Trolley Square | Now & Then
Whether you’re a newb to our salty streets or a hard-’n'-seasoned local, everyone knows the red brick, mission-style buildings and iconic water tower of Trolley Square between 500 and 600 South. Home to a host of superb local businesses, this shopping center has long been a beacon of the local, the relevant, and those tasty, unique elements that make Salt Lake so sensational. The architecture boasts a timeless kind of urban-industrial chic; natural lighting through old skylights, steel girders cutting across cement ceilings, and the earthy feel of exposed brick walls marry perfectly with the glossy floors and rich texture of a variety of shops to create something truly harmonious. All of these design details harken to a past life: from numbers high on arched bays, to the LRC stone accents outside, to the coin-operated model trolley station, and the name of the complex itself. This is a place that has always stood on the cusp of the old and the new, and every visit to Trolley Square affords an opportunity to take a dip into SLC’s history and explore the secrets of the buildings that helped shape the city we love so well.
The first reinvention of Trolley Square took place back in 1908, when Utah Light and Railway Company purchased the land, once used as the city’s fairground, and transformed it into the hub of Salt Lake’s electric trolley service. Inside the existing barns, trolleys were housed, built, and repaired, providing the services needed to keep the booming transportation revolution moving. These shiny new streetcars served as everything from daily transportation to funeral cars and parade floats. At the height of operations, Trolley Square housed 114 streetcars running over 146 miles of track, stretching from Holladay to Centerville (along with allowing the population easier commutes, they lead to the growth of a few of our favorite neighborhoods, like Sugar House). Sadly, by 1947, the introduction of the bus fleet proved fatal to the streetcar. The buildings were closed, the tracks salvaged for scrap, and the barns were painted yellow and used as storage for UTA’s busses. Cut to 20 years later, and the block was scheduled for demolition. But in 1972, developer Wallace Wright Jr. bought Trolley Square. Inspired by San Francisco’s Ghirardelli Square, Wright sought to repurpose the beautiful old barns into usable shopping space–a movement much ahead of its time. Once again the property was placed squarely at the forefront of new development. A second floor was added to make the most of high barn ceilings, the gaudy yellow paint was washed from outside bricks (thank god), and the old water tower was given new life as a weather station (colored lights on the outside indicating the forecast) for years to come. Instead of a steady stream of trolleys, the doors of the old barns now opened to a steady stream of shoppers, new stores, and a blossoming cultural epicenter.
Today, the property is undergoing yet another renaissance under the loving guidance of new management. Infused with energy from its recent facelift and the addition of new blood like Whole Foods and an upcoming event center, the space beckons us to fill its halls with life once again. Any newcomers to the roster of businesses will find themselves in line with a selection of Salt Lake’s best; our city’s beloved used bookstore, Weller’s Book Works, now nestled comfortably in the south end of the mall next to a just-brewed Coffee Connection. Two of the mall’s original stores, The Old Spaghetti Factory and Payne Anthony, still grace the premises, as do treasured mainstays like Tabula Rasa, The Spectacle, Spark, and Pottery Barn–but there is still plenty of space to fill. With so much new life breathed into it, we don’t think it will take long before this lovely landmark is a mecca once more. Next time you find yourself ’round these parts, why don’t you pop into Desert Edge Brewery and raise a glass of whatever-you-like to this pretty city’s past, present, and promising future.