What’s next for Salt Lake’s ‘Hobbitville’? Allen Park upgrades already underway
‘We’re very cognizant about how we’ll maintain the current character of the park as we move forward into the future,’ Katherine Maus said
Makaylee Clark visits Allen Park frequently — partly because it's close to where she lives, but also because it's completely different from the other parks in Salt Lake City.
It's a place that is difficult to describe. It's rustic, artistic and pleasantly serene given its entrance by a bustling 1300 East and across the street from Westminster College in the city's Sugar House neighborhood. The farther a person ventures into what once was a residential space, the farther they are able to feel from one of the city's busiest districts.
The luckiest visitors are able to catch a glimpse of the peacocks, turkeys, deer and other critters that roam around the land.
Simply put, it's a gem hidden in the city.
This is what drew Clark in again Tuesday. She came to soak in as much of the park as she could before she moves out to another part of the Salt Lake Valley next month.
"I think it has an interesting backstory, so I like to imagine the history that took place there — and I feel like it has kind of a whimsical vibe to it," she said.
However, as charming as the park is, it is also very much in need of restoration after decades of neglect.
The initial repairs are finally underway ahead of work to determine what to do next to help the park thrive in the future, according to Katherine Maus, a planner for Salt Lake City's public lands department. Crews have worked to stabilize the park's main lodge and prevent leaks over the past few weeks.
The department also plans to piece together a document called an "adaptive reuse and management plan" over the next year, which will dictate how the city moves forward with how the park is used.
Allen Park’s backstory
Allen Park isn't as big or popular as other city parks, but it is certainly one of its more interesting ones. It's why Maus likes to provide tours to first-time visitors, who get to see what the fuss is all about.
"A lot of people are shocked and kind of pleasantly surprised about some of the cultural and historical experiences that they're having in the heart of Salt Lake," she told KSL.com. "We don't have anything else like it in Salt Lake City or even in the state."
The park dates back to 1931 when Dr. George Allen and Ruth Larsen Allen purchased the property. As president of a Utah zoological society at the time, George Allen used the space for their exotic bird collection.
The Allens filled the area with concrete signs crafted with imagery, literary quotes and Utah historical achievements. The area would go on to be dubbed "Hobbitville" because of a series of small houses and cabins constructed on the property. The structures were built to house students, professors, artists and anyone who needed a place to stay.
They even opened the private land up to the public every Sunday, which became a popular draw for residents through the mid-1900s. But buildings and signage began to deteriorate decades ago, after George Allen's death in the 1960s. That's also when it was closed off to the public seemingly for good.
Salt Lake City eventually acquired the unique complex for $7.5 million in 2020, saving it from being torn down for new development at the time. It reopened as a public park later that year, where people were able to view the quirky art and "Hobbitville" once again.
City officials were aware then that more needed to be done, and what's available to the public now is the initial phase of park access. The main lodge where the Allens lived is fenced off, as are all the other homes in the complex, as a safety measure and a way to prevent further damage.
The initial repairs
There has been some upkeep over the past few years, plenty of which is done by a volunteer group called Friends of Allen Park. Salt Lake leaders agreed to set aside some funds for "immediate repairs" since the city purchased the property, as well, Maus explained.
A contracting team finished stabilizing the interior of the Allen Lodge this month and replaced the roof tiles and art with waterproof material to prevent any further water damage to the building for now.
"This is probably going to last us a few years while we determine the future use of the Allen Lodge," Maus said.
City engineers have also been designing water lines for irrigation, fire suppression and sewer use on the property. Construction on those lines is expected to begin this year, according to the city.
The City Council included $4.5 million toward Allen Park repairs in an $85 million bond that residents passed in November, which will likely go into fixing the landscape and the park's riparian corridor so it's ready for expanded park access, Maus said. Other uses are still to be determined.
The future of Allen Park
At the same time, Salt Lake public lands officials and the consulting firm GSBS Architects are working on a plan that aims to turn Allen Park into a more usable space than it is now. The team is expected to begin seeking public feedback on changes as early as next month as the project comes together.
This document will determine what buildings — Allen Lodge and the "Hobbitville" homes — are saved and reused, and what types of event programs are available at the park. But until a draft plan is published, it's still too early to know what the park will look or function like in the future. The plan is currently on pace to be completed by early next year.
"I think once we have this plan in place, we can assess the purpose of the structures and what they will look like," Maus said. "At this point, we can't say one way or another on the future of some of the (nonlodge) structures."
The future of the park's beloved artwork is more certain. Preserving the damaged, broken or weathered concrete signs and statues is a "high priority," and it's likely that the plan will outline ways to rehabilitate those items, she added.
Most of the overall upgrades are expected to be done with the park's attributes in mind.
"We're very cognizant about how we'll maintain the current character of the park as we move forward into the future," Maus said.
Those are the types of changes that Clark wants to see. After wandering through it again Tuesday, two ideas that come to mind are repairing the walkways in the parks and possibly restoring the water fountain outside of the main lodge.
Most importantly, she hopes that Allen Park remains the weird and wonderful site that it is.
"I like the quietness of it," she says, "how it is right now."