Modernism on Campus: Architecture at the University of Utah 1945-1975
UHQ I VOL. 85 I NO. 1
BY BIM OLIVER
The years following World War II were ones of unprecedented growth and change at the University of Utah. The period from 1945 to 1975 saw an exponential increase in enrollment with a corresponding boom in construction as new buildings rose to accommodate the rapidly growing number of students. During this brief thirty-year span, the campus would more than triple in size, and over seventy-five new buildings would be constructed. The sheer number of new buildings would certainly change the dynamics of the university, but it was their varied designs—in styles that diverged significantly from the existing buildings near Presidents Circle—that would fundamentally alter the architectural character of the university. New ideas of form and material—collectively known as “Modernism”—came to define the postwar campus. This article looks at the emergence of these new architectural ideas through the stories of the buildings that most clearly represent them.
At the end of World War II, it would have been difficult to envision these sweeping changes. The campus was compact—only 150 acres—with most buildings lining Presidents Circle. Various factors, including two economic depressions, the diversion of building materials to the war effort, and the fiscal conservatism of Utah’s elected officials, had combined to limit the university’s ability to plan and construct new buildings prior to and during the war. As the war started, there were fewer than twenty-five buildings on campus.
The war’s end brought dramatic changes to the status quo. During the 1940s, enrollment more than doubled, creating an immediate demand for additional classrooms, offices, and other space. 1 That demand, in turn, created an urgent need for more land area on which to build new build-
ings. With only 150 acres, most of it already occupied, there was no place to grow. In addition, the area around the existing campus was characterized by a patchwork of ownership, by the federal government, the State of Utah, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS church), among other entities, complicating the potential acquisition of new land. 2
The first substantive step to alleviating what was rapidly escalating into a crisis was the purchase in 1948 from Fort Douglas of nearly 300 acres to the south and east of the original campus. The transaction included over 100 military surplus buildings that would house various university functions, including classes, offices, and dormitories. Although the Fort Douglas buildings served their purposes they were ramshackle—in some cases, even dangerous. For university president Ray Olpin, there was another less obvious drawback to the school’s inadequate facilities: they presented a deterrent to recruiting and retaining faculty. 3 The new Fort Douglas tract posed an additional challenge in that it created what was essentially a second campus. Getting from a class on one campus to a class on the other could involve a trek of over one mile (and up a long hill heading east). As the university grew, it would need to integrate the two campuses into a functional, efficient whole.
This goal was hindered by the fact that for nearly twenty years following the war, the university lacked a formal master plan. Without an overarching vision, the new dual campus was in danger of growing in piecemeal, disjointed fashion. So in 1956, the university created a Department of Planning and Construction. Although the department initially lacked an overall strategic direction, it did have a clear purpose: to coordinate and integrate the planning of various buildings to ensure that they related to one another in function and aesthetics. Two years later, the university’s Board of Regents established a design committee as an adjunct to the new department.
Finally in 1962 the university issued its first master plan with the goal of creating a strategic outline for development. The central element of the plan, developed with the aid of outside consultants, was a concentric-ring concept that focused on various functions and activities, placing those functions and activities of greatest intensity at the “core” of campus (the area that included the union and new library) with various gradients of activity toward the edge of campus where those functions of less intensity (e.g., dormitories) could be more appropriately located. 4
While the concentric-ring zone concept provided a general organizational framework, planners recognized the need to establish a more focused construct that would guide the specific placement of buildings and the movement of people through and around the larger consolidated campus. That construct emerged as two malls, one running north and south and the other running east and west. These two major malls intersected at the southwest corner of Orson Spencer Hall, which had already been constructed.
The malls served as the defining geographical feature of the new integrated campus. By establishing axes, lines of reference for determining how the campus should grow, the malls organized the two disparate campuses into a single cohesive whole. The north-south mall running between the site of the new library and new union was designed “to tie the older part of campus, the view up past the Park Building, up into this new environment of Behavioral Science, Library, and Fine Arts together. To make it a smooth and interesting transition.” 5 The malls also facilitated movement: students
and faculty walking to another building or to the other side of campus. And they served an important visual function by creating long views—or “vistas”—across campus. The eastwest mall was even dubbed “Vista Avenue.”
The malls didn’t just connect buildings. They connected open spaces (plazas) that served as collection areas to accommodate the flow of students and faculty in and out of various buildings. In most cases, the plazas were integral to the design of individual buildings. So it is, for example, that the Social and Behavioral Sciences Building rose out of a large plaza and a breezeway opened beneath the Fletcher Physics Building. In some cases, however, the plazas were intended to serve as gathering places for impromptu social or academic interactions.
