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South Valley Riverton Journal

The Point, the prison and historic preservation

Jan 03, 2022 03:40PM ● By Mimi Darley Dutton

Guard tower in front of the Wasatch entrance at the Utah State Prison in Draper. The Point of the Mountain State Land Authority has committed to preserving one or two of the six prison towers for historic purposes. The Department of Corrections will preserve a locking system found only at this prison and at Alcatraz. (Photo courtesy Utah Department of Corrections)

Seven years ago, the historic Draper Park School in the center of town was nearly demolished. The city owned it but could no longer afford to maintain or remodel it. It had become a safety hazard and a resulting liability. Just weeks before it was set to be demolished, a buyer came forward to purchase the old school in what some felt was a “Christmas miracle.”

“It’s like most historic preservation, it’s usually expensive. We made it available cheaply for what was the demolition cost, with the requirement they had to save it. The developer turned it into a commercial enterprise. It was a win-win,” Mayor Troy Walker said. 

In the many months leading up to that last-minute “miracle,” community groups and individuals set about to raise funds, hoping to purchase and re-imagine the old school. But they weren’t able to raise nearly enough money. They repeatedly pled their case to the mayor and city council, hoping to save what they saw as a treasure, before it was turned into rubble. It was a contentious topic at council meetings that ended with a positive resolution for both the city and concerned community members, just in the nick of time. 

For some people, there is a strong sense of duty to consider the historic value of what surrounds them or risk losing it forever. And it’s often the role of everyday residents to push for preservation while a city’s leaders are focused on matters of growth, economics, and wise use of taxpayer funds. 

Todd Shoemaker is one such individual for whom history is a passion. Shoemaker moved to Draper in 1955 and attended school in that historic building on Pioneer Road. He earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in history from the University of Utah and taught history for 30 years at Union Middle School. 

After retiring, Shoemaker served on Draper’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). He participated in efforts to save the historic school. In doing so, he recognizes that the actions he and others took to save the school likely ruffled the feathers of city leaders. He also partnered with two other individuals to purchase the Day Barn at auction, not with city funds earmarked for historic preservation, but with their own money. He worked with the city and other willing partners to relocate it from where it formerly sat on 12300 South near 600 East to where it now resides near the library, land the city donated for it. “I was able to talk to Todd Wadsworth and he was willing to help with the money to move it and fix up the barn. Without him, it wouldn’t have happened,” Shoemaker said. 

Fast forward several years, and Shoemaker, along with others, has wanted to see parts of the Utah State Prison preserved when the development known as The Point begins to take shape. According to Alan Matheson, executive director of The Point, prisoners will be moved to the new prison on the west side of Salt Lake City this summer and demolition of the Draper site will begin soon after. 

For Shoemaker, it’s not a matter of glorifying criminal behavior, but of recognizing that the prison has been part of the Draper community since 1951. That’s the year it was opened to replace the former prison in Sugar House, an old territory prison. Shoemaker said some of the buildings at the Draper site date back to the 1940s and those older buildings are the focus of preservationist efforts. 

“We mainly want to tell the story because it’s in Draper, so many people from Draper worked there and so many have gone out there and volunteered. It’s educational. We’ve done research on what people have done with old prisons. In Europe, some are hotels. We just think the prison is unique and we tried to find out if they were going to tear down those buildings. The Utah State Historical Society didn’t know when we reached out to them and we couldn’t get anything specific from the mayor or the city council. We started this in 2015 or 2016. We spent a lot of time on it,” Shoemaker said. 

Other prisons have been saved for historic purposes. San Francisco has Alcatraz, the former maximum security federal prison that attracts 1.5 million visitors annually, a public museum run by the National Parks Service. Boise has the Old Idaho Penitentiary, a tourist site operated by the Idaho State Historical Society. Both are registered with the National Registry of Historic Places (NRHP). But both are older than the Utah State Prison. Alcatraz operated as a prison from 1934-1963 and the Old Idaho Penitentiary was built between 1870-1872 when Idaho was just a territory. 

