I had the honor this past week of speaking at the historic City Library in Provo, Utah. Of course, I love sharing my stories anywhere, but I especially love events in historic places, because I love old buildings. They carry such a sense of the history that has happened in them. You can almost feel it in the old bricks, the old stones, the old beams. I can’t help but wonder about the people who have been there but are gone now. Funny how fast the people come and go through life, and how long the buildings that housed them last.
The Provo City Library building is just that sort of place, having stood long past the generations that built it. The library is located in the old Academy building which was a monument to education when it was erected in 1892 to house the 1,000 students of the Brigham Young Academy, forerunner of today’s Brigham Young University. The architect was Don Carlos Young, a son of the famous Brigham Young himself, the pioneer leader of the Mormon Exodus and settlement in the Rocky Mountains. The Academy was at the time one of the largest buildings in the Mountain West, with modern amenities like electric lights powered by a nearby sawmill and forced air heat from steam radiators and a coal stove. The curriculum taught there included the usual sciences like chemistry and geology, with the addition of new sciences like typewriting.
But like many old buildings, what had once been considered modern eventually became antique, and the classes and students moved to newer facilities. In 1968 the building was finally closed and boarded up, with the property changing hands nineteen times after that as the community tried to figure out what to do with an old beauty past her prime. Projects ranged from retail shops to offices, restaurants, museums, theaters, even a movie studio. But as plan after plan fell through, it seemed the Academy building was destined for the same fate that befalls too many of our historic sites: demolition to make way for something bigger, better, brighter. Meanwhile, the building continued to decline. Portions of the floor and roof were collapsing. Brickwork was crumbling. Pigeons and bats shared space with transients and vandals. In one room someone had painted a pentagram on the floor. The old buildings were considered such a hazard that the fire department said it would let them burn rather than endanger firefighters. Although considered by some preservationists “the most significant unrestored building west of the Mississippi,” it seemed the old Academy building was doomed to destruction.
Still, local folks did their best to hold back fate, working to establish a trust fund to purchase the property, patrolling the grounds against vandals, vowing to stop bulldozers by chaining themselves to the fence. And it was those valiant souls who inspired what became a movement to save the Academy and finally brought local, state, and private funds to back a new project as the old building became the new home of the Provo City Library. Actor Robert Redford sponsored a dinner and silent auction at his Sundance resort (located in nearby Provo Canyon), hosted by composer Kurt Bestor. A California investor made a last-minute donation of $2 million in time to close the deal. And in July of 1999, city officials broke ground to initiate renovations for the new library that would bring the old building back to life. The Provo City Library at Academy Square opened on September 8, 2001. There is something comforting about the old Academy beginning its new life just days before the attacks of 9/11, something that reminds us that as the world changes all around us, we don’t have to lose our past.
And what does all this have to do with Doc Holliday, you may wonder? What does this story have to do with my story? Well, in a way, it is my story, because my grandfather, William Ewell Wanlass, was one of the students who attended the old Academy in its glory days. He graduated in 1916 before starting a first career in the Eureka silver mines and then another in early pioneer Hollywood. And it’s his diploma that hangs on a wall in my writing room, reminding me of the stories that history tells, and of my family’s stories in particular.
Perhaps it was seeing the sad decline of the old Academy building and knowing that it was slated for demolition that inspired me to save another old building, the antebellum home of the Holliday family in Georgia. Maybe it was ghosts of the Academy haunting me when I first saw the Holliday House and knew that I would have something to do with it. I hadn’t helped to save the Academy, but I could do something to save this old house. So like the citizens of Provo, I organized a community action group and a non-profit organization and spearheaded the drive to save the Holliday-Dorsey-Fife House and turn it into a museum of local history. And it was while researching the house and the families who lived there that I learned the story of Doc Holliday and his connection to Gone With the Wind, that I heard of his rumored romance with a cousin who would become the model for the fictional Melanie, and that my research became Southern Son: The Saga of Doc Holliday.
History has always haunted me, I think. But the ghosts have always been friendly, even a dangerous dentist turned gunfighter called Doc Holliday. I think he, like my grandfather, would be pleased that a part of his life still stands.