By Allen D. Roberts, AIA
As I pondered my calendar recently, I realized that next month will mark my 40th (fortieth!) year as an historic preservation professional. Some years ago, I found myself asking how and why I got into this field. It came to me that I have always lived in historic cities and attended or lived in historic schools, churches and homes. Moreover, history, art and aesthetics have always been important to me. It was the tragic and puzzling demolition of the spectacular Coalville/Summit Stake Tabernacle in 1971 that catalyzed my interest in preserving buildings. I spent my free time over the next five years traveling to every city, town and little village in Utah, photographing and writing histories of Utah’s historic architecture. Spending a lot of time in research archives then, my work came to the attention of LDS Church Historian Leonard Arrington, who provided a grant for the limited, 1974 publication of my first book, “A Survey of LDS Architecture in Utah: 1847-1930.” This led indirectly to my employment by the Historical Society in the same year (1974), where I became the Historical Architect and Architectural Historian for the state. Much of my work there entailed preparing National Register nominations and helping communities and individuals properly restore their historic buildings. Two years later (May, 1976), I joined Wally Cooper in forming what became CRSA.
Over the last 38 years as director of CRSA’s Historic Preservation Studio, I have enjoyed working on many hundreds of historically and architecturally significant preservation projects, including historic schools, churches, commercial and residential buildings, city halls and courthouses, forts, and nearly every other kind of building and structure imaginable. Recently, our Preservation Studio has joined with our Sustainable/LEED/High Performance Design Studio to produce what I call “green preservation,” which combines the virtues of both philosophies and practices.
One of the satisfying aspects of my career has been the opportunity to advance preservation initiatives by providing service to the Utah Heritage Foundation, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Cornerstone, the GSA, landmarks commissions and museum groups, as well as teaching architectural history and preservation theory for the Traditional Building Skills Institute at Snow College. It has also been gratifying to see the preservation ethos take hold In Utah, and nationally, over the past few decades. Rarely are significant historic buildings demolished these days. Instead, great and sometimes extraordinary effort is made to save, preserve and re-use such buildings. The restoration of the 1936 Ogden High School, a WPA and Art Deco masterpiece, is just one current example.
My passion for preservation has expressed itself in other ways as well. I have purchased, restored and given extended life to 15 historic buildings in the state, ranging from old brothels to homes and mills. I have had opportunity to write a dozen books and scores of articles, most about some aspect of Utah’s architectural history and preservation, and I am currently writing a book on the 100+ early architects who shaped Utah’s built environment under Brigham Young. I remain happy with this career choice and I am active in it still, with 11 of my 12 current projects entailing some aspect of historic building preservation.
But the “What” is secondary to the “Why”, and the “Why” hasn’t changed. A career in history, looking backward, is really a career in looking forward to future generations. The story comes full circle each time I drive down the street and see a historic building. I am transported back across 40 years and can still say, “This has value; this is worth preserving.”