Traces of History
A turn-of-the-century real estate investment becomes a beloved landmark, only to face its original fate.
Mary Kimball Johnson was not the first person to own the pioneer-era brown brick bungalow at 1432 South and 1100 East. The home’s first owners were Mary’s parents, Don Carlos Kimball and Annie Clark Kimball, who received the original five-acre property as a wedding gift and hired an architect and builders to construct the house in the early 1900s.
Mary Kimball Johnson, the third of eight Kimball children, lived in the house tillshe died in 1994, at which time Tanya Chatterton bought the house and property and opened her gardening business, Traces. Spaces that were once Mary’s kitchen and sitting room became Tanya’s office, flower-arranging space and garden supply store.
Under Tanya’s care, the turn of the century home kept its spirit. Step inside the front door and the wood floors still creaked underfoot; the fireplace set into the north wall had a mantel lined with gardening knick-knacks and seed packets; the original molasses-colored wood molding still rimmed each ceiling; and a few observant customers might have noticed the remaining touches of Mary’s life as a painter wrapping around the lower walls of the enclosed back porch—the hand-painted oil renditions of irises and peonies and roses, some of the late matron’s favorite flowers.
Walk through the house and out into the gardens with anyone who knew Mary or her family and you will soon also know some stories—of roses and peonies, of the old, dying, hollowed-out apple tree where wild bees once lived, of family gatherings that lasted long into the evening.
This year, Mary’s house, which then became Tanya’s house, and the one acre that is left of this property, sold. Though not much is being disclosed about the details of the sale there is little doubt that the property will be developed (a conversation with the project’s architect confirmed that building a single family home on site was “financially unfeasible”). The woods and gardens around Mary’s House are some of the last remaining vestiges of our city’s more bucolic past, possibly soon to be stripped and excavated. Even Mary’s house will likely be torn down for the sake of something new. And, when those things go, what will happen to the stories?
With a name like Kimball— Mary’s great-great grandfather, Heber C. Kimball, served as one of the original 12 LDS apostles and as counselor to Brigham Young—it’s no surprise to those with any history here that stories from this house reveal old Mormon roots. Though he’d missed the handcart era by a few generations, Don Carlos Kimball, Mary’s father, continued the family tradition of literally making Salt Lake City grow from the desert through his role as a developer in early Salt Lake City at a time when Mormons were discouraged by their leaders from engaging in real estate speculation. In the late 1800s, at a time when most development in the valley was undertaken by non-Mormons, Don Carlos Kimball and his partner Claude Richards entered business under the title of “land merchants” and began buying up and developing large subdivisions (and building the occasional single-family home).
The Kimball and Richards Building Company, along with local architect Taylor Woolley, created some of what remain the city’s most charming neighborhoods: Gilmer Park (in the Harvard/Yale neighborhood) and Highland Park (south of Sugar House). The latter neighborhood, constructed in 1909 when Mary was just three years old, was a daring undertaking, a modern subdivision with a mix of popular architecture styles of the day—Tudor revival, Prairie School and craftsman—on 250 acres of vacant land outside the city limits. These projects by Kimball and Richards Building Company set the tone for the kind of city Salt Lake is today. Neighborhoods within just a few miles of downtown retain a pleasantly suburban quality. They are populated with small, single-family dwellings. Houses are sturdy, well crafted and attractive; the streets are tree-lined—beautification through landscaping was an intentional component of each of these developments—and many of the trees still standing today were planted by Kimball and Richards.
While increasingly dense development in our city is necessary to meet the rising demand for housing, the preservation of old homes and neighborhoods like Highland Park make this city unique. In 1998, Highland Park earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places (certified by the National Park Service), recognizing the neighborhood’s “significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history…with the lives of persons significant in our past…[and which] embodies the distinctive characteristics of a period.” A little over a mile away from Highland Park, Mary’s House would never see such a designation.
Mary, who married but never had children of her own, was caretaker for her parents in their old age. In exchange, the house became hers though it never stopped being a gathering place for the entire family—at one point three generations lived in the house with Mary, as she took in family members, mostly women and their children, who needed a place to stay, including her young nephew Roy Johnson who lived happily with “Aunt Mary” for many years, sleeping on the walled-in second-story porch, and whose wife Jude Rubadue, who knew Aunt Mary well, kindly imparted many of these family stories during a slow walk around the property.
