Whatever its amenities, no modern structure can capture the appeal of an old, world-class building restored to its former glory.
The Salt Lake Hardware Building was constructed in 1909 as a response to the development of the great transcontinental railroads. At the time, it was the largest warehouse building west of Chicago and possibly the largest in America. A striking, five-story, red painted brick, rectangular warehouse with a flat roof, it comprised a combined floor space of five acres.Located at 105 N. 400 West, the Victorian Eclectic style building was constructed with over 2 million bricks. A catchy sign on the original front on 400 West contained the words "The Salt Lake Hardware Co.: Everything in Hardware," painted between the third and fourth floors.
The initial catalogs promised "the largest and most complete stock of general and household hardware, utensils, tools, stoves and ranges, etc., west of the Mississippi River."
The building had 20 rooms and 379 windows with 1,600 panes of glass, suggesting Greek Revival stylistic influences, and utilized over 4 million board feet of lumber, cut from Oregon fir. It was divided into four sections or bays for fire protection. The ceiling on the first floor was 14 feet high, so that when a horse-drawn wagon was being unloaded and a horse reared up, it would not hit its head.
There were three electric elevators to raise and lower stock from the five floors and great traveling cranes to handle the heavy machinery. The ground floor was so big that eight big wagons and eight freight cars could occupy the floor space and unload or load at the same time. The original water tower sill stands today and adds considerably to its charm.
By today's standards, the building was a steal. It only cost $135,000 to construct. The warehouse is historically significant for its long association with the early 20th century development of Salt Lake City's transportation and industrial district. Salt Lake Hardware was dependent on the nearby Union Pacific and Rio Grande railroads for transporting goods throughout the Intermountain region. The building itself speaks eloquently about how American cities developed and the importance of rail transportation.
The Salt Lake Hardware Co. actually began operation in 1889 when James Clasby, Benjamin Bauer and Henry Schweikhart formed a partnership with a specialty in tin, sheet metal, copper work, furnaces and plumbing.
They also sold builders' and mechanics' tools, miners' and contractors' supplies, guns, pistols, ammunition, fishing tackle, sporting goods and house- finishing hardware.
The company carried on a long and prosperous trade in Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada and Colorado amounting to $200,000 per year. In fact, the company's officers liked to boast that it served a territory larger than France and Germany combined.
When the company was functioning at its peak, it included 385 employees in four branches in Salt Lake City, Boise, Pocatello and Grand Junction. Although the comnpany flourished during the first half of the 20th century, its fortunes began to decline as retailers began to turn to wholesalers rather than distributors for goods. In the later 20th century, the business fell on hard times, and the building was closed and abandoned in 1986.
When the proposed construction of the Delta Center was announced, the principals of Gastronomy Inc. decided they should put a restaurant in a west- side location. So they purchased the hardware building in 1990.
Soon afterward, they initiated a successful bus service that picked people up from restaurants and delivered them to the Delta Center and back. The bus service killed the west-side restaurant idea, but not the future of the hardware building.
John Williams, president of Gastronomy Inc., has been interested in renovation projects since 1974, when he decided the old New York Building could be made into a restaurant - the Market Street Grill. Over the years, he has gained even greater interest in preserving and protecting Salt Lake's architectural heritage.
"There is not a lot of it left. We would like to help develop downtown Salt Lake City. Every state needs a great capital city and a healthy, vital downtown."
With a west-side restaurant no longer relevant, Williams decided to renovate the hardware building for commercial office space, to help rejuvenate the city. But he had to get a bank loan first.
Within 24 hours of the deadline to close the sale, he had been turned down by several banks. Finally, Zions Bank agreed to take the chance. "I have to give credit to Harris Simmons," says Williams, "for having the foresight and confidence to invest in the west side."
The principals invested $15 million in the renovation project, which they launched in December 1994. They finished the space for Commercial Contracting Group, a wholesale office furniture business, first - in May 1995. That was critical, because they used it as a showplace for other potential occupants.
"It was helpful for us to get other people to catch the vision of the building. The rest of the building was a pretty dismal space."
