Editor’s note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah history for KSL.com’s Historic section.
SALT LAKE CITY — The old Wasatch Springs Plunge building stands rather unassuming on 300 West as the road bends into Beck Street. Its doors are blocked off and many of its windows are covered with cheap plywood.
Since it has been closed for 15 years, it’s hard to tell that this used to be a recreation and relaxation hub for more than a century, and it’s impossible to tell this was home to the original Children’s Museum of Utah. Its main feature these days appears to be a parking lot in the back that allows people to visit the two parks that neighbor the building to the north and south.
Nevertheless, there are signs that this business was once something special. There’s a National Register of Historic Places plaque proudly placed adjacent to the boarded doors, and the building’s Mission-Revival architecture is unique compared to other buildings in the city.
Now, a group of Utah residents want to restore this building back to its glory days, and they believe they are inching closer to that goal. Members of the Warm Springs Alliance met with Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski on Dec. 18 to discuss the group’s proposal to revitalize the old Wasatch Springs Plunge building, which has been vacant since 2003.
They’re a group that banded together in the summer of 2017 to oppose the development of a seven-story apartment building in that location.
“A lot of people remember swimming there,” said Sylvia Nibley, the group’s chair. “With the Children’s Museum, thousands of people kind of grew up there. We want to preserve the building and recognize that the building is on one of the most historic sites in the whole area.”
Their proposal for the building includes restoring hot spring pools, a community space for events and a restaurant, Nibley said. The group envisions “a place where people from diverse communities can come together to enjoy the benefits of the mineral water, enjoy community events or just relax in a beautiful space,” according to a statement from the group.
“We’ve been gathering community input, gotten hundreds of comments, had thousands of conversations on the ground with people — neighbors and people all over the city — and have found there’s a real desire for community space and for the hot springs to come back again,” Nibley said. “We’re feeling very hopeful after that meeting with the mayor.”
Nothing is set in stone yet, and there are a few more hurdles before the building would reopen, but Matthew Rojas, spokesman for Biskupski, said the mayor is “intrigued” about the group’s concept and willingness to find funding for any potential project.
He added that next year’s budget may include funding for an engineering study to see how much it would cost to restore the building and to find the best use for it. That would come before the city would look at funding for the renovation. According to Nibley, that study could be conducted by mid-2019. She estimated renovation could cost anywhere from $12 million to $18 million to restore the building.
Crews would have to look at the building and springs to determine if they are sanitary enough for a pool, like the building used to house, Rojas said. That means it could be a while until it’s reopened, but there’s hope it will have new life.
“We’re really just trying to look at what the community wants,” he said. “It could be quite an extensive renovation of the building. … (There were) some concerns about the health of the springs and whether or not that health allowed for bringing back the pools.”
Neighbors and people all over the city have found there’s a real desire for community space and for the hot springs to come back again. —Sylvia Nibley, Warm Springs Alliance Board Chair
The warm springs the building housed were actually used by Ute, Paiute and Shoshone tribes prior to the time Mormon settlers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. After they arrived, the springs became a bathing area. By 1850, an adobe bathhouse was built over the springs to create the Warm Springs Bath House, according to a history compiled by Salt Lake City.
Sometime later, Brigham Young, then-president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, designated the building as a social hall, and it became one of the first places Utahns could go dancing, the city said. The current building was constructed in 1921, when the city took over control of the building.
The Utah Division of State History noted the bathhouse building was designed by Cannon and Fetzer, a Utah architectural firm. That firm only lasted for a brief time but also designed the Park Building on the University of Utah campus. The city constructed new pools after problems arose with the warm springs water and the building. The building eventually closed as a community pool in the 1970s.
It reopened again in 1983 as The Children’s Museum of Utah, but the museum moved to the Gateway in 2003, leaving the building vacant.
Since then, there have been thoughts of reopening it. In 2006, a group of architects published a structure and feasibility assessment of the building. While it noted the building had deteriorated over time, the study found “the building still retains a high degree of historic and architectural integrity and easily maintains its continued eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.”
