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Even its fans say the First Security Bank Building is ugly.

It is cold and industrial, with its corrugated, porcelain-coated steel panels, and stark orange, white and gray colors. Surrounded by stately brick structures, it is unlike most buildings in downtown Salt Lake City.

The 49-year-old building was once threatened with the wrecking ball. After the building was saved, the owners considered painting it white or adding granite to the metal and glass walls.

But enticed by federal tax credits for such renovations and romanced by its history, Wasatch Property Management modernized the building's interior. As a condition for using the credits, owners kept its exterior as it was at the time of it celebrated opening in 1955.

"We've kind of fallen in love with it," says Paul Willie, Wasatch Property vice president. "It honestly has some charm. It's nice to leave some of your landmarks in the community."

Today, the high-rise at 405 S. Main St. will reopen after an 11-month, $12.5 million renovation that meets the U.S. Secretary of the Interior's standards for rehabilitation.

"Some people hate it, absolutely hate it," acknowledges Peter Emerson, the architect for the rehabilitation. "It's fairly stark. It's not an easy building to understand. You have to think about it a little bit."

But Emerson, who works for Edwards & Daniels architecture firm, loves the building, which is composed of various sizes of cubes. The Utah Heritage Foundation - which nicknamed it the "ugly building" - says First Security was the state's first International Style structure. The style emphasizes the vertical form, lacks ornamentation and is typically made of glass, steel, aluminum and concrete.

"If you look at each elevation, each side is different in its nature, but they all tie together based on the overall concept in the exterior skin of the building," Emerson said. "It's very, very well designed. It's one of the best buildings in Salt Lake."

The renovation was relatively easy because little had been done to the skyscraper in the 50 years since it was built. Emerson updated electrical, mechanical and telecommunications systems, replaced the 680 windows, removed asbestos and made it seismically sound.

The building was repainted, though it doesn't exactly match the original. The orange tone, "Warm Wassail," is less bright than it recently was. Willie says it used to look brighter likely because it "oxidized."

Inside, Wasatch Property kept the rouge-colored marble lobby, the terrazzo floor and "modern" clock.

First Security was designed by W.A. Sarmiento, a Peruvian-born architect who lives in Los Angeles and came to Salt Lake City for the reopening.

"It's perfect," Sarmiento said Tuesday night at a reception in the building's lobby. "I want to congratulate the architect who did the rehabilitation. The building looks to me like the day it was finished."

Sarmiento is credited with redefining the bank-building experience after the public lost trust in the institutions during the Great Depression. Bankers wanted a modern, efficient look, and Sarmiento, as lead architect for Bank Building and Equipment Corporation, delivered buildings made of glass and steel.

For a young architect, it was an exciting era.

"America was open to new ideas," said Sarmiento, 82. "I was lucky to be here at that time."

In 1955, the $3 million First Security building was a visual signal that Utah was prospering again: It was the first new building in downtown Salt Lake City in 28 years.

And so Salt Lakers celebrated when Marriner Eccles and George Eccles, as chairman and president of First Security, opened the newest edition to the city's skyline.

A 12-page special section ran in The Salt Lake Tribune in August 1955 with no fewer than 18 stories. It was the first major structure to use air conditioning and the elevators were powered without attendants. Noting how the outside of the windows can be cleaned from the inside, one news story proclaimed they would "gladden the heart of any housewife."

In one of the many advertisements praising the building, the now-demolished Newhouse Hotel, which was directly west across the street, called it "a tribute to the city and an expression of confidence in the future of the rapidly growing State of Utah."

The First Security building - which may change its name once an anchor tenant moves in - illustrates another turning point in Salt Lake City history. The Eccleses chose 400 South, believing downtown development would head south. It did - to the suburbs.

The building was nearly emptied in 2002, once First Security Bank merged with Wells Fargo. Salt Lake County discussed demolishing First Security for a new building to house the District Attorney's Office. Wasatch Property then bought it for $6.2 million, mainly for its location and 571 parking stalls.

Now that the high-rise is renovated, Wasatch Property has 130,000 square feet out of 155,000 square feet of Class A office space left to lease.

The Salt Lake Tribune considered moving in, but instead opted for offices at The Gateway.


Tribune reporter Brandon Griggs contributed to this story.

Historic reopening

The First Security Bank Building, 405 S. Main St., will celebrate its grand reopening today after a one-year renovation that keeps intact its 1955 architectural style.

The party is from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.

The building's original designer, W.A. Sarmiento, will be there, along with displays showcasing the building's history. In keeping with the era, people will be dressed in '50s clothing. There will be a candy counter, a Marilyn Monroe look-alike and display of 1950s cars.

Parking is free in the building's parking terrace.