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Holladay Journal

Historic home demolished to make way for townhomes

May 08, 2023 10:41AM ● By Zak Sonntag

The historic Brinton home to bite the dust as its slated for demolition. (Photos courtesy Kim Duffy)

One of the oldest standing homes in Salt Lake County—the Brinton Home at 4880 S. Highland Circle in Holladay—is slated for demolition following its purchase by Sequoia Development, who plan to build in its place 11 townhomes.

Built in 1879, the vernacular structure with Greek Revival flair retains much of its original character—from the pinewood staircase to the adobe walls still studded with square nails forged in the Brinton’s family 19th century blacksmith shop.

The Sequoia plan sparked reaction amongst residents who organized a petition expressing support to preserve the home.

Yet even as it garnered hundreds of signatures, the petition had no legal influence to stall the structure’s demise, and now residents are left questioning what avenues exist for preserving the city’s dwindling number of historic homes.

“Most citizens have an idea that there is some kind of guardian out there cataloging, noticing, and protecting old buildings, but there simply isn’t,” said Kim Duffy, member of the Holladay Historical Commission.

“It’s mind boggling. There is a building in our community that was built right after the Civil War that somebody is going to go tear down. I can’t wrap my head around that.”

The Briton Home is the site of the latest showdown in the pitched battle between preservationists and developers taking place in communities across the Wasatch Front, where staggering growth has complicated the balance between development, property rights and attitudes toward historic preservation.

In Holladay, one of Utah’s longest continually inhabited settler communities, the disappearance of old homes is taking place with alarming quickness, according to David Amott, former executive director of Preservation Utah. 

“Every time I drive through Holladay it shocks me how the city is changing and how many teardowns there are with these types of properties, the really old ones,” said Amott, whose worked on preservation initiatives in the city, including an unsuccessful effort in 2020 to save the historic Glenwood estate.

“These are homes that are architecturally valuable not just to Holladay but to Utah. People are tearing down history without understanding what that history represents or what it means. The Brinton house and a handful of other quickly disappearing buildings in Holladay tells that story of how the city began.”

Preservation primer: how to save old homes

The Brinton Home has renewed local interest in preservation, and experts like Amott say it can be achieved through two distinct avenues.

One way residents and public entities can pursue preservation is through the National Register of Historic Places, a service authorized in the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and administered by the National Park Service.

The National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) is a program that aims to catalog historically important places around the nation and provides tax breaks for their preservation—a vital resource for making old homes, with creaking floors and failed plumbing, livable. Although earning an NRHP designation requires stringent historical documentation that can involve long, deep dives into archives.

That documentation is a key part of the preservation picture because officializing historical places offers documentary evidence and is a vital part of obtaining protection at the local level, where city governments often have the final word on preservation.

“I have gone to countless city council meetings, where historic resources that are not listed on the National Register are under risk, like by the Brinton house. And it’s very hard to say that their history matters because it hasn’t been officialized,” said Amott, who worked with the city to preserve his ancestral home at 4769 Holladay Blvd.

“To have that credential means so much in cases where building’s futures are risk.” 

Property rights paramount?

Even still, the NRHP credential cannot guarantee a structure’s survival, as seen in the failed effort to save Salt Lake’s historic Pantages Theater on Main Street. Although unlike Pantages, most historically valuable homes disappear with little fanfare and the primacy of property rights goes unchallenged. 

Paul Allred, former planning director for the City of Holladay, who left the city in 2021, says he reluctantly issued demolition permits for many old homes in Holladay during his tenure because the city had no authority to do otherwise.

“There’s nothing really to prevent somebody who has a home on a historic list from going ahead and demolishing it. Basically, if you wanted to tear down an old cabin back in the woods that was from the 1850s, you could. Unless your city has ironclad rules on it, you can take any old historic structure down,” Allred said.

“Historic homes are incredibly and inherently a very powerful presence in a community. But you just can’t take somebody’s property rights away from them because they own an older home.”

Local leverage

Although there may be a way to simultaneously honor property rights and historic neighborhood character through tailored local controls, preservationists argue—hence, growing residents’ calls for action at the municipal level, where cities can use their design review and land use authority to help safeguard historic homes.

“Utah is an aggressively land rights state, so I think there is this myth that you can’t have preservation and land rights,” Amott said. “But you can have preservation and property rights, especially with opt-in preservation where people bring their homes forward and say, ‘I want to have this protected.’”

Some Utah cities offer examples of how design review and opt-in policy have been put to use in preservation.

In Provo, for instance, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Title establishes strong guidelines and regulations to protect historical structures, many of them opt-in; in Riverton, design review processes in city code impose development standards on historically valued buildings.

Whereas in the City of Holladay, as the dust-up over the Brinton Home has revealed, protective ordinances are brittle at best.

Currently, section 2.08 of the City Code allows The Historical Commission “to provide advice and information to the City Manager regarding the identification and protection of local historic and archeological resources.”

Effectively this means the Holladay Historical Commission has minimal say and zero legal influence over decisions regarding preservation.

Historical Commission stripped of power?

Some with knowledge of the commission’s work say in earlier years that body possessed more authority, but that its power was stripped down by the city council in the mid 2010’s. 

Current commissioners are unable to confirm the extent to which the body’s authority was curtailed, but Councilmember Dan Gibbons, who served one term on the city council in 1999 and then rejoined the council in 2019, recalls a time when the Historical Commission was entrusted with greater influence. 

“My recollection is that [back in 1999] we adopted a somewhat robust preservation ordinance…and gave at least some advisory powers to the Historical Commission,” Gibbons said. “Sometime after I left the council there was some major revision to the ordinance and it removed those advisory powers.”

This is a sore spot for some longtime residents who’ve expressed frustration with the city’s decisions regarding development.

“As someone who was around when Holladay incorporated, I thought [incorporation] would help us retain the flavor and feel of our neighborhoods. But we are losing that with each house that is torn down, replaced by something much larger and gaudier. There should be an avenue to retain some of what we fought for 20-plus years ago,” said one resident, expressing their opinion on the Brinton Home preservation petition.

Can the city afford preservation?

Gibbons, who is the council’s liaison to the Historical Commission, has organized a work meeting for May to explore ways the city might strengthen the commission’s authority along with preservation ordinances.

Albeit any new preservation measures are likely to face an instant hurdle—the city budget—as inevitably staff resources would need to be allocated. In contrast to big budget cities—like Salt Lake, which has a full-time clerk administering its Historic Landmark Commission—creating a new line item in a small and fiscally conservative city like Holladay could be a deal breaker. 

“One of the [challenges] is fiscal. To have a really robust ordinance such as Salt Lake City has requires additional planning personnel,” Gibbons said. “With a city of our size that would be a dramatic increase of our staff.”

Also challenging is that Holladay’s architectural history is scattered. Cities like Ogden, Salt Lake and Provo have historic districts where valuable assets are clustered, making coherent protective zoning and public funding support easier to achieve.

Alas, the Brinton Home is hemmed in by multi-family housing and across the street from the city’s largest mixed use development in the Holladay Hills at the former Cottonwood Mall site—and there it stands alone, a historical emblem amidst an advancing tide of development.

Silver lining?

Amott says losses like the Brinton Home can serve as wake-up calls for those who value history, citing the outfall from the 1964 demolition of historic Pennsylvania Station, which catalyzed public support for New York City preservation ordinances that remain the standard for local protections of historic structures today. 

“I would love to say that the silver lining on this is that the Brinton house is the equivalent of Pennsylvania Station in Holladay,” he said. “Sometimes that’s how it goes—something has to be destroyed and people have to feel that loss before they do something different.”  λ