The “Library Plaza,” east of Marriott Library, was especially important because it defined the core of the new integrated campus, extending as it did from Marriott Library, considered to be the most important building on campus. 6 At the time of its construction in 1969, the plaza’s key role was recognized by the Deseret News as “the central hub of the ‘new’ campus.” 7 And in 2013, the Central Campus Precinct Study reiterated this assertion by calling Library Plaza “arguably the crossroads of campus,” noting that it “serves as the spatial focal point of the entire Main Campus.” 8
Significant as it may have been, Library Plaza itself wanted a defining element. According to the university’s consulting architects, a fountain could “add a large measure of strength and repose” to the area between the Library and Orson Spencer Hall, thereby unifying the two buildings “into a single strong composition.” 9 That fountain, designed by Boyd Blackner, presented a bold Modernist abstraction of the concept of streams cascading from the canyons into the valley.
As much as anything else the malls created a spatial transition from the old campus to the new. But the university’s broader transition to a postwar world would also need to address significant demographic, cultural, and technological changes. These changes would dramatically affect not only how the postwar university would function; they would also affect how it would look. The architecture of the new campus would, by necessity, both incorporate and reflect all of these changes.
The completion of a master plan in 1962 was a significant development for the postwar university, because it came just as the pace of construction was accelerating dramatically. During the 1950s, eight new buildings had appeared, increasing the university’s building stock by over 30 percent. But this pace of change was not particular to the U. In 1948, the Utah State Agricultural College (soon to be renamed Utah State University) launched what the Salt Lake Tribune termed “the biggest building program in the history of the school.” 10 More ambitious was the postwar building agenda of Weber State College, which had outgrown its downtown Ogden campus to begin building an entirely new campus on Ogden’s east bench. Even Brigham Young University saw the number of buildings on campus more than double during the 1950s as the school responded to its own expanding enrollment. 11
Expansive as the University of Utah’s building program was during the 1950s, the pace of development would only intensify during the 1960s with the construction of twenty-two buildings, including massive projects such as the Marriott Library, the Special Events Center and HPER complex, and the largest building constructed during the period: the Medical Center. The building boom was stimulated by strong administrative support from university president Ray Olpin, strong political support from the university’s Board of Regents (which approved a ten-year building program in 1960), and strong fiscal support from Governor Calvin Rampton who—unlike his predecessors— favored bonding as a means for financing new construction at the university.
Of all the university’s ventures into modernist design, perhaps none was bolder than the Tanner Fountain with its abstraction of the canyons to the east. — Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah
However, it was not only the pace of construction that was dramatically affecting the built environment of the university. The new buildings reflected a significant change in the university’s role. President Ray Olpin, who took his position in 1946, brought a clear vision for the postwar institution, one in which research
would assume primacy in its agenda. Coupled with a corresponding demand within the private sector, the time was ripe for the university to position itself as an essential locus of research. As Anne Palmer Peterson has noted, Olpin “stated that he could see scientists taking over the responsibility not only for supporting but leading society.” 12
The impact of this new research-based focus on programming was immediate, according to Paul Hodson, shifting the emphasis “from an essentially undergraduate college with a few professional schools to a major research and graduate university with numerous professional schools.” 13 This change in turn affected the scope and nature of building design on campus. With the university’s agenda expanding, more and more varied buildings were needed. Those new buildings prioritized innovative research facilities. The days of the general classroom or multi-purpose buildings, such as those lining Presidents Circle, were essentially over.
The first of these, the Kennecott Research Center completed in 1954, was a clear statement of this new direction. It was, as its name implies, dedicated to research. Only research. No classrooms. No faculty offices. No student lounges. The Kennecott Research Center manifested President Olpin’s belief that the postwar university had a responsibility to more directly demonstrate its value to Utah residents through research that could impact the state’s economy. Constructed solely to benefit Kennecott’s mining operations, it was the “first large-scale research facility to be built by a private firm or an industry in the Mountain West.” 14
Fittingly, the Kennecott Research Center was located in the area known as “Mineral Square,” a cluster of mining-related buildings on the north side of the existing campus. Here, Ken- necott’s researchers could benefit from easy access to the university faculty’s expertise. The university would, in turn, benefit from the presence of a facility dedicated to research.
But the real impact of the university’s postwar commitment to research was expressed in its new academic buildings. Nowhere would that be more apparent that in the Biological Sciences Building completed in 1967. Its 119,000 square feet contained over 100 labs, twenty-three temperature-control rooms, and even several “animal rooms” but only four conference and seminar rooms. Almost an afterthought, classes were held in the nearby Life Sciences Building. Designed by Utah architect William F. Thomas, it existed exclusively to facilitate research, so much so that its roof even served as a yard for experimental greenhouses. The cutting-edge nature of these functions manifested itself in the building’s stark Modernist design—straight lines, hard edges, and little ornamentation.
For the total integration of research, however, no building exceeded the Browning Building. Completed in 1971, its actual structure incorporated “two concrete piers for calibration of delicate earthquake detection equipment” that would allow it “to not only resist earthquakes but to record earth movement,” “space for a cloud chamber,” and labs that were “designed to maintain precise temperature controls important to accurate and very delicate equipment.” 15 Again, classroom space was a secondary consideration: of its approximately 160 rooms, only five were for seminars.
