Published on September 13th, 2016 | by UC&D Magazine0
John Williams was known as a restaurateur, but his true legacy is historical building renovations and revitalizing formerly impoverished areas of downtown Salt Lake while gracefully serving as an ambassador for the LGBT community
Editor’s note: The tragic death of Gastronomy, Inc. co-owner John Williams on May 22, 2016, left many people in shock and awe. As a former Gastronomy server back in the day, I was among those stunned by the news. I had chatted with John briefly a handful
of times over those years; the first time waiting on him while manning Section 1 of the legendary Market Street Broiler counter. He was always so pleasant and genuine, and dressed to the ‘nines’ – he just exuded class.
A couple of months prior to his death I made a mental
note that he would be one of my first and foremost people to interview for the restaurant design section in this issue. I’m sure it would have been a phenomenal interview, given his candid nature and genuine respect for people, and I lament that missed opportunity. That said, it was important for UC&D to publish this story, which includes comments from two local A/E/C industry professionals – Duane Marsala of Marsala & Company and Louis Ulrich of lu’na design studio – who each worked for Williams in different capacities for 30-plus years and got to know him on a very personal level. Gastronomy executives respectfully declined comment for this article at this time.
Sometime in August of 1985, Duane Marsala got a call from a client he had done a small interior project for about nine months previously at a still-relatively new restaurant near the University of University on 1300 – Market Street Broiler – formerly an historic fire station for Salt Lake City that was in service from 1931-80.
As Marsala recalls, Williams asked if he would take a look two historic buildings his company – Gastronomy, Inc. – had purchased in a blighted, relatively sketchy downtown area on Pierpont Ave. Williams’ newest vision was to transform the 1897-built structures – a smaller building
that housed offices for Oregon Short Line Railroad Co. and a larger building that was the first Salt Lake High School – into not one, but two new trendy restaurants (and commercial office space), part of the company’s burgeoning local food empire.
Gastronomy’s first historical renovation project began in 1978 and consisted of turning the badly dilapidated New York Hotel (built in 1906) into three distinct restaurants – the New Yorker (opened 1979), Market Street Grill (1980), Market Street Oyster Bar (1981) – along with corporate office space.
Marsala, who is CEO of Salt Lake- based Marsala & Company (then Duane Marsala Construction), was at the time a small, relatively unknown residential contractor and extremely apprehensive at the prospect of undertaking a renovation project of this magnitude – not to mention being semi-flummoxed that Williams would even consider him to do it in the first place.
“He was going through his desk and my card was in it,” Marsala said. “I didn’t know anything about commercial construction; I told him I had never done anything like this before. He asked if I would attend some meetings with the architects and structural engineers…he was watching how I interacted with them, seeing if I was grabbing what they were talking about. I told him I was nervous and had never done anything like this before, but he said “talk to your wife…see if you want to take the risk on. Just know that very few people in this world will ever pay you to learn, and you’ll have something to show your grandchildren someday”. I talked to my wife and figured we had nothing to lose. It turned out to be an awesome 30-something years.”
The combined 53,000 SF project – dubbed the Pierpoint Building – was ambitious, technical and offered unique, hidden challenges that are almost expected with a historical renovation of this nature. In addition to the two restaurants, which became Baci/Club Baci and Café Pierpoint, the building housed the offices of FFKR Architects and other commercial office space.
Marsala said the location of the project also spawned some unique working experiences, with Williams literally hiring people off the street to perform random duties to aid the renovation process.
“People used to park (on Pierpont Ave.) for Utah Stars games…you used to clench your fist when you walked through – it was not a good part of town,” Marsala said. “John found people off the streets. He would go to underpasses and talk to people who were doing nothing, ask if they wanted to make some money. This was way before Home Depot.”
