26 November 2023

History of the Yardstick Building

The Yardstick Building at ~50 East 300 South, Salt Lake City, has been demolished, so let’s dive into its history... as told in three parts.

The Yardstick Building as it appeared in 2022.
52 E Broadway, Salt Lake City.

Part 1: Origin Story

This property has long ties to two early SLC Jewish families- the Brooks (Brooks Arcade Building at 268 S State) and the Auerbach family (Auerbach Department store at 324 S State) as represented by one woman: Eveline Brooks Auerbach (1860-1924).

Eveline was the daughter of Julius and Fanny Brooks, the first Jewish family to settle in SLC, in 1864. The Brooks family first lived in a small adobe house at the busy corner of 300 South and Main St. Both Julius and Fanny were entrepreneurs, both operating businesses, owning rental property, and buying more property along 300 South between Main and State St. They integrated well with LDS Church members and even attended LDS Sunday School before the first Jewish Synagogue was built in SLC in 1875.

In 1879, The Brook's daughter, Eveline, married a member of another prominent Jewish family, Samuel H Auerbach and Eveline’s parents allowed the newlyweds to build on a portion of land between Main and State streets, what is now the Yardstick (although the Brooks family retained ownership of the land).

By 1883 Eveline and Samuel built a new 2-story family home made of brick, located at 52 E 300 South. They also built 2 rental units just to the west at 48-50 E 300 South of the same style of their home, so much so that it looked to most that the family home and the 2 rental units were a single building.
 The home and rental units of Eveline and Samuel.
Original illustration from USHS.
Clip of the 1884 Sanborn Map showing their home and rental units.

They marketed their rentals as “elegant houses with modern improvements… suitable for dentist and doctor’s parlors.” In addition to dentists, musicians, and other professionals who rented these properties from Eveline, 2 notorious (and fraudulent) spiritualists also rented from her in 1902-1903: the Arnold-Dickson brothers (see a previous post from my #SpookySLC series).

These buildings replaced a log cabin that was previously located on the site and occupied by Alexander Pyper’s family, an early Mormon pioneer.

At the time, most of this section of 300 South was a mixture of old adobe homes originally built by early Mormon settlers and a few updated structures made of wood frame or brick, a much more rural setting. There was even a large “Chinese Vegetable Garden” located on the south side of block at about 45 E 400 South.

But the neighborhood was quickly developing into an urban district and by the 1890s their home and rentals were surrounded by large new buildings such as Freed Furniture & Carpets, the Telluride Hotel, and, of course, the Brooks Arcade building across the street (the façade still stands today). And much of this section of the 300 South was owned by the Brooks and Auerbach families.

Eveline formally inherited ownership of the property (and the Brooks Arcade and other property) when her mother Fanny died in 1901.

By 1908 Eveline and Samuel were living full time in NYC and they decided to demolish their SLC home and rental units and build a new theater and hotel in its location at 44-52 E 300 South. This is the building that became the Yardstick and is now being demolished.
Eveline Brooks Auerbach wearing a fashionable ostrich feather hat.

Eveline's husband Samuel Auerbach.

Part 2: Eveline’s Theater

In 1908 Eveline Brooks Auerbach constructed a new hotel and theater at 44-52 E 300 South at the site of her previous home (see last post), this building is what eventually became known as the Yardstick.

Eveline’s building was mixed-used with commercial on the ground floor, a rathskeller (bar/restaurant) in the basement, a hotel above (men’s bachelor quarters), and a large theater in the back. This was Eveline’s property, but she was living in NYC so she had her son George S. Auerbach oversee the construction (the location of his birth!).

Eveline’s husband Samuel H. Auerbach and her sons George and Herbert were involved with other endeavors in the area, namely Auerbach’s Department Store and other properties totaling more than 10 acres- making the Auerbach family the largest owner of commercial real estate in downtown SLC in 1909.

Eveline’s building was primarily known by the theater, as it was the largest portion of the building with the entrance and lobby of the theater being in the center of the building on the ground floor, with a large stage and auditorium occupying the back of the building. The building also included a smoking room for men, a parlor for women, and dressing rooms (individual rooms for the stars) for travel companies. The theater was decorated in ivory tones and outfitted with luxury lighting and textiles.

The front of the building featured a large sign made by Western Electric Co featuring individual lighted letters that could be swapped out to spell the current performance.

The theater was first known as the Colonial Theatre, and then became known as the Pantages Theatre (one of many) in 1913, Loew’s State Theater in 1921, and finally the Victory Theater in 1924.

Colonial Theatre with its big Western Electric Sign in 1909
Source USHS.

