By Langston Guettinger, Historic Preservation Specialist/Architectural Historian at Logan Simpson Design
Only in the last twenty years has popular culture come to reevaluate midcentury American architecture with the advent of programs like The Incredibles or Mad Men. Previously, buildings of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s were described as “sterile” or “ticky-tacky.” Disdain for architectural trends, however, is nothing new. Similar sentiments were once applied to Craftsman bungalows or Victorian townhouses. Often, only after an interval of 40 to 50 years does the outmoded become fashionable once again.
It was for this reason that in March 2021, architectural historians with Logan Simpson conducted a “historic resources survey” of postwar suburbs in Kearns and West Valley City. Many of these subdivisions have reached the golden “50 year rule” after which a building or district may be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
First, some history
History is ever-evolving, and Kearns and West Valley City are no different. Both communities’ express national patterns of development, and prior to World War II (WWII), were farmlands crisscrossed by irrigation ditches and railroad lines, against the backdrop of small communities including Hunter, Granger, and Chesterfield. Following American entry into WWII, Camp Kearns (Kearns Army Air Base) was developed as a training center and, almost overnight, became the third largest city in Utah.
Often described as a period of American optimism, the end of WWII was not without its challenges. The country was facing increasing consumer and infrastructure demands, coupled with a severe housing shortage. In response, the federal government, through efforts of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) sought to encourage private developers by guaranteeing their investments against financial loss through approval of housing projects meeting architectural and urban planning standards.
These standards were conservative in their guidance to avoid backing unsalable developments and ensure appeal to the widest audience. Acceptable designs included curving streets, cul-de-sacs, detached residences, separated zoning, and shopping malls among other amenities. Approved housing designs were required to be affordable, provide off-street parking, and conform to pre-approved styles which became “Minimal Traditional,” “Ranch,” “Contemporary,” or “Split-Level.”
With FHA backing, the built environment of the country began to transform in the immediate postwar period as the agricultural lands surrounding urban cities were replaced by new tract developments. In Salt Lake City, intense housing shortages began easing as, like elsewhere, construction blossomed around the city’s outskirts where farmland was paved over and redeveloped.
Although growth was concentrated to the city’s north and south, development west of the Jordan River was initiated within the former site of Camp Kearns before spreading outwards. New subdivisions turned existing county roadways into major thoroughfares as traffic increased and small-scale commercial buildings sprouted along their edges. During this period, architectural trends in Kearns and West Valley City shifted from Minimal Traditional houses to Ranch and Contemporary homes and later, Split-Level.
Although suburban growth helped solve the midcentury housing shortage, its larger legacy is complicated (for something less politically charged, try this take from Encyclopedia Britannica). Often completed without regional planning, suburban “sprawl” emerged, leading to traffic congestion, loss of farmland and open space, degradation of sensitive environments, and diminishing urban tax bases. Recent scholarship often highlights suburbs exclusionary racial policies and the negative impacts on inner cities resulting from “white flight.” Others have commented upon the homogeneity of suburban life and its “encapsulation” of domesticity into a neat and invented reality.
To some extent, these problems were evident in Kearns and West Valley City. West Valley City grew haphazardly, producing traffic congestion with a precarious network of infrastructure. Other problems included a lack of public services, recreational areas, and parkland. Harder to catalog are the social and philosophical changes wrought by this growth. Bound up within these patterns, however, is a wider concept of history which is found within and throughout both communities. Although this history is always present, it is tangible in the streets, buildings, and neighborhoods that make up the place itself which is, ultimately, what makes them worthy of preservation.
To read the results of the historic resources survey and find out which areas are considered “historic” see the full results at the following link: Reconnaissance Level Survey of West Valley City and Kearns Township in Western Salt Lake County, Utah
Ellis, Sheri Murray
2004 Cultural Resource Reconnaissance Survey and Selective Reconnaissance Level Architectural Survey, Redwood Road, 2320 South to 3500 South, Salt Lake County, Utah. Submitted to the Utah Department of Transportation, Region Two. Utah Antiquities Project No. U04ST0428. Copies available from the Utah State Historic Preservation Office, Salt Lake City.
Federal Housing Administration
1940a Successful Subdivisions. Federal Housing Administration, Washington, D.C.
1940b Principles of Planning Small Houses. Federal Housing Administration, Washington, D.C.
McAlester, Virginia Savage
2017 A Field Guide to American Houses. Rev. ed. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
1996 A History of Salt Lake County. Utah State Historical Society, Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County Commission, Salt Lake City.
Utah Division of State History
2018 Utah’s Historic Architecture Guide. Utah Division of State History, Salt Lake City, Utah. Electronic document https://issuu.com/utah10/docs/architectural_guide_booklet, accessed April 29, 2021.