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Main Street’s charm threatened

by Jay Hamburger OF THE RECORD STAFF

Through Renee Mox Hall’s artistic eyes, the Main Street Mall would look best after a big snowstorm, covered in fluffy white to hide the blandish beige color of the hulking building.

Hall, a watercolorist and acrylic painter, says she would probably wait for the snow if she had to paint the mall, one of Main Street’s biggest buildings and one long seen by Parkites as an eyesore on the historic street, where many other buildings date from the city’s silver-mining heyday.

The mall and other modern-day buildings on Main Street are the targets of a devastating report issued in November and released by City Hall in mid-December, an unexpected rebuke of the city’s preservation efforts on the street.

It found that some of the newer buildings are terribly misplaced and that the construction of buildings like the mall and the Galleria threaten Main Street’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places, a recognition City Hall officials and tourism boosters happily boast about.

"Perhaps I’d put it in snow. Perhaps I’d emphasize the art galleries in the inside. It would be there, but an artist can send the attention to where he or she wants it to be," Hall says, contemplating her brush strokes if the mall was her subject.

The report, authored by Dina Blaes and Beatrice Lufkin, City Hall-hired consultants, comes as the local government takes an inventory of what historic buildings are left in Old Town and considers what could be done to preserve the city’s historic district.

The district, with Main Street as its center, stretches from the turn-of-the-century Victorian houses in the southern end of Old Town to the more modern but already aging condominiums creeping south from the Park City Mountain Resort neighborhood.

It is Park City’s most iconic place, with tourists strolling along streets like Park Avenue and Woodside Avenue, gazing at the houses and snapping photos, and City Hall officials enacting strict rules that are meant to prohibit developers from building huge houses and stores. Park City leaders see Old Town as setting the city apart from other mountain resorts, notably Vail, Colo., that people say lack the charm of the neighborhood.

Hall says tourists escape into the mall to dodge the snow and she maintains sales are fine even though customers must leave the street to go inside.

"It doesn’t seem to stop them from coming in," she says.

Out of place

Regularly, Hal Compton once took visitors on walking tours of Main Street, pointing out the old buildings and telling the stories of the city’s history — the great 1898 fire being among the most famous.

In 1998, Compton, the research historian at the Park City Museum, abruptly stopped giving the tours, saying at the time he was frustrated with what he described as an intrusion on the historic district. The newer buildings and the Pay and Display parking meters, which had just been introduced to the street, were disconcerting, he said then.

"I guess it’s inevitable what happened to Main Street because of money. Money will buy a lot of things," he now says.

Compton gave the tours for a decade before stopping. He restarted giving them occasionally a few years ago.

"You look at it today and there isn’t much that looks historic anymore," Compton says.

The consultant report notes six buildings as being "intrusions" into the historic district, including the Main Street Mall, 333 Main St. The others spread over two blocks and their construction dates vary. They include the Park Hotel, the Mary Jane’s-Chester’s Blacksmith Shop building and the Alaska Fur Gallery-Turquoise Door building.

Russell Wong, whose family owns the mall, where cookie maker Mrs. Fields once was headquartered, says he has not read the report and declines to talk about the findings. There have been ideas to redo the mall, including a significant change to the exterior, but none have progressed.

The report also refers to the Sky Lodge, under construction at the Main Street-Heber Avenue intersection, as a building that "may also be considered an intrusion." The lodge will tower over the intersection and it will be one of the largest buildings put up along Main Street in a decade.

"The change to the Main Street Historic District has been gradual, yet attention should be paid to arresting and, if possible, reversing the current trend," the consultants say.

In 1979, when the street was nominated to the National Register, 65 properties, or 69 percent of the buildings, were historic, according to the research. The number of buildings that contributed to the district dropped to 49 properties, or 52 percent, by 1995 and in 2006 just 34 properties are historic, 27 percent. The consultants say, still, only Park Avenue and Woodside Avenue have more historically significant properties than Main Street.

The report does not address the Marriott Summit Watch, the lower Main Street row of shops, restaurants and vacation rentals that has been widely panned as being a poorly designed replica of mining-era buildings. It went up after the 1979 survey so it was not included in the original submittal to the National Register.

"I don’t think it’s too late. It’s never too late. It might be painful," Blaes, one of the consultants, says about the prospects of Main Street remaining on the National Register, adding, "It really is a treasure and it’s not lost."

The consultants recommend City Hall adopt the interior secretary’s standards for rehabilitating buildings, require owners to "restore the historically accurate character defining features" when issuing permits for outside renovations and stop giving grants to projects that do not meet the interior secretary’s standards.

City officials have for years tried to protect Main Street from big developments through methods like design guidelines and sending some decisions to a historic-district panel.

"I still think, by far, the majority of Main Street is charming old historic buildings," says Mayor Dana Williams.

Williams, whose family once owned a bar on the street, however, calls the mall the "single worst thing that ever got approved on Main Street." His criticism does not extend to the owners or the stores inside.

"I was very concerned 25 years ago when the mall got approved," Williams says. "Totally incongruous with the character of Main Street."

A hotspot anyway

Jesse Shetler sees people walk into his bar, intrigued by the exterior. The No Name Saloon, in a building dating to 1905 and resembling the design of the Alamo, attracts imbibers and others because it looks interesting, he says.

"I think people are drawn to the building because it is so unique. I think it’s unique anywhere and certainly unique in this town," Shetler says, recounting that people ask him about the building’s past and why the inside is designed how it is, with questions like, "What do I know about why the ceiling is all brick?"

The No Name Saloon building, 447 Main St., is on the national register, one of 14 buildings on that block that are listed.

This week, one of the busiest of the year, Main Street merchants and restaurateurs will not be mulling the street’s history as the cash registers are ringing. The boutiques and galleries are filled and finding tables is becoming tougher in the restaurants.

Competing with other shopping locales, the Tanger Outlet Center, Redstone and the emerging North of Main district being of greatest concern, Main Street continues to enjoy big numbers. The tourists, lots of them from metropolises like Los Angeles, seem to like strolling the street, admiring the historic architecture as they walk from store to store.

Ken Davis, who leads the Main Street merchants, says the street is an attractive place, one that cannot be reconstructed in style elsewhere, regardless of the report.

"The added plus is the character of the street. It’s ‘Wow, look at these buildings.’ They’ve been here for 100-plus years," says Davis, whose Cow’s ice-cream franchise and Java Cow reside in a building listed on the National Register.

Historic buildings also house places like the Park City Museum, the Egyptian Theatre and 350 Main, a seafood restaurant. Some of the buildings are marked with plaques designating their role in the city’s history.

Acknowledging "there’s some truth" to the report’s findings, Davis, though, says Main Street’s past gives it an edge over other local shopping areas. He says upper Main Street, the older part of the street, is especially enticing for people enamored with the old buildings.

"We have history. The buildings have interest. There are a whole host of treasures," he says. "If you’re on Main Street in Park City, you know you were there."


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