By Allen Roberts, AIA
Exploring historic buildings can sometimes result in scary surprises. I’m not talking about unexpected physical characteristics such as cracks in wooden beams or masonry walls. Here are a few of the more interesting, non-architectural surprises I’ve experienced.
Crawling through the crawl space under the floor of an historic church in Beaver Dam in northern Utah, I came upon a pit containing a nest of rattlesnakes. Equally frightening was what structural engineer George Aposhian and I discovered while examining the attic of the historic Malad Tabernacle. The attic space was quite tall and dark. With a flashlight we walked carefully and slowly down the middle of it on a board plank walkway, the vaulted ceiling below dropping off steeply to both sides. We were halfway across the attic when we heard strange, squishy, high-pitched squealing sounds coming from the far end of the attic. We pointed the flashlight there and exposed a large, moving ball of hundreds of bats hanging from the ceiling. One of them, with about a one-foot wing span flew toward us and elderly George was so frightened that he nearly fell off the plank and into the abyss below. We managed to make our retreat much faster than we had our advance.
My most gruesome experience occurred while investigating a vacant, historic commercial building in the 25th Street Historic District in Ogden. I went through the long-abandoned structure with a realtor and some potential buyers of his. On main and upper floors we found the expected dusty old furniture and other discarded debris. But in the unlit and gloomy basement boiler room, we found the body of a woman who had been killed there with a 2 x 4. We didn’t touch anything but quickly left the building and reported our find. We learned from the police later that it was the young-20s body of an Hispanic girl. This experience gave me new meaning to the Latin phrase, “caveat emptor” (buyer beware).
While examining the house belonging to the late artist, LeConte Stewart, in Kaysville, the realtor told me that when he first took the boards off the doors and windows and went inside, he found on the walls of his art studio scores of Stewart’s paintings worth many tens of thousands of dollars. He also found in stacks of books and papers uncashed checks received in payment for paintings. The barn out back was also stacked to the roof with newspapers, magazines and other personal belongings. It appeared Stewart was a hoarder and never threw anything away. This raised the realtor’s curiosity so he got a ladder and climbed it to inspect the exposed wooden beams that supported the roof of the art studio. He found the beams to be hollowed out so as to hide many jars, all of them full of money. The realtor knew that no one else knew of this cache of wealth but being a man of integrity, he called LeConte’s family and had them come over and retrieve the paintings and jars of money, the latter containing $250,000 in cash, he said.
Finding unknown items in my own houses has proven less profitable. The first house I purchased for my young family was the historic, 1890-built, Sy Gardner House in Spanish Fork. It had an unfinished, half-story attic with windows and plenty of height, so I decided to convert it into habitable rooms. Upon removing the five-foot-tall wood-stud pony walls, I found behind them boxes of hidden items, all dating from 1890 through 1920. The original owners had placed them there and walled them over and forgotten about them. In the boxes I found many photos, a 1914 Boy Scout Handbook, World War I documents, a cylindrical, metal, hand-pump vacuum cleaner and complete sets of LDS periodicals and national magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post and Life. The dollar value of these treasures wasn’t high but I kept some items and donated others to an historical society.
In a commercial building, a former brothel that I purchased on 25th Street in Ogden, I found a good collection of 1890s-era furniture, much of which I salvaged, restored and sold or used in my other historic buildings. The 1930’s-era soft-porn, oil-painted murals on the walls I left for the new buyer to decide what to do with. I’ve never heard what became of them.