Other new buildings, while not centered on research, nevertheless intensified its presence as part of the academic life of the university. As with the Biological Sciences Building, the Eyring Chemistry Building contained a mechanical core with the requisite labs and offices, as The Sterling Sill Home Living Center was distinctive as an example of a particular style of Modernism that had developed on the West Coast. — Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah
well a laboratory wing that could be isolated (for safety purposes) from the rest of the building. Unlike the Biological Sciences Building, however, its plan included teaching space and lecture rooms. But it shared the former’s austere Modernist style, particularly in the columns of narrow windows that accentuated its rectilinear shape and the semicircular auditorium fanning out from its north side.
This concept of separate-but-connected functions was expressed even more distinctly in the Fletcher Physics Building, which comprised three very different structures in one building. The east half of the building, dedicated to research, was almost monolithic—with nary a window—to allow for full control of the research environment. At the west sat a circular auditorium, the teaching space. These two disparate architectural ideas were connected by the Physics department’s administrative space, clad entirely in glass. Ironically, the Physics Building’s austere Modernist assemblage sat adjacent (and in stark contrast) to Kingsbury Hall in all its proud Neoclassical grandeur.
These and other new buildings of the 1950s and 1960s reflected not only a change in the university’s complex societal and academic agenda; they reflected as well the emergence of a new set of architectural ideas on campus. World War II had created something of an architectural hiatus at universities across the country. At war’s end, traditionalist styles that had dominated educational architecture in the first half of the twentieth century (such as Kingsbury Hall’s Neoclassicism) had given way to a set of architectural ideas collectively referred to as Modernism.
With its south- and west-facing facades clad almost entirely in glass, the Olpin Student Union reflected Modernism’s emphasis on integrating inside and outside space. — Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah
Because it introduced a new set of ideas, Modernism—which was not widely accepted around the country—was embraced by academia. Its appeal as a preferred style of postwar campus architecture was greatly enhanced by the fact that Modernist designs, because they were simple and unadorned and often based in prefabricated elements, were also relatively inexpensive to construct. At the University of Utah, an additional factor favoring Modernism was the establishment in 1949 of the School of Architecture and, more specifically, the designation of Roger Bailey as its first dean. Bailey was a staunch Modernist and was actively involved in the planning and design of the new campus. 16
More to the point, however, is the fact that the architects commissioned to design the new buildings had either absorbed these new ideas or been trained in them and were themselves incorporating them in the postwar built environment on the University of Utah campus. It’s important to note that all of the buildings constructed between 1945 and 1975 were designed by Utah architects. The roster represents a veritable “Who’s Who” of mid-century Utah architects, including Edwards and Daniels, Young and Fowler, Slack Winburn, and William F. Thomas. Some, like Ashton Evans and Brazier, were venerable Utah firms adapting to changing architectural influences. Others, like Dean Gustavson, were educated at institutions that had incorporated Modernism in their curricula. Regardless of the origin, however, Modernism was now the primary influence on how architects would design new buildings at the university.
The first example on campus of these new architectural influences was, in some ways, something of an anomaly. Designed by Ashton Evans and Brazier and completed in 1953, the Sterling Sill Home Living Center represented the university’s only example of a particular style of Modernism that had migrated to Utah not from Europe or even the East Coast (the hotbeds of Modernist architecture) but from the West Coast. Stylistically, the Sill Center was distinctive among university buildings of the post–World War II period because of its extensive use of wood and natural stone, materials closely associated with Modernist architectural ideas that were emerging primarily in California. Known as “Bay Area Modernism” or “Rustic Modernism,” this style adopted basic geometric forms but—unlike European or East Coast Modernism—made liberal use of natural materials. In some of its elements, particularly the configuration of its windows, the Sill Center also harkened back to visual ideas of the Prairie School made popular by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
By far the more prevalent form of Modernism in 1950s America, however, was that known as the “International Style” that had migrated to America from Europe in the early part of the twentieth century. It emphasized simple geometric forms, smooth surfaces, and the extensive use of metal and glass. At the same time, architects designing in the International Style eschewed applied ornamentation. However common nationally, the International Style was short-lived on the University of Utah campus. Nevertheless its legacy includes two of the most significant buildings of the post-war era: Orson Spencer Hall and the Olpin Student Union.
Designed by Lloyd Snedaker, Orson Spencer Hall was probably the university’s purest example of the International Style, with its horizontal profile, geometric form, long bands of aluminum-framed windows, and stylized metal louvers. Unlike so many other postwar buildings on campus, whose design revolved around research, Orson Spencer Hall (“OSH” as it was affectionately called), was conceived, designed, and constructed exclusively as a classroom building. Actually, OSH was, in effect, three separate buildings, three east-west wings tied together by a common north-south structure and constructed in phases over a period of more than ten years.
While OSH may have been the purest representation of the International Style, the most dramatic was clearly the Olpin Student Union. Designed by Fred Markham and dedicated in 1957, the massive structure (its 149,000 square feet enclosed nearly 1.8 million cubic feet) was sited and configured to frame the new campus core extending to the south and west while creating a connection to the new area of campus expanding to the east. The configuration, cubes of various sizes and shapes, showed a progression of the International Style towards the abstraction of the basic shape of a building.