The study added the best use for the building could be as a recreation center. Nibley said the Warm Springs Alliance is open to ideas from the community about how the building would be used before it could reopen.
Meanwhile, Salt Lake City officials see a benefit in finding a way to use the building again. In fact, Rojas said the city has looked at other vacant historic buildings to repurpose in the future.
Those include the Utah Theatre on Main Street and the Fisher Mansion that sits near the banks of the Jordan River on 200 South.
“The city has for many, many years committed to preserving our historic buildings. They tell the story of Salt Lake City; they tell the story of Utah,” Rojas said. “It’s important that we have that connection to the past while also using them for the needs that exist today.
“Nobody wants to see these buildings deteriorate. Nobody wants to see them empty. They’re critical parts of who we are and who we have been.”
After watching him duet with Courtney Barnett and John Prine, it’s nice to see Philly’s Kurt Vile on his own and departing ever so slightly from his trademark Neil Young sound on his newest album, Bottle It In. Dazed, hazier, and lazier — in a good, dreamy way — than his last several solo albums, Vile has found a sonic and lyrical palette that is free, cool, funny, and richly complex. Speaking of complexity and quirk, early-era post-punks The Feelies and latter-day punks Snail Mail open for Vile. Wow.
MOUNT VERNON – After 20 years of renovation and restoration, the wait is over.
The Woodward Opera House will host its first performance in nearly a century next month, Knox Partnership for Arts and Culture Managing Director Danny Gum announced Wednesday. KPAC is in charge of organizing performances and leasing out venues on the second, third and fourth floors of the facility.
The first show in the newly renovated main opera house, which seats 500 people, will be “David Holt & Josh Goforth: ‘Carolina Heroes’” on Jan. 24 at 7 p.m. The opera house’s official ‘grand opening’ will take place on Feb. 9, when Grammy-award winning bluegrass singer Kathy Mattea takes center stage.
Pat Crow, project manager for the Woodward Development Corporation (which has spearheaded restoration efforts), said the final touches are now being put on the property. This includes painting, audio/visual technology setup, theater lighting installation and things of that nature.
Crow said there is a series of inspections that the building will need to pass before the official completion of the project, but “from a pure construction perspective, we are approaching completion within the next few weeks.”
“It’s been a long road,” Crow said Wednesday. “I got involved in this project 25 years ago. It’s been more than a marathon.”
Crow began officially working on the building in 1998. It is a four-floor, approximately 65,000-square foot facility on the southwest corner of S. Main St. and Vine St. in downtown Mount Vernon. Crow estimates $21 million has been put into renovations over the last two decades. Woodward Development Corporation has received roughly $11 million in state tax credits, Crow said.
Now, in less than a month, live performances will be back in the theater.
“It’s very exciting for us as KPAC to get the word out and let the public know that it’s finally here,” Gum said. “After putting up with having sidewalks closed and roads closed, all their patience during the construction process is finally paying off.”
While elements of the first floor of the building, which will contain Stein Brewing Company and Harvest Market storefronts, are still in progress, the upper three floors are nearing completion from an entertainment perspective.
The second floor houses a recital hall, which can hold 140 people. The third and fourth floors contain the main opera house, which was first used for a lecture on electricity in 1851, according to The Woodward’s website. The fourth floor also contains the “Black Box,” another performance venue that can seat 150 people.
All three venues can not only be used for performance and education, but also for banquets or meetings. All can be outfitted with chairs and tables, and portable stages are available for the two smaller venues. Sound equipment, lighting and audio/visual technology are all provided and in-place, Gum said.
Gum added that the Woodward’s entertainment complex boasts “one of the best sound systems in the midwest.”
The last known theater performance at The Woodward occurred on Feb. 22, 1921 (it was a lecture on the new uses of technology, which was ironically the same theme as the first performance in 1851). After Dr. Ebenezer Woodward constructed the building in the mid-1800s, the theater hosted lectures, motion picture showings, musicians, vaudeville, minstrel shows and other traveling acts.
