SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – As far as quirky Utah landmarks go, few are as seemingly ubiquitously well-known as Salt Lake City’s Allen Park.
Many locals might know it better as “Hobbitville.”
Set on 1300 S, between Westminster Ave. and Downington Ave. alongside Emigration Creek, the area has a long and storied legacy in Utah folklore. Lined with eccentric small buildings, inhabited by three peacocks named Jeremy, Ratchet, and Caw, and their friend, a wild turkey named Gobbler, (yes, they really live there, and yes, those really are their names) and shrouded in rumors of magical inhabitants, its reputation is so ingrained with Salt Lake City’s culture, when it became available for sale, the city snatched it up, protecting it from certain destruction by a developer.
“From a historical and cultural standpoint, it is an extremely unique property,” Lewis Kogan, SLC Public Lands Deputy Director says to ABC4.com. “There’s nothing like it in Salt Lake City, and nothing quite exactly like it anywhere.”
Allen Park was named for Dr. George Allen, a Sugar House resident who worked as a physician at the State Penitentiary, which once stood where Sugar House Park currently sits. Fans of art, unusual architecture, and exotic birds, Allen and his wife, Ruth, bought the park in the 1930s and wasted little time turning the land into the impossible-to-succinctly-describe treasure it has since become. With a poetic mosaic here, an unusually-shaped bench or fountain there, and a collection of animals that included an elephant, chimpanzee, and a sandhill crane named Sandy, and the park began to take shape.
Known as a generous member of the community who regularly provided medical services free of charge, Allen began adding hodgepodge little buildings to the property to provide a place for his children to live, as well as others who shared a general interest in the abstract at little cost. By the time Allen died in 1961, he left over 30 different little “apartments” for Ruth to manage, according to Kogan.
Over the years, the private property became a gathering spot for some of the most unique members of Utah’s counterculture scene. It also became one of the most mysterious spots in the entire Salt Lake Valley. At about the same time, there was a rediscovery of the fantasy universe created by J.R.R. Tolkien taking over American pop culture.
Somehow, the sensation around The Lord of the Rings movies and books became intertwined with murmurings about the residents of the park, and rumors of what was beyond the property’s locked gates grew and grew. It became a popular weekend activity for mischievous high schoolers and college students to sneak onto the property see if there really were “hobbits” or a large population of smaller-sized, ill-tempered folks living in seclusion in the middle of the residential area.
“It didn’t hurt the legend that one of the longtime caretakers for the property living near the entrance was somewhat legendary for coming out in the middle of the night and chasing kids off with a shotgun,” Kogan laughs while setting the rumor to bed, there were no hobbits living at Allen Park. “I’m sure it only added to the mystique.”
Eventually, the challenges of maintaining the small piece of “The Shire” in Salt Lake City became too much for the residents as Allen Park fell into disarray. Combined with a few deaths in the Allen lineage, the future of the park became as cloudy as the farfetched rumors that had long surrounded it. By January 2019, a fiduciary management company was forced to put the park up for sale, evicting all of the residents, many of whom had lived there for years.
Vying with a developer for the land, and seeking to preserve the oddly charming chunk of absurdity from being reduced to rubble and townhomes, the city was eventually able to buy Allen Park for $7.5 million using park impact and stormwater mitigation fees. The gates keeping out trouble-seeking teenagers have been thrown open, it’s a public space now. The mysteriously odd and slightly ridiculous landmarks that make the park such a unique part of SLC’s history are now free to visit and explore from dawn to dusk every day. It’s already been a hit, with thousands of curious Utahns visiting Hobbitville for its opening weekend last October.
The city plans to make the park an even bigger part of the local art scene with leaders currently kicking around ideas on how to make that possible.
As for the residents, who were once thought to be hobbits, gnomes, or dwarves, Kogan says there’s more of them around the area than most would ever realize. He estimates that thousands of people passed through or lived in Allen Park at one point during its mysterious past. Some of them still return to the park to take a walk down memory lane, as it were.
“It’s really fun,” Kogan says of meeting former citizens of Hobbitville. “I’ve been on the property and talked with people who lived there back in in the 40s and they’re so excited to be able to come and see it again. It’s amazing how little has changed in some ways.”