Ultimately, the project proved highly successful and was the beginning of a three decades-long professional and personal relationship between Marsala and Williams, one that included other high-profile historic building renovations (Salt Lake Hardware Building; Fork Motor Co. Building; the Bogue Building), the construction of two new MSB/ OB restaurants – Market Street Cottonwood in Cottonwood Heights in 2001 and Market Street River Park in South Jordan in 2008 – and even homes for Williams and the other two Gastronomy partners. Williams was demanding, didn’t like no for an answer, and continually tried to push the envelope on design and construction elements. It proved to be one hell of an education, one built on mutual trust.
“John was an extremely loyal person; we didn’t do written contracts,” said Marsala. “I’ve run into different contractors through years that had approached John about doing his work…he said he wasn’t interested in talking to anyone else.”
A Natural Flair for Design
An Idaho native, Williams studied mechanical engineering at Utah State University, and then later architecture and business finance at the University of Utah. He had a natural eye for design, said Louis Ulrich, Principal with lu’na design studio of Salt Lake City, who met Williams in 1979 as an intern architect at FFKR Architects and designed buildings for him over the next three-plus decades. Ulrich said Williams first asked him about a design opinion during the construction of Market Street Grill.
“I was walking along Market Street one day,” Ulrich recalled, “and he said ‘get in here…what do you think of this ceiling?’. I was like…I don’t know, a blue ceiling? That’s kind of weird. After that we just became good friends. For whatever reason he liked my curiosity. I became part of the ‘New Yorker’ family.”
Ulrich was initially hired to design Market Street Broiler. Williams exhibited great faith in the people he hired for such highly personal projects, and knew how to get the best of people in general.
“I was working with Michael Walters (an interior designer who had prominent influence on Gastronomy projects; he died in Oct. 2005) and John would just throw the two us together at the New Yorkers and he’d go off and let us figure it out,” said Ulrich. “We were in the lower patio garden section one afternoon and John said, ‘Louis, why does this restaurant work at this time of the day? It’s because everything moves. The best thing you can do (in restaurant design) is to create the illusion of movement when it’s empty.’ “
“I call it the ‘lonely boy syndrome,” Ulrich continued. “If you come into the restaurant at 4:30 for an early dinner, you don’t want your wife to think you made a mistake coming to a lifeless restaurant. That’s why they put waiters making salads right up front so you see action. There are different ways of making it happen. John designed from a very social point of view and that’s how I design restaurants.”
Beyond Gastronomy’s restaurants, Ulrich also designed the firm’s historical buildings, which underscores Williams’ true genius and vision.
“John’s passion was renovating old buildings. He was in the restaurant business so he had money for his real estate interests,” said Ulrich. “He owned the Shubrick Building back in the days of Haggis (a club), and as he looked out his window he saw the New Yorker building and said ‘I want it’. He saw the Pierpoint Building and wanted it, even though that street was a little bit scary. It’s a wonderful thing what John did in these areas. He knew how to use the talents and creativity of people. He would ask the opinion of everyone. He was a very bright man – it was a real blow to lose him.”
“He truly did change the face of downtown Salt Lake City,” said Jason Mathis, Executive Director of Salt Lake’s Downtown Alliance. “When he and his partners started renovating historic structures it just wasn’t being done at that time, that wasn’t what a lot of people were thinking about. He really had a vision of what the downtown Salt Lake area could be that really honored the past through renovations of those historic buildings.”
Mathis said Williams’ other major impact on Salt Lake City was through his efforts at raising social awareness in the LGBT community.
“He was such a champion with LGBT activism, but he also had close affiliations with the LDS Church – he sort of transcended social boundaries,” Mathis said. “People said he helped break down barriers for a lot of the (LGBT) community. He was one of the first openly gay people that many people here knew. We owe him a huge debt.”
“Most people did not know what John was really like,” echoed Marsala. “He actually became like a father figure and mentor to me. I wouldn’t be doing what I am now if he hadn’t been willing to take the risk….he always took care of our family. I feel extremely fortunate and blessed that business card was in his desk. In some ways it was like winning the lotto.
“Everywhere we went was before anyone else,” he concluded. “It was ghetto. It was dark. He understood that Salt Lake was going to grow and he could afford to go into those places than (better) areas. He transformed less desirable areas into happening spots.”