The Woodward theater hosted the first known motion picture showing in Knox County in 1897, according to the opera house’s website. The theater also hosted some of the initial renditions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” back in the 1850s, just two years after the book’s publication.
According to The Woodward’s website, the opera house was closed in 1921 due to “competition from other local theatrical and motion picture venues.” The opera house is known to this day as America’s oldest authentic 19th century theater still standing.
Crow and the Woodward Development Corporation’s mission was to restore the opera house to its original state, but with modern technological amenities.
The goal is to make the facility an “asset-producing part of the community,” Crow said. This means that, by drawing people in from outside Knox County to see performances or utilize the facility’s state-of-the-art meeting/event venues, the building will bring money into the community and thereby stimulate the local economy.
“If a consumer comes in here and they go in the brewery or they go to an art thing upstairs or they come to a conference, that money they spend in this community is money that was not here yesterday,” Crow said in October at Stein Brewing Company’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“We want to bring enough people into this community, through tourism and other aspects, to create economic development – not just for the downtown, but also the whole community.”
Gum agreed that once all parts of the building are rolling, the result should be a sizeable economic boost for the community.
“The Woodward being located in downtown Mount Vernon, it’s very exciting for the downtown merchants and hotels,” Gum said. “It’s really going to be an economic stimulus for the area in general.”
Local schools will benefit from the opera house’s opening as well, Gum said. He hopes to have performers travel to different schools for events and educational opportunities in between shows.
Gum also plans on bringing ‘TED Talks,’ a nationally known lecture series with the motto “ideas worth spreading,” to The Woodward.
“That’s just one example of the many ideas that we have going forward,” Gum said Wednesday.
The Woodward Opera House launched its new website last week, which holds current and historical information about the venue and also provides links for ticket sales. With less than a month until the restored opera house’s first show, Gum said the anticipation – both within KPAC and the public – is real.
“I know that there’s a lot of excitement in the community. You know, they’ve waited on this for a long time and there is a lot of excitement,” Gum said. “Some people still don’t believe it’s happening.”
Jan. 24: David Holt and Josh Goforth
Holt is a four-time Grammy-award winning musician and Goforth is a Grammy nominee. The two will perform an acoustic concert with an educational twist. It will feature an array of unique and unconventional acoustic instruments made in the Appalachian hills, Gum said.
“Both are very, very accomplished musicians and David has spent these last 30-some years collecting odd musical instruments made in the Appalachian hills and hollers,” Gum said. “These aren’t instruments that you would find at a music store.”
The two will play the instruments, some of which are made from sticks, barbed wire and plastic bags, and explain their origin – who made the instrument, where they came from, what kind of life they had and what kind of music they played.
Feb. 9: Kathy Mattea
Mattea has received two Grammys and four CMA awards, while recording four Billboard No. 1 country singles since she began her bluegrass career in 1984.
Her No. 1 singles include “Goin’ Gone,” “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” “Come from the Heart” and “Burnin’ Old Memories.” She has released 14 studio albums, two Christmas albums and one greatest hits album.
Mattea’s show at The Woodward will be the 12th of 22 stops on her international tour, which begins in Indiana on Jan. 12. The tour will include shows in Chicago, Minneapolis, United Kingdom, Ireland, Georgia, Florida, California and Maine. Mattea will perform five shows overseas, the last being in London, before coming to Mount Vernon.
Feb. 23: Fathers Daze with Bil Lepp, Don White, and Bill Harley
March 2: Buffalo Wabs and 6 Miles to Nellie
March 16: Livingston Taylor
April 6: Suzy Boggus
May 3: Michael Reno Harrell
May 4: Memories of The Rat Pack
Sept. 5: Doug Stone
For more information on show dates and tickets, click here for the Woodward Opera House’s website.