Marion Rockwood Johnson saved the Rockwood Artist Studios from demolition.
Bulldozers shift tons of earth as cement trucks pour wet concrete behind a chain link fence in the heart of Sugar House. The dirt pit along 2100 South and 1100 East—or the "Sugar Hole," as locals call it—once housed familiar shopping spots like Granite Furniture and a host of small mom-and-pop shops. That was destroyed to make way for chic urban development, high-end condominiums and retail shops, and after years of delay, construction finally began last year. In the process, this city block's history was nearly erased.
Save for the Rockwood Artist Studios.
The 58-year-old building flanking the west side of the construction has emerged from the demolition unscathed and continues to stand as a home for 22 local artists.
Certainly there was no shortage of real estate speculators vying for the property. Flanked on either side by multimillion dollar projects, developers were eager to gut the block and absorb the Rockwood property as part of a larger project. But that was unthinkable to the last remaining scion of the prominent Sugar House property family, whose father owned nine acres in what was then known as the "Furniture Capital of the West" and who has had ties to this building for close to eight decades.
A 1942 graduate of the University of Utah's business school, Johnson has seen construction projects come and go as the neighborhood grew and changed over the decades. Though several of the studio's artists panicked when bulldozers broke ground—some even leaving preemptively in fear of eviction—Johnson held her ground, reassuring renters she would not sell. "Where would we go? Why should we leave?" she says. "These artists are wonderful. They're happy here. They have a good thing going. Why disturb that?"
Johnson's commitment to her tenants is rivaled only by her loyalty to her family legacy. When she was 11, she remembers, her father, Julius Apollos Rockwood, acquired the land as part of his severance from Granite Furniture, where he had worked for 21 years. Marion recalls her mother complaining, "I can't trust Daddy when he goes out. He's always looking for corners to buy." The elder Rockwood died in 1944, entrusting Marion's mother with the family estate.
The Rockwood Furniture Corp., near the corner of 1100 East and 2100 South, is now the studio home for 22 local artists. Photo courtesy of Marion Rockwood Johnson.
"Mother wanted the Rockwood name to stay in Sugar House, out of loyalty to her father," she says. In 1955, when Johnson was 33, years of business acumen were channeled into Rockwood Furniture Corporation, paving the way for new construction of the Rockwood building that stands today. However, economic changes to the furniture business reduced the number of walk-ins, and the store struggled to stay afloat. For many years, the building was virtually abandoned.
In the early 1990s, local artist Connie Borup had a master's of fine arts from the University of Utah but no place to work. Then she saw the Rockwood building's potential. "It was pretty bare bones," Borup recalls. "With the [adult novelty store] Blue Boutique at street level, along with a fortune-telling business, the area was a little shady."
The Rockwood-Johnson family renovated in 1999, creating studios for their tenants, and the spaces were rented before the work was complete. Johnson became the building manager, responsible for everything from plumbing to rent collection.
In addition to established painters and printmakers such as Borup, Rockwood also shelters emerging artists, those who are "just dabbling" or have taken up the brush following first and second careers. This mix often characterized artist communities and is heralded by the city planners as a catalyst for the revitalization of neglected neighborhoods.
Stephen Goldsmith, an associate professor in the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Utah and founder of Artspace in the Pierpont neighborhood, advocates for including artists in urban development. "Art communities play an important role in the health of a city," he notes. "When creative people come into contact, innovation occurs, which leads to economic development." Goldsmith further asserts that artist communities fuel creativity among themselves, and the benefits ripple through the community as a whole.
The studios expanded around a 1950s telephone pole, which now acts as a bike rack.
"A painter might engage the services of a framer in the same building or purchase materials from an art supply store, which may result in a gallery exhibition, which then generates sales," he says. "Participation in a gallery stroll might then lead to restaurant and cinema patronage in the area."
Meri Decaria, director of Phillips Gallery, one of the oldest galleries in the Intermountain West, has had a long-standing relationship with the studio. "We've exhibited several Rockwood artists over the years," she says, noting the works shown at Phillips have been sold into private and corporate collections.
As the impact of the Rockwood Artist Studios penetrates into the cultural and economic recesses of the city, it generates momentum and activity. But Johnson prefers to remain behind the scenes and, with an eye on her family legacy, is content to pass the torch onto her sons to continue the relationship with the artists.
"They're good talents," she says. "They're clean and responsible. And we're just happy to provide a good environment for them."