Eveline's theater when it was known as The Pantages Theatre, 1920.
Source USHS.

Interior of the Colonial Theatre, 1908.  Note the asbestos curtain.
Source USHS.

Victory Theatre lobby in 1924. The statue is a reproduction of the sculpture Winged Victory of Samothrace. Source USHS.

Long hallway entrance to the lobby of the Victory Theatre, 1924.
Source USHS

Victory Theatre with neon front, 1937.
Source USHS.

The Louvre Rathskiller occupied the basement, when it opened it was described as the “most novel and artistic metropolitan cafes… west of Chicago.”

The hotel was first known as the Touraine European Hotel, and was initially managed by Mrs. Ida M. Godman, described as “one of Salt Lake’s successful businesswomen.” The hotel was primarily used as a boarding house (typical of that era) rather than tourist lodging. The hotel became known as the St George Hotel in 1952.

Newspaper advertisements. The top is from The Journal Oct 7 1913; the bottom is from The Salt Lake Tribune March 20 1938.

Newspaper advertisements. The left is from The Salt Lake Tribune Nov 22 1928; The right is from The Salt Lake Tribune Oct 2 1937.

Of note, the first talkie film presented in Utah was shown at the Victory Theater on May 22 1928, and was “The Singing Fool” starring Al Jolson (in blackface!).

In 1943, one of the most devastating fires in SLC destroyed the Victory Theater. Several people were injured, and 3 firemen were killed. The fire was able to be contained to the theater building in the back and none of the adjacent buildings were burned.  See a previous post for more about that.

Detail of the Victory Theatre fire ruins, 1943. Source USHS.

After the fire only a brick shell surrounding rubble remained. The fire-ruined brick walls stood for several years; sometime after 1950 they were removed but the large concrete subterranean foundation remains.

Detail of the 1950 Sanborn Map showing the concrete ruins of the Victory Theater.
The property remained with the Auerbach family until 1949 when Eveline’s children sold the majority ownership to a Los Angeles real estate mogul, E. Phillip Lyon.

Part 3: Mid-Century Makeover 

Eveline Brooks Auerbach died in 1924 but the property remained part of the Auerbach holdings. After the Victory Theater fire in 1943, the property was sold in 1949 to a California group headed by E. Phillip Lyon who remodeled the building, including the new modern façade. In 1955, Lyon’s share was acquired by his partners Molly and Julius Fligelman, who became the long-time owners.

The Yardstick fabric store has been there since the beginning of the remodel. It moved into the section that was originally the hotel office, on the west side of the building (40 E). The middle section that once was the theater entrance was remodeled into a storefront with Lerner Shops as the primary occupant (44 E). The east side of the building (52 E) was generally a shoes or women’s apparel store, such as Juliette’s Intimate Apparel in 1977. And, for a time, Auerbach’s used the basement for storage.

The Yardstick in 1952. Source USHS.
Like many cities, SLC’s downtown family housing declined after WWII as the GI-bill-fueled suburbs expanded. For a time SLC was able to keep its downtown shopping district alive. Many people fondly remember shopping at the old ZCMI, Keith O’Brien, Auerbach’s, and others. These shops in the Yardstick building were a part of that shopping experience, with the Yardstick often being remembered as the best place to buy fabric anywhere in town.

The 1950s and early 1960s are often remembered fondly for downtown shopping. Check out the documentary film “Utah in the 50s” for a detailed view of that era.  

In 1962, the Cottonwood Mall in Holladay was built - Utah’s first large indoor shopping mall. And downtown shopping was further at risk. The big shopping days around the Holidays and Back-to-School became destination experiences and often local businesses banded together to put on events to draw people downtown.

Back to School shopping advertisement, from The Salt Lake Tribune Aug 14 1966.

Downtown Days newspaper advertisement at the Lerner Shops, from the Deseret News March 31, 1965.

The Yardstick Store closing clearance sale, from The Salt Lake Tribune Aug 30 1992.

By the 1970s, SLC was suffering…. Throw in lingering effects from redlining, racial housing policies, unequal access to education/utilities, and the new SLC RDA’s efforts to “clean up” urban “ghettos” and it was just a huge mess. More than I can talk about here.

Modern facade, Juliette's Intimate Apparel, 52 E 300 South, about 1979.  From UDSH building files.

Modern facade, Lerner Shops, 44 E 300 South, about 1979.  From UDSH building files.

Modern facade, Yardstick, 52 E 300 South, about 1979.  From UDSH building files.

The Yardstick persevered, however, as it remained at its location until 1992. The building was boarded up and became known for its ever-changing street art, until its demolition this week.

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