This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 1999, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
When looking appreciatively at a building, one might wonder how it came to be. Abe Lincoln's father built his family a simple log cabin; a great cathedral such as Chartres was built when prideful townspeople sought to outdo fellow Catholics in Paris. In modern Salt Lake City, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have replaced a popular gymnasium to build a huge new hall in which General Conference crowds can hear their leaders' testimonies more comfortably.
This led me to wondering who Rose Wagner was, and how it came about that the center was built a few years ago and named in her memory. While I was musing, businessman I.J. Wagner appeared at the next table, noticed me staring at the building across the way, and said, "If you think that's a strange structure for Salt Lake, wait till you see what we're building next door."
Wagner pointed out that the shabby structures west of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center have mostly vanished.
"We're clearing the western third of the block, Bandaloops Coffee and all, and are about to build -- this." He thrust a half-dozen computer-generated drawings of Phase Two of the Performing Arts Center, a structure I've tried to sketch in today's drawing. But Izzi's appearance gave me a chance to ask why Rose Wagner has an arts center named in her honor, and an oddly distinctive-looking building at that.
"First let me tell you what's coming next door," said my informant. The new building is designed by the Eaton Mahoney architectural firm, with Bob Eaton the principal. It will occupy a third of the city block, have adequate parking and feature a 500-seat proscenium-style Jeanne Wagner Theatre.
The new structure will provide added rehearsal studios, storage and scene-building areas, office space, a sizable lobby and even a refreshment bar. "Jeanne Wagner was my wife -- she died -- and she was a very talented dancer, not a ballet or modern dancer, more of a popular sort who performed in most states with many stage companies," Izzi explained.
What of the building's different look -- at least in the drawings?
"I didn't have much to do with that -- after all it is funded in part by my brother, Abe, and his wife, Barbara, and Kay Schott of my family. The Performing Arts Council and the Salt Lake City RDA have committed funds totaling $3 million, and there have been other private donors," Wagner said. All had input in the planning.
Wagner, who spent three busy wartime years in the United States Marines, then marched me across the street to the Rose Wagner structure, which will be linked to a reflective glass and metal building expected to be finished in 2000, if not sooner.
Being a rather conservative columnist, I will withhold judgment on the enlarged Rose Wagner center until it is built -- except to say the drawings remind me of World's Fair structures, which is not all bad. I liked the 1939 fair in New York very much -- but my ideas were pretty unformed back when the Trylon and Perisphere were the rage.
The new Wagner building will have a roof supported by brightly colored columns, tied down, seemingly, by wirelike colored strands. A handsome curving staircase reaches to the second floor from the lobby, visible through the glass walls. But what of Rose Wagner?
"She loved music and all the arts," her son said. "We were poor -- but every extra cent went to violin lessons for me and piano lessons for my sister. Brother Abe was more interested in sports, not music."
Rose Wagner came from Latvia; her husband, who died in 1932, came from Ukraine. "Jewish people loved the arts, theater, music -- Mother was not unusual in that respect. What was unusual was she was the family business person. Father and Mother had met in Boston, lived in Portland; he came here and started the Wagner Bag Company -- used sacks, made of burlap or jute. They were washed clean, sewed by Mother. We had sheds and a house where the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center stands now. Brother Abe is two years older than I am; we went to West High."
After his father died and during the Depression years, Wagner said, his mother ran things -- "but we could not have survived except for what we called the Mormon bank -- now I'm on the board of Zion."
The Wagner Bag Co. operated throughout World War II, and bags were in great demand after the war. The family expanded and set up the St. Regis Paper Company. In later years, after selling St. Regis, Wagner has been occupied with real-estate matters and something of a thorn in the side of some city and county and federal "outfits."
But Wagner, now (I believe) 75 years young, remembers and reveres his mother. "She kept us going," he recalls. "She would have liked watching the performances in the building we named for her. Just as my wife, Jeanne Rasmussen, would have liked watching today's performers -- the arts meant much to my mother and my wife."
Jack Goodman has been associated with The Salt Lake Tribune as a staff or free-lance writer for 51 years.