Working from the premise that “the greatest scholastic activity is carried on through the cooler months of the year,” Markham faced the entire south and west-facing sides with glass, “providing a maximum of light from natural sources and opening vistas to the surrounding mountains.” 17 In 1967, the Union Building was expanded with an extension of the east-west wing to the west and a second addition on the northeast corner.
Although brief, appearing in only a handful of university buildings, the International Style’s appearance on campus opened the door for Modernist architectural ideas. By the late 1950s, however, architects across the country—and in Utah—had adapted the basic tenets of Modernism to a broader, more expressive set of stylistic ideas. At the same time, the roster of architects designing new buildings on campus had expanded as well. These conditions created a challenge for campus planners: how to ensure that new buildings would be compatible with other buildings while communicating their own distinct identities. To that end, the university in 1958 established a design committee “to obtain greater aesthetic kinship in the buildings under
design (both to the existing buildings as well as to the new ones to be constructed).” 18 “This does not mean,” the committee stated, “that all buildings have to appear the same in design, in fact, quite the contrary is desirable; rather there should be some elements to provide continuity to establish the dignity and kinship.” 19
The particular element that the committee decided upon was brick—more specifically a red variety known as “campus brick.” Its use, while not required, was strongly encouraged. (More than one architect, however, balked at the idea.) Campus brick thus became the primary motif in a style unique to the university that might best be called “University Modernism.” Buildings in this style generally incorporated large panels of campus brick, metal-framed windows (often arranged in narrow vertical bands), and extensive use of concrete as a decorative material particularly in broad fascia along the rooflines.
The earliest example of University Modernism appeared in a complex of buildings constructed in 1964 to house the Business School. Sited near the intersection of the two major malls, “it was suggested that the prominent location of this complex requires that it have a stabilizing effect from all outlooks on the malls.” 20 The architect, William Rowe Smith, was encouraged to extensively utilize campus brick in his design “to develop greater campus kinship.” 21 In addition, particular attention was paid to a window pattern that could be different from but compatible with the existing buildings on campus.
However, the most significant example of the university’s particular brand of Modernism rose only a few years later just to the west. The sprawling Art and Architecture Center, completed in 1971, was considered an integral element in a grouping of buildings that included
the Social and Behavioral Sciences Building to the west and the Marriott Library to the north. Planners wanted for each building to be unique but for the three also to be viewed as complementary to one another. 22 To accomplish this goal, the architects of the Art and Architecture Center, Edwards and Daniels, reinforced the relationships within the group by aligning the complex with the central axis of the library.
Yet they also established a distinct identity for the complex by creating a low, modular configuration of four structures that established a clear visual contrast with the other two buildings. The Art and Architecture Center advanced the basic look of University Modernism through the extensive use of abstraction. Certain elements (for example, the concrete columns on the east and west facades) were repeated, establishing a sense of regularity, a pattern. But other elements, such as windows, appeared irregularly, investing the structures with a contrasting, almost random, quality.
Eventually, campus brick became the accepted norm, appearing on buildings with a diversity of uses and designs, including the School of Social Work, the College of Law, and the HPER complex. However, as the design committee had proposed the standard of campus brick it had also allowed for exceptions: “special purpose buildings, or buildings at special focal points of the campus.” 23 The most notable exceptions were also probably the most striking buildings of the postwar period: the Merrill Engineering Building, the Marriott Library, and the Social and Behavioral Sciences Building (although even the latter would incorporate panels of campus brick on its ground floor to integrate it with other buildings).
The earliest of these examples, the Merrill Engineering Building, still stands as one of the university’s most distinctive buildings of any period. Its stark, minimalist appearance was, among other things, an explicit repudiation by architect Dean Gustavson of the standard for campus brick. 24 But the basic concept for the look of the new engineering center had actually come from faculty of the College of Engineering, who “set the design [a]esthetic [sic] as that of an industrial laboratory.” 25
So it was that the Merrill Engineering building, begun in 1959 and completed in 1967, assumed a very nontraditional appearance. It was, in fact, “high tech,” and its materials represented the latest in building technology: aluminum frames, coated glass, even neoprene window gaskets. The high-tech nature of the building was manifested not only in its appearance but in its construction. As the Denver Daily Journal noted in 1962, “the design of the curtain wall posed a solution that would permit entire exterior walls to be removed and relocated as the building phases continued.” 26 In the interior, steel-frame floors allowed for comparably easy reconfiguration.
