In 1963, architect William L. Pereira made the cover of Time Magazine. That same year, the planner of "Vistas of the Future" (the title of the September 1963 issue) completed a building in Salt Lake City. Though not as formally daring as his later, more iconic Transamerica pyramid in San Francisco, the Salt Lake City Prudential Building debuted as a new downtown landmark, defined by a soaring interior atrium and a hundred life-size bronze seagulls, racing up the façade. At the time of its unveiling, Salt Lakers recognized that this was a big deal.
Today, the Prudential Building looks a bit different. The seagulls and the ethereal atrium are now caged in by a bold, triangular pattern of cross bracing. That the underappreciated Brutalist structure was made to look even more like infrastructure has only hurt its case to remain on Main Street, as developers are now looking to demolish the Prudential Building to make room for a $110-million mega-theater.
If plans progress, the 2,500-seat Utah Performing Arts Center will rise in the place of the Prudential Building and several other buildings, including a smaller and older Prudential Saving Bank to the south of Pereira’s landmark (equipped with its own neoclassical interior atrium). The mega-theater project has been championed by Salt Lake City mayor Ralph Becker and the Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency as the catalyst for Salt Lake City's downtown renaissance.
Interestingly, this was the exact same impetus behind the original construction of the Prudential Building and many others like it throughout America. As a recently published study by historian Elihu Rubin explains at length, when postwar suburbanization was in full throttle during the 1940s and 50s, Prudential decentralized its Newark-based operations to invest in America’s cities. Prudential Buildings began popping up in Boston, Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles. Rubin’s “Insuring the City” tells the story of how Prudential's soaring office towers rose in depopulated downtowns, signaling to other companies that now was not the time to lose faith in cities.
When Pereira’s Prudential Building was complete, its noble ambitions were palpable. As Larry Goldsmith, father of Salt Lake City’s former planning director Stephen Goldsmith, recalled to his son, “It was a time when we were going to invest in quality and design excellence.” He and others at the time knew that the Prudential Building “was going to add significantly to the landscape of Main Street,” he said recently in The Salt Lake Tribune.
Unfortunately, Brutalism has yet to earn its keep in the pantheon of historic architectural styles. Today, locals easily dismiss Pereira’s Prudential Building as an eyesore, a dull box in comparison to the more decorated, older buildings that are preserved for a more popular notion of historic value. But with hope, more people will come to see the building for what it is: a testament to private interest in the public, an idea that is making its slow comeback in architecture today.