to conform with the slope of the site.

The design earned preliminary approval from the commission in December 1982. However, in the summer of 1983, developers proposed two significant changes to the plans at the recommendation of mall consultants. One was to use a tan-colored brick instead of concrete. The other was to eliminate the steps and ramps and align the floor levels in even planes, which would give the façade a strong horizontal appearance. In spite of some misgivings, the city planning staff recommended approval and the Historic District Commission went along. Construction began in June 1983 and the first tenant opened for business in January 1985.

Although almost 30 years that have passed since then, some residents still think of the building as one of the worst things ever to have happened to Main Street. When the Kimball Art Center presented ambitious plans for its expansion in February 2012, some observers wondered if the town hadn't learned anything from the precedent set by the mall.

"Are we insane? Have we lost our minds?" Park City resident Randy Spagnoletti asked in a letter to the editor. "After decades of listening to people whine about the 'out of place' look of the Main Street Mall, here we go again."

Well, to borrow from Richard Nixon, you won't have the old mall to kick around anymore. In recent weeks, the building has been systematically gutted for a long-planned remodeling. Gone are the arched buttresses. Gone is the glass roof over the atrium. Gone are the windows, exposing the bare bones of the building.

Plans call for the second and third floors to be converted into 15 condominium units ranging from 1,350 to 3,500 square feet, and an additional level added for a penthouse unit. The Main Street level will be reserved for retail space, with storefronts having individual entrances from the sidewalk.

"Our goal is to knit the street together," principal architect Craig Elliott of Elliott Workgroup Architecture told The Park Record in May. "The way this property worked in the past as an interior mall was all wrong. Main Street is the mall, and we want to keep it that way."

Architectural drawings submitted to the city reveal a dramatically different Main Street façade. However, the remodeling will do nothing to reduce the mass of the structure. Whether the changes will give it a lower profile in the court of public opinion remains to be seen.