While Gustavson’s sleek, low-slung statement of industrial Modernism immediately assumed iconic status, another building of even greater significance would soon rise at the center of campus. As much as it had affected any other university function, the university’s growth following World War II had impacted the library. Not only had enrollment more than doubled, so too had the library’s collection. When planning for a new library commenced in the 1950s, the concept for the building expanded not only to accommodate the rapidly growing collection but also to incorporate a broader range of uses not found in traditional libraries (such as an audio-visual department). This more expansive concept was called the “Learning Center.” Given its overarching set of functions, it became clear that the library would become the focal point for the entire university, particularly with its location “at the very core of the academic area,” which gave it “pivotal significance in the academic scheme and scene.” 27
A committee convened to plan the new library asserted that it “must express the strength of this institution . . . Since the new library will be the heart of the campus, it must express the character, the warmth and the dignity of this great University.” 28 These principles set a standard for a building of monumental scale. Thus, it had to be “raised out of the ground as much as possible to assure its prominence.” 29 It needed to have a “major entrance” on its east side, facing campus. 30 And its materials needed to create a striking contrast with those of other buildings on campus, particularly campus brick.
Designed by Lorenzo S. Young and Partners and opened in 1967, the Marriott Library was a prime example of how Modernist ideas had evolved to incorporate a broader set of architectural principles. One of the most influential adaptations was known as New Formalism, whose proponents sought to soften Modernism’s austere qualities by reintroducing elements from Classical architecture. With its symmetrical elevations, smooth white surfaces, geometric shapes, and—in particular—narrow concrete columns that suggested a Classical colonnade, the Marriott Library would stand as the university’s best example of New Formalism.
Rising in stark contrast to the library only four years later, the Social and Behavioral Sciences Building would establish its own iconic presence as the tallest building on campus. During the 1960s, high-rise buildings were all the rage on college campuses. Preferable, still, were ones constructed of concrete. (One university planning memo noted that “concrete is a material of strong design influence in present period.” 31 ) Not surprisingly, the university chose in the late 1960s to construct its own concrete high-rise, inspired by examples at Harvard, MIT, and even the Salk Institute. 32 However, the new Social and Behavioral Sciences Building’s size was not merely a response to architectural trends, for it had to consolidate three departments (Psychology, Sociology, and Speech Pathology and Audiology) that had previously functioned out of different buildings. As with other university buildings of the period, the plan for the Social and Behavioral Sciences Building was based in the programming requirements specified by each department. 33
Faced with the limitations of the site—squeezed between the Library to the north and the Art and Architecture Center to the south—going
vertical was really the only option available to the architects, Panushka and Peterson, for creating the requisite space. The fact that a tall, concrete building happened to be trendy for higher education was an added bonus. But the Social and Behavioral Sciences Building would also serve an important visual function: standing as it did at the west end of the major east-west mall, it would serve as a “focal point” envisioned by the university’s design committee. While not necessarily an explicit goal of the architects, the Social and Behavioral Sciences Building’s visibility from throughout the city also fulfilled an ideal expressed in the late 1950s by the university’s design committee that “someday a high-rise element visible from the entire City . . . will be constructed near the library as a symbol of higher education.” 34
The building’s uniqueness lay not just in its size. To this day, nearly fifty years after its completion, it is the one of a handful of all-concrete buildings on campus, a style of Modernism commonly referred to as Brutalism. During the design process, planners and architects considered using cast stone or campus brick as infill materials for the solid panels between the windows, but ultimately decided that concrete was best suited to “the character of the design.” 35 In order to diminish the building’s monolithic presence, Panushka and Peterson adopted irregular window patterns that suggested the same concepts of abstraction present in the Art and Architecture facades.
The Social and Behavioral Sciences Building exemplified the postwar university’s ability to respond innovatively to the demand for space for all types of university activity. But as acute as the demand was for research labs and classrooms and library stacks, it was even more acute for dorm rooms. Carlson Hall, completed in 1938, had raised dorm occupancy to a grand total of 300 students, enough to accom-
modate less than 10 percent of the enrolled students prior to the war. As a stopgap measure immediately following the war, the university brought in surplus military barracks from various sites (including internment camps) from around the western U.S. Called “Stadium Village,” they provided rudimentary housing for over 1,000 people.
But Stadium Village did little to alleviate the housing shortage, especially as enrollment continued to grow. Fortunately, planners had considered the need for housing by designating territory for dormitories at the outer edge of the concentric-ring plan. In particular, “the entire corner of the campus south and east of Ballif Hall to Wasatch Boulevard and Hempstead Road” was set aside for student housing. 36
By 1966, three new dorms—Ballif, Van Cott,
and Austin—would occupy the site. All three were distinctly Modernist in their form and in their materials. Of the three, Van Cott Hall provided what by this time was an almost retrospective nod to the International Style, particularly with its panelized wall system, a popular building approach that had evolved from the simple design principles of the International Style. Ballif Hall was notable for its form. Its six wings were composed in a series of three connected “Vs.” A lower common area structure sat between the westernmost “V” and the other two. Clad in brick, it was three stories tall with a flat roof. Austin Hall comprised three separate identical blocks connected by covered breezeways. A small common-area building was centrally located among the three structures. Due to the slope of the site, the dormitory structures projected from the hill. Where they did so, a small porch was created that was lined by round, white concrete columns. 37
However, building dorms to accommodate a rapidly growing student body was not just a matter of numbers. The task was complicated by a more specific but nevertheless significant demographic change. As the Salt Lake Tribune noted in 1960, “before World War II, a married student on a university campus was an oddity.” 38 After the war, however, the population of married students at the University of Utah grew at a faster rate than that of single students. Although most of Stadium Village was devoted to married-student housing, it was inadequate. Even with the substandard quality of the facilities, waiting lists extended for as long as two years.
