Historic Landscapes Part II: Utah’s Cultural & Historical Landscapes

This is the Part II of a 5-part blog series about historic landscape preservation, you can read Part I here.

George E. Gunn, Looking Southwest From Dr. Dull's. 21 June 1911

George E. Gunn, Looking Southwest From Dr. Dull’s. 21 June 1911

Because the historical landscape is a direct result of our cultural history and historic interactions with the landscape, the periods of landscape history correlate with significant periods in any given region’s history. In this article we are discussing Utah landscape history.  According to Esther Truitt in her 1986 thesis, the history of Utah and the resulting landscapes can be broken down into four periods.  These are Pioneer (1847-1869), Post Pioneer (1869-1896), Americanization (1896-1918), and finally Suburbanization (1918-Today). (Truitt 1986).  I have added a fifth category for landscapes resulting from human interaction with the landscape prior to the arrival of the pioneers that I have titled Indigenous (prehistory-1847).


The indigenous period of Utah’s landscape history dates back to the earliest known human inhabitants of the region at approximately 10,000 B.C.  These early inhabitants were followed by the emergence of the Freemont Culture in the northern part of the state, beginning in about 400 A.D.  The Freemont grew to develop masonry dwelling structures as well as sophisticated basketry and pottery by A.D. 800-900.  Eventually the Fremont people were displaced by Numic peoples around 1000 A.D. (Arrington).

In the south-eastern portion of the state, the landscape is littered with the remains of the Anasazi culture (approximately A.D. 400 – A.D. 1200-1400).  The word “Anasazi” is actually a Navajo word meaning “the ancient ones.”  This sedentary culture relied on agricultural practices.  Their relatively stable environment allowed them to produce expansive architectural communities that consisted of “rectangular masonry dwellings and large apartment complexes that were tucked into cliff faces or situated on valley floors like the structures at Grand Gulch and Hovenweep National Monument.”  According to the Utah State History Encyclopedia the Anasazi people were eventually dislocated by “climactic changes, crop failures, and the intrusion of Numic hunter-gatherers.” (Arrington).

These Numic peoples evolved into four primary native American groups that inhabited the state of Utah before it was settled by Mormon Pioneers: the Northern Shoshone, Goshute or Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Ute tribes. (Arrington).  The Navajo peoples inhabited the south-eastern part of the state for a brief period of time from the 1700’s through the 1740’s.

Today remnants of the indigenous period can be found in diverse archeological sites across the state including the famous cliff dwellings of south-eastern Utah.  It marks a period of Utah’s history where humans lived in a close symbiotic relationship with the landscape.  Fortunately, the importance of preserving these ancient treasures is already recognized, although many new sites have yet to be discovered in Utah’s vast open spaces.

Old adobe home, 75 North 200 West, Salt Lake City. 26 October 1910

Old adobe home, 75 North 200 West, Salt Lake City. 26 October 1910

Pioneer 1847-1869

The pioneer landscape era begins with the arrival of the Mormon Pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847.  For the following 10-year period ninety settlements were established along the north-south line of the Wasatch Front and Wasatch Plateau.  This string of settlements extended from Cache Valley on the north to Utah’s Dixie in the South. (Arrington).  According to the Utah History Encyclopedia, “The founding dates of communities settled in these years which eventually became important population centers are Salt Lake City (1847), Bountiful (1847), Ogden (1848), West Jordan (1848), Kaysville (1849), Provo (1849), Manti (1849), Tooele (1849), Parowan (1851), Brigham City (1851), Nephi (1851), Fillmore (1851), Cedar City (1851), Beaver (1856), Wellsville (1856), and Washington (1856).” (Arrington).

Following the first decade of initial settlement the threat to the people caused by the approach of the Utah Expedition of General Albert Sidney Johnston in 1857 led Mormon leaders to “call in” all colonists in outlying areas.  Following this incident that came to be known as the Utah War, 112 new communities were founded in Utah.  Some of the cities that were settled during this period include Logan (1859), Gunnison (1859), Morgan (1860), St. George (1861), and Richfield (1864). In establishing these new settlements, much attention was paid to the contributions each could make toward territorial self-sufficiency.  (Arrington).

The general characteristic of the Pioneer Landscape was its basis in the Plat of Zion, a concept of city planning promoted by Mormon prophet Brigham Young.  The Plat of Zion prescribed a central church-civic center surrounded by a grid-iron plan with large garden lots defining the urban center.  This was surrounded by expansive agricultural fields.  Families lived in town as a community, and men worked the fields during the day.  The resulting landscape of self-sufficiency and community-based agriculture was one of garden lots, urban orchards, a community network of irrigation ditches, and the separation of outdoor spaces through the construction of cobblestone/adobe walls and picket fences.

