Published on August 8th, 2017 | by UC&D Magazine0
CRSA co-founder Allen Roberts has made his mark in architecture over a nearly 50-year career, and his passion for historic preservation has shaped many Utah communities for the better.
“Why do people go to London, Paris, Rome, New York, or Chicago?” asked Allen Roberts, Founding Principal of CRSA Architects in Salt Lake. “It’s because of the historic buildings.”
Roberts, whose nearly 50-year career in historic preservation started with witnessing the demolition of the Coalville Tabernacle in Summit County, believes Utah has a place among those illustrious cities, in that it also holds a rich architectural history. “Utah has a fine collection of historic buildings all up and down the state, designed and built by builders in the 19th and 20th centuries,” he said.
The Coalville Tabernacle was a spectacular Gothic Revival building, and Roberts—who was an architecture student at the time—was amazed that it could be torn down. It spurred him to spend the next several years driving around Utah, documenting the state’s historic buildings and recording nearly 600 remaining religious pieces of architecture in Utah. Though nearly half of those buildings are gone now, he spent the earliest years of
his career working to protect them and other Utah landmarks. “One of my first jobs was with the Utah State Historical Society as the state’s Historical Architect. My job description included being an advocate for historic preservation. I would stand up against demolition and try to save really important buildings,” he said. “We do still have a lot of building stock.”
The Historical Society still recognizes
the impact Roberts had during his short time there. On the organization’s website, a section with details about the preservation office notes that its contents include “biographic research files on most of the individual architects practicing prior to 1950. Started by Allen Roberts in 1974 and expanded since, the files include photos and lists of their work.”
There is no doubt that Roberts’ own file would merit inclusion among those architects who have shaped Utah. With over a dozen books to his name, and work that has garnered over 100 awards, his career has been one of the most celebrated and influential in the state’s history. Recognition of his ongoing legacy recently garnered national attention as well. This year, Roberts was elected as a member of the AIA College of Fellows, the Institute’s highest membership honor, awarded to architects who have made significant contributions to the profession and society.
The achievement is especially notable because only 3% of AIA members hold this distinction, and especially prestigious given that Roberts was the only practitioner from Utah to be elected in 2017.
In reflecting on his career, he offers advice to young professionals similar to that which he received upon starting out. “The first thing you need to do is become an architect,”he said.“Then you can branch out into any specialization you want. When I started, only two universities offered programs in preservation. Now there are 80 or a 100. I think it comes from within. If you love history, art, and historic architecture, you’ll be drawn to [preservation architecture].”
It is this love of the work that has contributed to Roberts’ success in restoring some of his most memorable projects. One of his earliest was the restoration of the Brigham City Tabernacle. “It had burned down and was rebuilt, and then it had been modified,” he recalled. “We did a lot of research, found photos and written documents, and went back and restored the missing elements. This involved taking paint off brick, putting back original materials, restoring the hand-grained woodworking, and restoring the fancy plaster cornices and rosettes. When we started, the whole interior had been painted green. We put back all of the original woodworking.”
Another of his favorite projects was the Scowcroft Building Renovation in Ogden. The five-story warehouse, built in 1906, had been abandoned for almost 50 years before Roberts and his colleagues renovated it for the General Services Administration in 2004. “It was the first building that got both LEED certification and historic building tax credits at the same time.” Roberts said. “Now there are 1,100 people working in that building for the IRS.”
He was also on the team for one of the most celebrated and well-known restoration efforts in Utah—Ogden High School. “It was a magnificent 1936 Art Deco masterpiece,” said Roberts. “We got an award for that restoration from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which only gives about ten awards each year nationally.”
An article written by the National Trust relayed how important the school’s restoration was to the community, even though it carried a $70 million price tag compared to a cost of $55 million to tear it down and start afresh. “We would have had community members chain themselves to the doors if something would have happened to their beloved school,” said Janis Vause of the Ogden School Foundation. “We knew the bond wouldn’t pass if we did anything but restore the school and restore it well.”
Such an approach is indicative of Roberts’ own view of the power of preservation. “There is a tendency of replacing something old with something new, but the standard is actually to repair rather than replace,” he said. “It’s the difference between having the Mona Lisa and having a photocopy. You want the real item. That is why we go to great lengths to restore historic photos, art, and literature.
There is something about the authentic item. “There is an aesthetic value system that I work to preserve,” he added. “I’ve done a lot of new architecture too, but I find it disappointing on aesthetic grounds. I like [restoration architecture] because of the beauty of the buildings. You can make them functional and bring them up to code and you end up with a substantial iconic building which documents history.”