Williams says the hardware building represents "one of the true landmark buildings of Salt Lake City." He is happy about the finished product, especially the stained glass windows, which he considers a "world-class job." Williams pays enormous tribute to the people of Utah, who have supported his other projects and restaurants.
"I've always thought that the level of sophistication on a per capita basis here in the state of Utah is as high if not higher than any other place in the country."
Potential tenants were uniformly impressed with the 10,000 square feet of Commercial Contracting, so they were anxious to sign up for space of their own in the 225,000-square-foot building.
"It has tremendous character," says Williams. "It was very rough at first. The building was dark and cold in the early days, and it was miserable to walk through, but people liked the idea that they would have an interesting space in which their employees could work."
The brick on the renovated building is all original. To make sure the character of the building would not be lost, Gastronomy consulted with officials of the Utah Historical Society, who ruled against sandblasting. Williams hired a company that used a water and chemical solution to strip it without harming the brick.
With an eye to making the interior space desirable to potential renters, Williams and his associates retained the Oregon fir columns and beams and the original brick wall in the center of the building. Then, as a defining feature, they cut a new five-story atrium into the center, with new skylights in the roof to bring in daylight.
Finally, to make the atrium flow from one side of the brick wall to the other, they created several attractive, arched openings to match others already in the building.
Jeff Gochnour, project director, says creating exciting space in an old building is challenging, but this one turned out far better than he envisioned. "Today, I would compare it with any of the class-A high-rise buildings in the city. It is a class-A office building in a historical shell. It has the charm of the old historic structure with all the amenities of a brand new building. It is quite spectacular."
One of the most interesting features of the renovation is the large circular parts chute from the original building. The chute was added to the building in 1938 as "the most modern equipment available for the purpose." It was designed to allow boxes to be sent from the upper floors to the shipping area on the first floor without waiting for the elevators.
The design angle allowed packages to slide at a constant speed during the entire descent so as to prevent damage. Once a package reached the bottom of the chute, workers would slide it safely onto a power-driven "palette conveyor," which carried it to a large central packing room.
The chute is 3 feet wide and 55 feet high.
Gochnour says, "There were two chutes in the building, so we took one out and retained the other as a structural element. We thought it would be an interesting piece of sculpture. So we sandblasted it and painted it and left it in the atrium."
Gochnour says the marbles they sent down the chute at the ribbon-cutting ceremony created unbelievable noise.
As another way to protect the building's historical character, they completed the corridors with carefully chosen fluorescent bulbs to blend with the decor, and a railing that is really just plain old city sewer grate, typically seen flat on the ground. They turned it on its side and applied powdered coating for a finish. Along the top they placed a beautiful hickory rail to complete the old and new feel.
Today, the building has an all-new mechanical system with first-rate heating, ventilation, air conditioning and electrical equipment, as well as four new high-speed elevators.
Plus, it has a state-of-the-art fire protection system.
The project is now 95 percent complete, with only a few construction details left to be finished. The bulk of the building is now attractive commercial office space, fully leased, and will be fully occupied by seven tenants by the end of the year. In September, at its annual awards dinner, the Utah Heritage Society recognized the building and the principals of Gastronomy Inc. for excellence in preservation.
Not only are Williams and Gochnour excited by the finished product, but so are the tenants. Williams says, "Each floor is one acre, so we used to joke that we would lease it by the acre. But in reality that's the way it ended up. Everyone was excited about having so many people on one floor."Comment on this story
This renovation is not the end of the road for Williams and Gochnour. Their next project is the two-story Eimco Building, constructed in 1923 by Ford Motor Co. It is located on 400 West and 300 South near the Rio Grand Railroad station.
"It's not a large building," says Williams with fire in his eye, "It's about 100,000 square feet, just half the size of Salt Lake Hardware, but the space in it has phenomenal potential aesthetically. The lighting, the openness and the ceiling height are all spectacular."
Besides, it has a water tower - and Williams jokes that the only buildings they will do in the future are those with water towers.
Although Gastronomy remains a strong presence on the Salt Lake dining circuit, it is clear these days that John Williams and Jeff Gochnour have a lot more than food on their plates.