Family dinners were too big to hold inside so the food went out into the garden on long tables around which the adults sat and ate and talked while Kimball/Clark children ran through the yard looking for wild animals among the vegetable rows and the old trees planted by Grandpa Kimball. No one was allowed to touch the dishes after a meal. Not even a single plate. Drunk with food, the family would stack their plates by the sink where they would wait until morning for Mary to wash, dry and stack them with a kerchief between each plate. The nice silver would get hidden again in the back of the cleaning closet.
All of the Kimball children were raised to be self-reliant—the girls as well as the boys received college educations and found work outside of the home. Mary spent over 30 years teaching at schools around the valley. But from day one her real calling was as an artist. Painting was her gift and her passion. Her watercolors captured the Wasatch Mountains and crooked pines in the Utah desert. She would just as often set up her canvases in the backyard and capture scenes of the family property, her artist’s palette.
Mary was strong till the very end of her life. With little gardening tools fitted with handles made just for her small hands, she continued to work in her garden. The day she passed away, family members say, she went suddenly and against her will—nearly 20 unfinished paintings lay about in various corners of the house and the thought of leaving them undone tortured her. Mary died, in 1994, in her parents’ house, the place of her birth, at the age of 88.
As per her father’s instructions, so I’ve been told, no family member would be allowed to buy the property after Mary’s passing. A real estate man to the very end, Grandpa Kimball was unsentimental—the family property was just another piece of business inventory whose purpose was to support family members’ endeavors. By the time Tanya Chatterton bought the place soon after Mary’s death, the property had been whittled down to one acre from the original five. Still, there were things the family was determined to hold on to. Not long after the sale closed, recalls Tanya, she arrived at the House to find Mary’s prized rose garden by the front gate gone. With shovels and buckets Mary’s relatives had descended, digging up and taking every last rose and with them a few remaining memories.
We have a funny sense of ownership in this city,” says Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake City council member, district 5. “I was in Traces during last few weeks it was open and I heard customer after customer talking with Tanya saying, ‘I’m so sorry,’ as if the place were being taken away from her [instead of her having sold it].”
A lot of people love and will miss Mary’s House, not just those of the Kimball family but also Chatterton and her former customers, employees and people from the neighborhood who have spent decades walking by the semi-wild acre and watching the trees sway. For those concerned about what comes next for the property, it may be of some relief to know that while the new owner/developer is lying low and not making their name public, the firm that will be designing the new development is Flores-Sahagun Arcflo+ Principal architect Bernardo Flores-Sahagum, who serves on the city’s Redevelopment Advisory Committee has been engaging with members of the Salt Lake City Council and the East Liberty Park Community Organization and is actively seeking their input on the project.
“[This kind of outreach] is not required,” explains Mendenhall who was present for one of the two community meetings, “but Flores has built enough in this city to know how difficult it can be to get a project off the ground without this kind of communication with the neighborhood. So, it’s been a very good process so far.”
Darryl High, Co-Chair of the East Liberty Park Community Organization, has met with Flores and his associate twice regarding the development and agrees with Mendenhall. “We have had two very cordial meetings with Bernardo. It’s a gesture that’s very well received by members of the community, when a developer approaches our residents with a neighborhood project that is this sizable.”
According to High, there haven’t been any negative sentiments so far from community members, just questions, mostly regarding the two biggest concerns on people’s minds: adequate parking and a design that fits with the neighborhood. So far, according to Mendenhall, Flores has not asked the city for any exemptions from the neighborhood’s zoning restrictions—unlike a recent 9th and 9th development proposal that requested among other things a height exemption and drew the ire of neighborhood residents.
“Without trying to sound negative, the feeling frequently expressed is that we don’t want to become another Sugar House,” says High. “Salt Lake has changed a lot in the last three years. It’s really growing fast and more is coming.”
Mendenhall acknowledges that neither she nor residents have any real control over what happens with the property but, she says, “I’m trying to sway what finally happens with it based on what the community I represent says they want.” Part of that means trying to save the Kimball house.
On a weekday in mid-July, on one of the last days that the gates to Traces were swung open and a small buzz of activity could be seen as the last pieces were brought out of the house, I stopped by Mary’s House one last time and was rewarded with a surprise meeting with one of Dan Carlos and Annie Clark’s great granddaughters. She and her mother, with a few young boys in tow, had come to take a walk through the old house and say hello (for the youngsters) and goodbye, again, to their family’s ancestral home.
The ancestral trees and gardens, which became Tanya’s trees and gardens, are still a haven for bees, birds and other wildlife. It’s been a good run, for an ever more urban neighborhood.
Katherine Pioli is CATALYST’s assistant editor.
Photos of Mary and family members and watercolors courtesy of Jude Rubadue and Roy Johnson