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Fisher Mansion’s adaptive reuse offers the west side a new resource for the neighborhood

May 13, 2024 07:51PM ● By Genevieve Vahl

A side view of the Fisher Mansion with a fallen chimney from the 2020 earthquake. (via Wikimedia Commons)

A new professional baseball stadium proposed for the Bees, the investment into the Jordan River Trail, the construction of condos by CW Urban, a new masterplan for the Glendale and Poplar Grove neighborhoods have all seen a spark in city interest in a zone that used to be a Superfund site.

This new interest has also revealed an opportunity for a neighborhood staple that has sat vacant, vandalized, under preservation, yet still in foundational precarity from the 2020 earthquake that rocked the city. The Fisher Mansion, once home to Albert Fisher and his family of Fisher Brewing, now has a unique opportunity to see the light of day again, reinvented into something for the community, by the community. 

"The time has come for the Fisher Mansion,” said David Amott, an architectural historian and Chair of Friends of Fisher Mansion. "The time has come to create a resource for a neighborhood that deserves to have a focal point, an identity touchstone that is active and contributing to community life there,” Amott said. “If the development of the west side inland port goes through, that will necessitate even further development. You have a resource that suddenly is at the center of so much.” 

After emigrating from Germany in 1881, Albert Fisher started his brewing company in 1884, one of Utah’s first breweries. In 1893, he had his mansion constructed in what is now known as the Poplar Grove neighborhood of the Salt Lake Valley, which was sparsely populated at the time. He raised his five children in the 2-story, 12-room house with his wife Alma. His beer business was really taking off at the turn of the century with 50 employees and brewing 75,000 barrels of beer. But in the wake of Prohibition, the business closed between 1918 and 1933, eventually making it the only brewery to reopen in Utah after the law’s repeal. 

As the business was eventually bought out by Lucky Lager of San Francisco, the Fisher family remained occupants in the mansion. The Fisher daughter Alice and her family eventually leased the mansion to the Catholic Church, turning the space into convents. In 1970, the mansion became St. Mary’s Home for Men, an alcohol and drug abuse treatment facility, providing 41 men shelter, food, clothing, counseling and job assistance.

“Adapting to new functions and changing to fulfill the needs of the surrounding community,” wrote Chris Dunsmore for Mapping SLC. Exactly how Friends of Fisher Mansion and Preservation Utah hope to reimagine this space today. 

“For Preservation Utah specifically, we want to see buildings adaptively reused, restored and preserved in ways that matter to the community,” said Brandy Strand, executive director of Preservation Utah and on the board of Friends of Fisher Mansion. “Not just doing preservation for preservation’s sake, but we want to see this building become infused back into our community. And Fisher Mansion is a perfect example of something that can be that resource for the community that the community needs it to be.” 

The city bought the building in 2006 after the substance abuse facility closed that same year, and helped get the building on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. Thankfully, since many of the surrounding homes in the neighborhood were demolished in the construction of I-80.

“We want to help the city find resources that can bring city partners together to make the Fisher Mansion happen. It’s not just yelling at the city saying do this and do that. It’s actually going out and helping to source funding and partnerships that will really make this building for the public,” Amott said. 

In 2014, the city received a federal grant to help pay for the seismic upgrades to the carriage house out back of the mansion. In 2019, the carriage house saw an approved $1.3 million plan to turn the space into a Salt Lake City Public Lands office space, recreation hub and event space. Holding offices upstairs for the Salt Lake City Park Ranger program and Salt Lake City Public Lands’ outreach and volunteer leaders. 

“It’s a really great showcase of adaptive reuse and how that building can become the resources that our community needs,” Strand said. With rangers and volunteers on site, the space can be better managed and the vision to begin renting boats and other recreation tools for the Jordan River Trail access can come to fruition. 

The city has pledged $3 million in a bond to begin the stabilization efforts for the mansion itself, working towards restoring the architectural integrity of the building. 

“Three million is a lot for that building, but will it get it to the finish line, no,” Amott said. “That’s where Friends of Fisher comes in, to make sure the building’s stabilization doesn’t occur with another 10-15 year pause.”

“Friends of Fisher Mansion is going to be the organization that ensures those conversations don’t fizzle out,” Strand said.  

Preservation Utah has an easement on the exterior of the building and the first two floors, meaning they have a protection over the building. “The first two floors are where a lot of the character defining details exist on the inside. So whatever changes happen on the first two floors and the exterior will have to be approved by Preservation Utah,” Amott said. 

Ensuring that the exterior is maintained intact and protected for historical integrity. 

“We’re not going to see the building demolished, but now it’s time now for the building to be reactivated and to become a part of our community again,” Strand said. “A good first step is getting a good understanding of what the city’s goals are not just for the Fisher Mansion, but for the neighborhood too.” 

“What connects the Fisher Mansion so beautifully with the rest of the neighborhood and the Salt Lake Valley is the Jordan River Trail. The Jordan River bridge drops people off where the Carriage House sits. So you have an amazing connection to not just the river but other resources that are linked with the trail,” Amott said. 

Partnerships are at the forefront of the organizations’ efforts to reimagine this space. To create a master plan based on the needs of the neighborhood and community. 

“We're wanting to partner and to understand where the barriers are and how our group can step in to help alleviate those barriers. We don't want to be another screaming voice into the void,” Strand said. “Instead, we want to pull those voices out of the void and build that coalition of collaboration. So that Fisher Mansion comes back alive.” 

But avoiding the overly zealous ideas this majestic blank canvas could entail by bringing in too many ideas and voices without a solid plan is key to preventing the momentum from fizzling out. “That’s what we don’t want to see,” Strand said. 

What they do want to see is community collaboration, to attend to the needs and wants of the Poplar Grove neighborhood that the space would most immediately serve.

“Our whole board is completely committed to ensuring that these conversations do not die. We need to continuously have these conversations and bring in those decision makers,” Strand said. “So that when it does come time for public comment, for people to get involved, Fisher Mansion can be that tool.” 

Friends of Fisher Mansion being a liaison between the people and decision makers. 

“Our goal isn’t to assert a particular vision for the mansion. It’s really to open up space for conversations to happen and secure funding to make the dreams of the Fisher Mansion come true by securing partnerships and reenvisioning what that space looks like,” Amott said. 

Public comment periods have been used in other adaptively reused examples around the city, creating a master plan to then present to the community for comment on the curated ideas. A master plan is devised from the collaboration of all these players of Fisher Mansion. It is presented to the community and essentially workshopped until something fits right.

“During the Allen Park revisioning, there were so many committee meetings where we would come together and bring in the different players throughout the city,” Strand said. “Having a conversation around what's important, what's historically significant within the space and where are the architectural highlights, we could then take those different ideas from committee to present options.” 

Other buildings like that of which Salt Lake Acting Company now resides, Memorial House in Memory Grove that houses Preservation Utah itself, serve as models for Fisher Mansion to follow suit in the efforts to adaptively reuse the space. 

“We want to focus on what's going to happen in that neighborhood. It's not a master plan for Fisher Mansion. It's a master plan for the neighborhood. So how is Fisher Mansion meeting that master plan's goals? This is how Fisher Mansion can be a part of that neighborhood, the bolts for the neighborhood, presenting options around being a part of the neighborhood's master plan,” Strand said. 

Offering resources for not only the neighborhood, but also the organizations that need brick and mortar spaces to serve their organizations’ needs. Spaces to build community serving the community. 

“[The Fisher Mansion] is such a unique location that I can see this building being reactivated in ways that maybe we couldn’t even think of until we actually listen to the neighborhood and to the nonprofits and organizations who are interested in that space and who could really use it,” Strand said.