Old Main

The Story Behind Park City’s Famous Main Street

How Main Street, once a surveyor’s mistake, became Park City’s iconic front porch

By Larry Warren June 1, 2015 Published in the Summer/Fall 2015 issue of Park City Magazine

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Stand at the corner of Heber Avenue and Main Street, and you’re standing where more than 95 percent of all visitors to Park City pass at some point during their stay. This is the start of old Main, where the first merchants set up shops to cover the basic needs of pioneering prospectors who stumbled in soon after the Civil War and found a fortune in silver. 

“It’s our identity—it’s what makes us unique,” Mayor Jack Thomas says during a recent stroll up Park City’s distinctive thoroughfare. As mayor, he knows that historic Main Street, along with recreation, is why visitors choose Park City over other mountain resorts. And it’s where he’s made a living as an architect restoring historic icons like the Chimayo Restaurant building (368 Main St) and the Egyptian Theatre (328 Main St) as well as designing new, compatible structures like those housing Thomas Anthony Gallery (340 Main St) and Images of Nature Gallery (364 Main St) next door. Thomas’s personal connection to Main goes even deeper. “My great-grandfather lived on this street,” he says with pride.

Other mountain towns, from Sun Valley to Steamboat to Aspen, are built next to mountains on the nearest flat ground. Not Park City. When flatlanders in Michigan drew plans for the town, they didn’t realize the plat was crammed into a canyon. Looking south up the street, the pavement just keeps rising until it gives way to forested mountain slopes. 

“All the things that were done wrong make the place unique,” says architect Craig Elliott, principal of Elliott Workgroup, who, like Thomas, has spent a large portion of his career designing restorations and new construction on Main. “Side streets go straight up the mountains”; roads paralleling Main create stacked layers of houses drawing the eye back to Main. These happy accidents combine to create an intimate, eclectic townscape made up of small buildings with differing vintages, façades, surfaces, and colors. 

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Park City Mayor Jack Thomas at Main Street's Bear Bench Walkway.

Beyond architecture, Main Street is Park City’s front porch, the place where everyone walks, stops to look and visit, and stays awhile.

Main Street has reflected the town’s fortunes from its beginning. From the 1880s until the Depression, it bustled with shoppers who found nearly every daily need served here. Twenty-seven saloons lined the street, catering to thirsty miners. There were multiple theaters—even the Grand Opera House until it burned down soon after opening in 1898.  

As the Depression took hold, Main looked rather sad. Abandoned storefronts burned or caved in. By the 1950s it was an ugly mess of a street. The arrival of the first destination ski resort in 1963 started a transition that appears to be approaching its final fruition today.

In the early 1980s, when Park City welcomed almost any kind of investment, a developer created a cavernous tan brick mall at 333 Main, with one entrance to three levels of storefronts invisible to the street. Few ventured inside, and the mall was considered a failure. One by one stores closed until the large structure sat mostly empty, becoming an architectural punch line and retail black hole. “The mall was a failure in design,” Elliott says. “There was no need for a mall on Main Street. Main Streetwas the mall.”

Over the course of more than a decade, Elliott and his team drew up several redesigns for the problematic mall for a series of owners. (Park City’s historic district guidelines require redesigns to occur within the mass of the original building.) In 2013 he finally prevailed, and the long-awaited redo is now almost complete. The former eyesore has been renamed The Parkite. New storefronts all face the street and have their own front doors. Luxury condominiums populate the upper levels. The look maintains the original mall’s general footprint and shape in a sleek and modern way, respecting the flow and pace of the buildings surrounding it. 

Elliott recently redesigned and rebuilt other structures to reflect changing times as well. He gutted and rebuilt two buildings on either side of the former train depot (now Zoom Restaurant) at the Main and Heber intersection. Rebranded as Sky Strada and Sky Silver, the buildings house luxury condominiums on the upper levels with storefronts at street level. He’s also the architect behind the restoration of the Imperial Hotel on Upper Main and the designer of new townhouses being built above the Imperial. These and other high-end housing projects on and near Main are filling a much-needed demand in the local real estate market.

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Craig Elliott, principal of Elliott Workgroup, in a condominium at The Parkite

“Main Street was lacking a luxury product,” observes realtor Paul Benson, a partner at the recently opened Engel & Völkers Park City real estate brokerage. Benson specializes in high-end real estate and says his recent sale of the penthouse at Sky Strada—an unfinished space that sold for $1,780 per square foot—clearly raises the bar. “That’s the highest price ever recorded for a Park City property,” he says. The rest of Sky Strada also sold, and units in The Parkite are beginning to move as well.

Well-heeled real estate buyers and visitors are, in turn, causing a shift in Main’s retail mix. The Parkite is populated by what’s likely the highest-end retailer the town has ever seen, Gorsuch (355 Main St). With stores in Vail, Aspen, and Beaver Creek, this über-exclusive ski and home store has been turning heads since it opened earlier this year with merchandise and prices like Xeno Tropic men’s swim trunks at $400 and a reversible vest by Brunello Cucinelli at $4,215. Want wool mittens? $198. Studies show the availability and variety of shopping is one of the top deciding factors for vacationers, and the arrival of stores like Gorsuch may attract a new group of destination shoppers. Longtime Main Street merchants welcome the new energy of the recent arrivals, but with caution.  

Monty Coates has sold his mix of art, jewelry, and home décor on Main since 1987 out of three storefronts, two named Pine (323 and 442 Main St) and Southwestern Expressions (312 Main St). “Small stores reflect the personality and taste of the owner,” Coates says. “Formulaic stores based on volume lose some of the uniqueness of the community—I worry about that.”

Three generations of  the Toly family have tossed dough at Main’s longest-lasting business, Red Banjo Pizza (322 Main St), since 1962. Owner Scott Toly also wonders about what lies ahead. “Holy cow!” he says. “Some of the rent numbers I’m seeing—if we didn’t own our building, we couldn’t afford to be here.”

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All in all, Main Street in 2015 has, perhaps, never looked better. The city has thrown its own skin into the game via a $10 million city infrastructure improvement project currently under way. Visible signs include new granite sidewalks and curbs and the improved Bear Bench Walkway and plaza. Less obvious improvements include buried utility lines running beneath the street.

Recent events back down at that key Heber and Main intersection have raised questions about how Main Street will look and feel in the future: Late last year, leadership at Park City’s beloved Kimball Art Center decided to sell the center’s anchor-corner home after the city declined to approve the center’s distinctively modern expansion design. Amid vigorous support both for and against the edgy addition, the city ultimately deemed the plans—created by world-renowned Danish architect Bjarke Ingels—counter to its land-management code. The Kimball Art Center building sold earlier this year, and the new owner has submitted plans to rebuild the space (storefronts on the street level with condominiums above) that are now pending city approval. 

Three generations removed from the first Thomas on Main, the mayor is hopeful the Main Street resurgence will continue with respect for the past and compatible design for the future. Looking at the venerable watering hole now called the No Name Saloon (447 Main St), he reflects, “Guys have 30-year traditions of enjoying a Friday afternoon beer there. Main Street is the story of who we were—and who we are.” 

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