As the university was planning and constructing new dorms on campus, it also undertook the planning, design and construction of a “village” at the northwest corner of what are now Foothill Drive and Sunnyside Avenue. Over
a period of ten years, between 1960 and 1970, University Village would grow to a complex of over fifty buildings on both the west and east sides of Foothill Drive. The apartment units were small and spare, configured in clusters with shared park and play space that was representative of the garden apartment complexes prevalent during the middle of the twentieth century. One of the explicit design goals, in fact, was that the complex “maintain a park like atmosphere.” 39
University Village reflected the adoption of Modernist architectural ideas in what might be termed a “vernacular” application. That is, the essential visual values of Modernism translated, for better or for worse, into a universal architectural style that found its way into the design of a diverse set of building types. For architects and builders across the country had discovered an unanticipated benefit to Modernist construction: that it could be inexpensive. So it was that the low cost of building University Village was passed along in the form of low rents for married students—much to the chagrin of private landlords. 40
While married students represented a constituency requiring a particular type of housing, there was yet another specific demographic that also required dedicated dormitories: medical students. With the completion of the new Medical Center in 1965, demand had grown for related facilities, including housing for the students of the School of Medicine. The lack of housing near the Medical Center had “affected morale and recruiting,” because residents and interns living off campus were isolated either from their family when they were working or from their patients when they were home or they were not readily available during emergencies and evening work. 41 In addition, interns and residents were, in increasing numbers, married, necessitating construction of housing other than standard dormitories.
The architectural program proposed for the “Medical Plaza” completed in 1971 included a mix of high-rise towers and low-rise townhouses. The towers would contain one and two-bedroom apartments while the townhouses would contain three-bedroom units. The design by Salt Lake architect Burtch Beall included two, identical, fourteen-story towers. Clad in campus brick, each was defined by narrow concrete columns and a broad concrete cap that projected slightly from the building, creating a termination for the building to reinforce its visual effect as a high rise.
Constructed almost entirely of concrete, the townhouses stood two stories tall, extending east to west as two lines of row houses. Moving west, each progressive house stepped horizontally slightly to the south and vertically slightly lower.
At this point, it might have seemed as if the university had addressed all types of building needs: classrooms, labs, dorms, even social gathering spaces. But there was still a significant unmet need within the undergraduate community. As much as any other university activity, athletics found itself in the postwar era struggling to make the most out of outdated infrastructure. A 1957 assessment proclaimed that “there are perhaps no more inadequate physical education facilities at any state university in the nation than at the University of Utah.” 42 But athletics, like research, was assuming a greater prominence in the life of the university, and the rapid growth in enrollment revealed the limitations of existing facilities. Einar Neilson Fieldhouse, for example, had served as the university’s arena, but its capacity was limited to 2,100 reserved seats, less than a third of the university’s enrollment by 1945– 1946. As well as responding to the university’s own internal demands, however, a new arena needed to respond to National Collegiate Athletic Association standards, including a prohibition on games in off-campus facilities. 43
In 1969, the university opened that new arena, the Special Events Center, a circular structure with a circumference of 350 feet and a domed roof. The Houston Astrodome, completed four years earlier, had defined a particular style of Modernist architecture—that incorporated, in particular, the domed roof—that set the standard for sports arenas across the country for years. But the circular form wasn’t just trendy. It had significant functional advantages over a more traditional rectangular arena: unobstructed views from all of the 15,000 seats; symmetrical spans requiring structural components that could be uniform in size and shape; and (correspondingly) a repeated use of components that
reduced the cost of materials. 44 Designed by the Salt Lake architectural firm of Young and Fowler (which also designed Marriott Library and the College of Law), the Special Events Center was unique in that the frame of the dome comprised laminated timber segments rather than, say, steel, making it at the time of its completion the largest “clear-span” wood dome in the world. 45
The Special Events Center was the anchor of a new athletics complex called the “Physical Education, Sports and Special Events Center” at what was then close to the southeast boundary of campus. The complex included the arena as well as four buildings—known collectively as the “HPER” buildings—to house recreational activities, including a natatorium. The location of the complex was convenient, because it was adjacent to the student dormitories (Ballif, Austin, and Van Cott); thus, “the facilities could be used after normal teaching hours by both men and women students living on campus.” 46
The sprawling configuration of the complex was deemed to be more efficient than consolidating all the activities in a single building. There was, in addition, what might be called a cultural concern about the complex’s configuration: that putting all the activities under one roof might create a structure that “would completely overpower anything else on campus,” thereby diminishing the identity of the university as a place of learning. 47 The Special Events Center was therefore placed at the outer edge of the complex to ensure that, given its size, it did not compete with Marriott Library, the most significant building on campus. The four HPER buildings—HPER East, HPER North, HPER West, and the Natatorium—were placed adjacent to the university’s large east-west mall thus acting as a visual buffer between those two buildings.
