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'Downtown Story' interesting retelling of Salt Lake's central hub

By Blair Howell

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, March 19 2012 6:13 p.m. MDT

As "A Downtown Story" recalls, the Deseret News building on South Temple and Main opened just after the turn of the century. The Council House, the city's first public structure, was previously located on that corner.

LDS Church Archives

The billboards have been up for several weeks and the TV spots have begun airing. Now to herald the opening of City Creek Center, KUED will air “Salt Lake City: A Downtown Story.”

The documentary premieres at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 21, the eve of the gala ribbon-cutting of the state's largest mixed-use development, and covers the 165-year history of the two downtown blocks that the new center will dominate.

Produced by KUED’s Issac Goeckeritz, “A Downtown Story” is a brisk, heavily researched view of the culture and commerce of Blocks 75 and 76, bordered by South Temple, State, 100 South and West Temple streets, with Main Street running through its center.

It’s a lovingly crafted program that is certain to delight Utah residents who have strolled through the city’s downtown hub over the years.

But who hasn’t visited the two commercial blocks? Plots 75 and 76, as Brigham Young named them, are adjacent to Temple Square, which is the state’s most-visited site, attracting up to 5 million visitors each year and No. 16 on ForbesTraveler.com’s list of top U.S. attractions.

“A Downtown Story” begins with a recounting of Brigham Young, the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the state’s first governor, deciding on a location for a temple that would be the center of the city. Plots of land were laid out on a grid plan, with streets running very nearly north-south and east-west, from the temple site.

Although “A Downtown Story” could have easily been doubled in length, the history of the two blocks is condensed to one-half hour, and the most interesting aspects involve the city’s early years.

The city’s first public structure was the two-story Council House, which was completed in 1850 on the southwest corner of Main Street and South Temple Street. The red sandstone and adobe structure served as church and territorial offices for 32 years, until a gunpowder explosion in an adjacent store destroyed it.

The program recognizes Brigham as a stalwart patron of the arts, quoting him as saying, “The people must have amusement as well as religion.” In 1862 the 1,600-seat Salt Lake Theatre was constructed, becoming the city’s largest building and a very popular entertainment venue that the governor frequented.

Other segments include the 1868 establishment of Zions Cooperative Mercantile Institution, one of the country’s earliest department stores; the 1872 construction of the opulent Gardo House, intended as a home for Brigham but sold to “Silver Queen” Susanna Bransford Emery Holmes in 1901; and the Deseret News building on South Temple and Main that opened just after the turn of the century.

The documentary uses a wide variety of well-selected archival photos to show the radical changes to the city’s center, from pioneer outpost to the thriving commerical-residential-entertainment center that City Creek hopes to become.

As an indication of the devotion paid to “A Downtown Story,” when this writer requested the source of an early Main Street photo, Ken Verdoia, KUED’s production director, credited it to the Utah State Historical Society. But he documented the date of the photo to be 1947, correcting the 1940 date that was identified.

“Close examination of the photo shows banners celebrating the 100th anniversary of pioneer settlement," he wrote in an email. "The car driving toward the camera has a valid gas ration sticker in the window. And ‘Secret Heart’ (on a movie theater marquee) was released in late 1946.”

If there are any discrepancies in the accuracy of this interesting documentary, don’t fault KUED for not trying.

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