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West High is one of the oldest schools in Utah. Should its building be preserved?

The east entrance of West High School at 241 N 300 W in Salt Lake City, Utah, Sept. 20, 2022.
Martha Harris
The east entrance of West High School at 241 N 300 W in Salt Lake City, Utah, Sept. 20, 2022.

The nonprofit Preservation Utah is worried about the future of West High School and wants to make sure the historic building doesn’t disappear. The Salt Lake City School District said they are still in the early stages of figuring out what comes next.

The district hired Salt Lake City-based VCBO Architecture to conduct a feasibility study for rebuilding the school. The district’s website says the goal is to “get expert opinions on the needs of the school building and community, look at cost estimates, make sure we meet student needs, and consider priorities like energy efficiency.”

West High School was rebuilt and reopened in 1922, making it one of the oldest schools in Utah. The district is also conducting the same process with Highland High School and has hired NWL Architects.

“That’s why we’ve hired these architects to tell us what’s possible, how much it’ll cost, and what the optimal solutions are,” said district spokesperson Yándary Chatwin. She added the district doesn’t know if it would be best to remodel the school, rebuild it or start from the ground up.

The district will have to wait for the results of the feasibility study, which should be available in February. Then, if the district wanted to move forward with rebuilding, residents would need to approve a bond to pay for the construction.

Both schools have problems. There are capacity issues, accessibility issues for disabled students, the buildings are becoming increasingly expensive to maintain, and the learning environments are outdated.

While the district is in the early stages of figuring out what will be preserved and what will be torn down at West High, Preservation Utah is not optimistic. A statement on the organization’s Facebook page said they went to a feasibility study information meeting the district held at West High earlier in September and left feeling “disheartened.”

“As described through words and pictures, this new building would be a pastiche of the existing school's historic core, and would be filled with plaques, flags, artwork, and other easily salvaged symbols of Panther pride,” the statement reads.

Executive Director David Amott said West High does need to evolve to meet 21st century needs, but he thinks that can be done while still preserving its character.

“This is a building that represents generations of Salt Lakers,” he said. “I would just encourage people to be involved to ensure a great future for a rethought, retooled, but still old, historic and beautiful West High.”

Chatwin saw Preservation Utah’s statement and is thankful the organization has taken such an interest in West High’s future. She’s also glad the group is encouraging Utahns to get involved as the district is seeking community input as part of the feasibility study.

Matt Bunker graduated from West High in 1996 and lives in Saratoga Springs. Bunker said there are structural issues at the school that need to be addressed, but thinks the historical significance should weigh heavily in how the district decides to move forward.

“West isn’t just a structure, it really is a community,” he said.

If just one part of the school could be preserved, he’d want it to be the school’s facade on 300 West.

Scott Perry agrees. He graduated from West High in 1980.

“If they could keep the facade, or replicate the facade, or give a nod to the facade just to show its history,” he said. “I just hate to see it look like any other building.

Perry knows the building has some problems that need to be fixed but thinks West High is an iconic part of Salt Lake City.

“I’m an advocate for keeping as much character in the city as we can get. It seems like the whole town’s just being bulldozed and replaced with cookie cutter structures,” he said. “I think the city's really starting to look like Anytown, USA. We're losing all of our character and all of our stuff that separates us from St. Louis or Cleveland, or wherever.”

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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