That idea of compatibility was carried through to the design of the HPER buildings themselves. Adopting the elements of University Modernism, they were relatively small and simple in form and materials, particularly in their extensive use of campus brick. In addition, many of their functions were located underground, diminishing their visual presence. The exception was in the three-story Natatorium, which adopted an entirely different form and materials. Constructed of concrete and glass, it opened up to the rest of the complex. Stylistically, the Natatorium was particularly significant, because it displayed the characteristics of Brutalism— concrete-based construction—an architectural style that was (and still is) rare at the university, the other prime example being the Social and Behavioral Sciences Building.
The HPER complex, with its various buildings devoted to various kinds of athletic activities, reflected the fact that, as the university had grown in the postwar era, it had become increasingly specialized. The demand had escalated for more buildings that could house more activities—learning, research, athletics, et al— that were, in turn, more specific, particularly as the university strove to position itself as a premier educational institution. 48 This need for modern, specialized facilities extended beyond research and teaching to the university’s cultural life. So it was that in 1957 President Olpin declared that the existing theater, Kingsbury Hall, was “inadequate as a center for the dramatic arts,” having been “primarily designed as a lecture hall.” 49
But the idea for a new theater on campus wasn’t itself new; it had been conceived as early as the 1940s. It would not be just any theater, however. The new campus theater was to be a replica of the Salt Lake Theater constructed in 1861 at the corner of State Street and 100 South and demolished in 1928. The reason? The LDS church had long sought to bring back the beloved structure. So in the 1950s, church leadership approached the university with a proposal for a new theater and (more to the point) the money to build it.
This task—replicating the Salt Lake Theater— might have seemed relatively simple on its face. But changes in theater technology and design pointed to a completely different style of building than the traditionalist structure envisioned by church leaders. The functional parameters of contemporary theater asked for a building that was significantly different in character. The stage and “flyspace” (where scenery was stored and moved) of necessity had to be substantially larger than the seating area and, in particular, the proposed Greek Revival façade, resulting in an “inconsistency with the mass of the building.” 50 The large scale demanded by new theater technology simply was out of proportion with the smaller scale of the historic design. Thus the theater’s architects, Harold Burton and Howard Barker, found themselves in the late 1950s caught between the university’s understandable desire for a modern (and Modernist) theater and the LDS church’s ultimatum that the new building replicate the Salt Lake Theater. As Burton himself described the dilemma: “You couldn’t have a replica and a modern theater.” 51
The design process was made even more complex by the fact that the university’s design committee that was overseeing it included university president Ray Olpin; university vice presidents Homer Durham and Paul Hodson; the chair of the Board of Regents; the director of the Utah State Building Board; the chair of the university’s Buildings and Grounds Committee; the director of the university’s Planning and Construction Department; the dean of the School of Architecture Roger Bailey; and consulting architects William Wurster and Robert Royston. Also actively involved, of course, were leaders of the LDS church.
Among all these parties there was substantial disagreement whether the theater’s architecture should be based on “historic” or “modern” design ideas. The product of the occasionally prickly design process, dedicated in 1962, was a curious hybrid with the Greek Revival façade “tacked on” (as university architect Martin Brixen put it) and flanked by Modernist windows and smooth, flat walls of cast stone. It’s known today as the home of Pioneer Memorial Theater Company. 52
At the same time that Pioneer Memorial Theater was being completed on the campus’s west side, the university’s largest postwar structure was rising along the school’s expanded eastern boundary. The Medical Center that would be
completed in 1965 would, perhaps more than any other building, demonstrate the extent to which the university was expanding—academically and architecturally. The development of the Medical Center had actually been set in motion prior to the war when the medical school had transformed from a two-year to a fouryear curriculum. At that time, however, it was operating out of nineteen different buildings that were in such poor condition that “accreditors threatened to shut down the university’s College of Medicine if improvements weren’t made.” 53 In addition, the university’s teaching hospital was located at the Salt Lake County General Hospital at 2100 South State Street, several miles from campus. These conditions— and the diverse set of programs associated with the medical school—created a clear demand for a facility with the capacity to house a hospital, clinical medicine, teaching, and research. The structure that responded to these needs would be the university’s largest facility of the postwar period, larger than the Marriott Library and Special Events Center put together.
Fortunately, the university had acquired the necessary space—once again from Fort Douglas. This property was well removed from the existing campus, sitting along the east bench. Ironically, the first building in the new medical center would be unassuming, incorporating only “the essentials, but no frills . . . declared by those who have seen it to be a model structure from the standpoint of utility.” 54 Appropriately, the Cancer Research Center, would be dedicated only to research. Completed in 1951, the Cancer Research Center was designed by Ashton, Evans and Brazier as something of a cornerstone for the new Medical Center, eventually being absorbed into it.