The Utah State Prison has some interesting historical occurrences and has housed some well-known names. Ted Bundy was sentenced to 15 years there but later extradited to Colorado. It has housed Warren Jeffs, Wanda Barzee, and Mark Hoffman among others. In 1977, Gary Gilmore was executed in Draper, the first execution in the United States after the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. That prompted Norman Mailer to write his famous novel “The Executioner’s Song.” A 1957 riot gained national news attention and resulted in the building of a chapel, one of the demands made by the prisoners. According to Shoemaker, that chapel was built largely with the prisoners’ money so they had a place to worship and sing.  

Mayor Walker serves on two boards regarding development of The Point: The Point of the Mountain State Land Authority, tasked with development of the prison site, and the Point of the Mountain Commission, an advisory planning commission that looks at the greater Point of the Mountain area. 

Walker said a decision on historic preservation of the prison was made at The Point of the Mountain State Land Authority’s October 2021 meeting. “Most of the buildings are old, the function of them has been to house inmates, so there wasn’t an interest from the board to save buildings…You’d have to reconfigure the way we’re designing the site, the buildings aren’t where we want them to be. However, the lock, which is historic (the Johnson Bar Lock system which is the same as at Alcatraz), the Department of Corrections is going to save and put in a museum that they’re going to do at the new prison. Uniquely, we wanted to preserve something, and what we came up with is the guard towers…up to two of them could be preserved on the site. They’re symbolic of keeping the outside safe, protecting society from criminals. That’s really the extent of the historical preservation at the site. We want a conference center there, not in old Cell Block A, but more like a world class hotel,” Walker said. 

Matheson said, “We’ve had some good conversations with people in the community. We appreciate their passion and the input they’ve provided. As reflected in the board’s decision in October, there is a willingness to preserve appropriate elements of the site. There are a few members of the community concerned about historical preservation and many others that are not. The board is also considering the economic opportunity costs and public safety in making those decisions. Some of these old facilities may not be safe for the public to be in after a time.” 

Shoemaker said he was removed from his position on the HPC, reappointed at some point, and that more recently he didn’t reapply for the commission when his term ended. “I can do better by not being a member and trying to do things on my own,” he said.  

Shoemaker is frustrated that the city has changed their procedures for committees and commissions, and he’s felt more restrained than heard on topics that he feels some members of the community want to discuss. “You may apply to be on the commission agenda and are required to state what you want to talk about, but the commission chair can, evidently, deny your request with no reason given. A citizen’s next course of action is to go to a city council meeting where they are given three minutes to state their concerns. The city is not required to have any further engagement with the citizen in a discussion of the issue that is brought forward,” he said. 

Shoemaker would like to see the format changed so that residents are given three minutes to speak at commission meetings, and if the city wants to follow through on the topic, it would then be on an agenda. “I know why you have to have an agenda, but there’s no reason why people on the commission can’t get input from the general public. I’m pushing now for a change on that. I think that format should be changed.”

The city has spent the last year revising the roles and rules for its various committees and commissions. Councilmember Marsha Vawdrey serves as a liaison between the city and the HPC. “I’ve been encouraging this whole year to look at all our boards and commissions and make sure we’re having consistency, clarifying roles and duties. It was a general overhaul of all the committees. We were trying to help unify, clarify and make consistency for all the boards and committees because all of them were struggling, in their own ways, especially with membership. I could see it and just thought we could do better. It’s been cool to see how many people have applied and been put on boards,” she said. 

“You shouldn’t have unelected officials speaking for the city or council, so we’ve revamped our commission rules, making it clear what they’re supposed to do and what they’re not supposed to do,” Walker said.

Regarding historic preservation in the city, Walker said, “There are old homes we want to see stay. We have the cabin (the old Chamber of Commerce building) and I think our commitment to historic preservation is solid. We like our history, but you can’t do everything. I’d like to see us develop a proper museum, a building that showcases the history of Draper, and that’s something the council is interested in. It was just this prison business—we heard all the arguments, but it just wasn’t going to fit in what we were trying to do. My goal has always been to develop that site into the greatest economic opportunity that the state has had in the last 100 years.”

Walker and Shoemaker do agree on something. “The Sugar House prison would have been worth preserving, but it wasn’t,” Walker said. That historic, territorial prison was demolished and is now the location of Sugar House Park. 

“I get his passion,” Walker said of Shoemaker.