ZCMI's cast iron face has adorned a commercial space on Main Street since 1868, and, like every great piece of architecture, it has a story.
Robert Baird and his brothers Richard and David know the story well, and in a way, that story and the facade's endurance are their birthright. They grew up working alongside their late father, Steven Baird, and his lifelong pursuit to save it from demolition. They are living witnesses to its beauty, and its importance not just as a Utah landmark, but a key piece of American architectural history.
"The restoration of the ZCMI facade in 1973 was the first major cast-iron restoration project in the country." Robert Baird says.
Cast in Iron
As Utah's territorial governor, Brigham Young was determined to make Salt Lake City an important place name.
"He wanted to build a model city," Robert says. "He traveled across the nation, He'd been to New York City and Philadelphia. He wanted to bring what those cities had to Salt Lake."
What those cities had was cast iron. Previously, large buildings were made out of masonry. But the innovation of the cast iron facade made for a stronger structure and allowed for big windows.
"A department store is all over that," says Martha Bradley, author of the book ZCMI: America's First Department Store. "You want to display goods, and the advent of the cast-iron facade allows for this moment where life in American cities really takes off. Suddenly you're walking down city streets, dazzled by this variety of goods. This sense of abundance made cast iron the backbone for a new era."
And with the completion of the transcontinental railroad, Young could bring cast-iron building technology to Utah. The facade was installed in 1868. Considering cast-iron building was developed in 1859, that makes Brigham, in those days, what you might call an early adopter.
The Great Credit Card Protest
In its early days, the ZCMI facade played foppish outsider to 19th-century realities. Muddy streets filled with horse-drawn carriages lay at its feet, juxtaposing the then-modernity of the facade with the coarse and rugged actuality of frontier life. The facade was an aspirational emblem. A top hat on a pig.
But in 1973, just over 100 years past its original erection, it was to be torn down to make way for the ZCMI Center Mall.
"There was an outcry from local preservationists," Robert Baird says. "A member of the Utah Heritage Foundation wrote a letter to The Salt Lake Tribune and asked people to cut up their ZCMI credit cards and send them to the store. Overt the next weeks, they were flooded with mail and the decision was made to save the facade."
Baird's father, who was among the vocal architects protesting the facade's destruction, was enlisted to dismantle it and research its restoration. Robert was 16 years old when his father embarked on the project – much of which took place in the family garage, with Robert and his brother working alongside dad – on a century-old technology.
“We kind of made it up as we went along,” Baird says. “But what he learned in that first preservation made him the expert in the country in the preservation of cast-iron buildings.”
The original restoration helped start a movement to preserve cast-iron buildings in major cities across the nation. It put Steven Baird at the heart of the movement, and his resulting company, Historical Arts and Casting, now run by his sons, is the premier historical metal shop in the U.S.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
When the City Creek Center project was announced in 2006, the façade’s future was again in question. But this time, no credit card protest erupted. It was with little debate that the real estate arm of the LDS Church, City Creek Reserve Inc., announced that the façade would stay.
Once again, Steven Baird and his sons were called upon to bring the façade back to its original glory.
“With what we learned 38 years ago, we started again and were able to improve on the original restoration,” Robert Baird says.
The façade now stands again on Main Street, a symbol of where we came from. The two dates flank its crown: 1868 and 1999. One marks its first installation, while the other notes the year that ZCMI shuttered its doors.
“The choice to keep the façade is more than just an aesthetic decision,” Bradley says. “It’s really about the value of material culture and how it carries the story of past generations with it.”
America’s First Department Store
University of Utah historian and author Martha Bradley contends that ZCMI was the first department store in America. ZCMI was originally created in response to price gouging by non-Mormon merchants who arrived in Utah with the railroad.
Brigham Young organized LDS merchants into a cooperative (ZCMI stands for Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution) that would have larger buying power for goods that Mormons relied on outside merchants to provide. Bradley says:
“From the word go, it had a range of products under one roof from dry goods to horse tack.”