Madsen residence, 643 East 100 South, Salt Lake City. 24 May 1917

Madsen residence, 643 East 100 South, Salt Lake City. 24 May 1917

Post-Pioneer 1869-1896

The Utah History Encyclopedia describes the beginning of the post-pioneer era as follows:  “Historians agree that the driving of the golden spike marking the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah, on 10 May 1869 was one of the most important events in United States history, as it was also in Utah history. In fact, 1869 is considered to be a benchmark year in Utah history–the pioneer era coming to an end with the coming of the railroad.” (Arrington).

The arrival of the railroad to Utah brought great adjustments to the settlements.  In addition to these new external forces, there were also many internal catalysts to change in the coming era.  One such internal force was the issue of overpopulation, “A new generation had grown up and had to find the means of making a living. Some worked in mines, some worked on railroads still under construction” (Arrington).

To accommodate an increasing population, the original city lots based on the Plat of Zion were subdivided, and farmland outside the city began to be developed into streetcar neighborhoods.  As influence from the east made its way to Utah via the railroads, the landscape began to evolve.  Many of the old adobe homes began to be replaced with homes of fired brick and stone.  At the same time pioneer walls and fences began to be replaced with more delicate Victorian iron fences.

The resulting wealth from the Mining and Railroad industries also created landscapes of Opulence.  New millionaires built large, extravagant mansions that were surrounded by equally extraordinary landscapes.  Building materials as well as plant material began to be imported from the east and the art of landscape gardening became increasingly popular as romantic gardens were enhanced with fountains and stone parterres.

Perkins residence, 475 East 600 South, Salt Lake City. 27 June 1914

Perkins residence, 475 East 600 South, Salt Lake City. 27 June 1914

Americanization 1896-1918

The Americanization period in Utah was realized when Utah finally received statehood in 1896.  This allowed the previously disjoined territory to begin to acclimate to the remainder of the country, beginning to more closely follow national trends in Architecture and Landscape development.

This period of time is marked by the national Arts and Crafts movement that emphasized simplicity, craftsmanship, and nature.  It was largely a response to the pollution and mechanization of the industrial era.  It also resulted in an increased interested in residential landscaping, and the blending of architecture with nature.  Fences began to vanish between properties, and flood irrigation was replaced by sprinklers and hoses.

During this period more suburbs continued to be developed on urban edge, including elite neighborhoods established on east bench areas. Market gardens just outside of the cityies supplied fresh produce.  Many rural communities remained agriculturally based, while Salt Lake, Ogden, and Provo continued to grow into regional hubs, becoming increasingly urban in scale.

Post WWII ranch style home near Wasatch Hollow, Salt Lake City. January 2006

Post WWII ranch style home near Wasatch Hollow, Salt Lake City. January 2006

Suburbanization (1918-present)

The suburbanization period was initiated by America’s entrance into World War I.  Many Utah citizens were called upon to fight in this global conflict, and as a result the State became more patriotic and ingrained into national culture:  “World War I helped bring Utah into the mainstream of American life as much as anything during the first two decades of the twentieth century. As part of the national war effort, Utahans planted “victory gardens,” preserved food, volunteered for work in the beet fields and on Utah’s fruit farms, purchased Liberty Bonds, gave ’Four Minute’ patriotic speeches, collected money for the Red Cross, used meat and sugar substitutes, observed meatless days, knitted socks, afghans, and shoulder wraps, wove rugs for soldiers’ hospitals, made posters, prohibited the teaching of the German language in some schools, and cultivated patriotism at every opportunity.”

Despite the major cultural changes that resulted during the war, much of the suburbanization period evolved after the war’s end.  The return of hundreds of American troops resulted in the construction of large numbers of new suburban housing – a trend that would be repeated at a much larger scale following World War II in 1945.

This era is defined by the increasing development of suburban tract housing, and rising dependence on the automobile.  Animals rarely trailed through city streets, eliminating the need for front yard fences, and the idealized American landscape was a clean and green suburban one.  In fact, in the 1940’s the Salt Lake Tribune initiated the Tidy Town Awards to encourage such beautification.  Outdoor living also decreased dramatically with the invention of Television, resulting in less emphasis on gardening and the development of outdoor spaces.

Tract housing styles range from Period Revival (1915-1945) to Craftsman Bungalows (1904-1925) and Ranch style homes (Post-WWII).  Both home sizes and lot sizes decreased dramatically to accommodate the tepid economy of the era, while attached garages minimize side yards.