For nearly a century, the current site of beautiful Sugar House Park was, incongruously, the grim site of the Utah State Prison. The federal government operated the penitentiary until Utah statehood in 1896, when the prison was then granted to the State of Utah.
By the middle of the 20th Century, state officials had finalized plans to move the prison to a new site at the Point of the Mountain, thus igniting discussion of what to do with the old prison site. Sugar House businessman Horace Sorensen lobbied for a decade to have the site converted into a state park, and that seemed to be the site’s destiny when the Legislature passed a statute in 1947 setting aside the “old prison site” as a state park.
But Gov. Bracken Lee balked at the prospect of the financially pinched state becoming involved in building parks, and in 1951 the Legislature passed another statute giving Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County the option to purchase the prison site, minus the 30 acres that eventually became Highland High School, and to use the site for “public purposes.” The city and county exercised the option and made five joint payments of $45,000 a year to meet the sale price of $225,000. They completed their payments in 1956, although the state had already formally handed the keys to the prison to Salt Lake City Mayor Earl Glade in a transfer ceremony in October, 1953.
In 1955, the city and the county announced the formation of a committee to recommend uses of the new property, and those committee members ultimately became the first members of the original Sugar House Park Authority, which was incorporated in July, 1957. In an agreement approved by Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County on July 16, 1957, the city and county conveyed the property, in trust, to the Sugar House Park Authority to operate it as a park for a period of 99 years, ending Dec. 31, 2055.
Under the leadership of Harold Fabian, who was president of the Park Authority for its first 18 years, the park developed gradually over its first decade under a plan developed by Denver landscape architect Jack Harenburg. Many of the existing structures, such as the restrooms and some of the terraces, were completed in the early to mid-1960s. Subsequent Park Authority boards have endeavored to preserve the pristine nature of the park over the years since.