That structure would rise eight years later on a site along Salt Lake City’s east bench to the east of the new campus. Constructed in phases, it was finally completed in 1965. It was huge, encompassing more than 500,000 square feet. Clad in campus brick, it adopted Modernist lines: in particular, a horizontal profile accentuated by bands of windows set off above and below by porcelain-enamel panels, a panelized system that was a fashionable treatment of the period. Its most notable feature, however, was a balcony supported by slender white columns and faced with a screen of perforated white concrete that extended from its south entrance around along its west side—a distinctly New Formalist element.
The Medical Center was the anchor of a new medical campus would eventually include several other significant buildings. As each was added, its individual architectural identity was carefully balanced with the overall character of all the buildings collectively. 55 Even though the medical campus was essentially a place apart from the main campus, campus brick was used extensively in all its buildings, most notably the Medical Center itself.
The first of the other buildings, the Skaggs Pharmacy Building, appeared only a year after the completion of the Medical Center. Its architects, Richardson and Richardson, adopted a low-slung, modular concept that comprised three different but connected structures. At its south end stood a three-story classroom structure. A two-story lobby and office structure ran north. A lecture hall—clad entirely in campus brick—ran along the west side of this structure. In order to reinforce the lobby’s significance, the recommendation was made to make the approach from the mall that connected the various medical campus buildings as prominent as possible. Hence, a large plaza east of the building was incorporated in the design. 56
The Skaggs Pharmacy building reflected an eclectic blend of architectural styles. The classroom and lobby structures displayed references to the International Style with their geometric forms, bands of windows, and lack of applied ornamentation. Yet the contrast of large panels of campus brick and large blocks of concrete, particularly on the lecture hall structure, was representative of University Modernism.
The third major building on the medical campus—the College of Nursing Building—was completed in 1969. By this time, the Medical Center and the Skaggs Pharmacy Building created a definitive context within which the new nursing school would have to fit. Discussions about its design focused on whether it should emphasize a horizontal or vertical profile and how that profile would relate to that of the Pharmacy building. The final design by architect John Clawson favored verticality, particularly in the lines of the tall brick columns that
extended the full five stories and the narrow vertical windows framed by the columns. To reinforce the building’s horizontal form, one of the consulting architects recommended that the roof profile be “thinned.” The College of Nursing Building was something of a Modernist hybrid in that it displayed elements of both New Formalism and University Modernism. Its New Formalist elements were found in the symmetry of its facades and its Classical lines accentuated by tall brick columns, while University Modernism was found in the prevalence of campus brick.
With the completion of the College of Nursing Building, the medical campus presented an eclectic mix of Modernist architectural ideas. The last of the campus’s postwar structures, the Eccles Health Sciences Library, would extend this stylistic diversity even further. Appropriately, it would be the last building constructed during this extraordinary period of growth and change at the university, because its design, created by Edwards and Daniels, communicated something of an endpoint of Modernist thinking at the university.
Comprising cubes of various shapes and materials, the Eccles Health Sciences Library stood as a perhaps the university’s boldest statement of the Modernist concept of abstraction. Its basic form—an “L” shape—was itself somewhat irregular. But the architects created a visual puzzle along the library’s main (west) façade alternating blocks of concrete of various sizes and shapes and panels of campus brick. Given its visual complexity, the Eccles Health Sciences Library represented a fitting closing to the eventful years between 1945 and 1975.
Those years were indeed transformative. They were a time in which the University of Utah experienced a radical change in its architecture that altered the character of campus from that of a staid teaching institution to that of a progressive research institution. New forms and materials brought a Modernist palate to the design of new buildings that stood in stark contrast to the ornate buildings constructed in the university’s early years.
Even though the buildings of this period may not seem historic, many are significant architecturally. Of the ninety or so structures built between 1945 and 1975, fifteen have been determined to be “significant”; that is, in and of themselves, they merit consideration for designation to the National Register of Historic Places based on their architectural value. Another eighteen have been determined to be “contributing,” meaning that they contribute to the historic character of the university—particularly as distinctive examples of university architecture of the postwar period. 57
Unfortunately, however, buildings from the midcentury period have generally been perceived to lack the same architectural significance as their peers from before World War II. Approximately 50 percent of the university’s midcentury buildings have been either significantly modified or demolished. The list of demolitions includes two of the three structures of the Business complex; Ballif, Van Cott, and Austin halls (the postwar dormitories); and half of Milton Bennion Hall. Most unfortunate, however, was the demolition in 2016 of Orson Spencer Hall, one of the most significant buildings not only from the post–World War II era but of the university’s entire architectural history.
These losses point out the challenge for the university in sustaining its mid-century architecture. While they may not elicit the same feelings as the more traditional style buildings of Presidents Circle, they nevertheless tell an important story—individually and collectively—and provide the campus with an architectural diversity that energizes the environment for teaching, learning, and research.
Visit history.utah.gov/uhqextras for additional information about modernism on campus.