Granddaughter of Leslie Hodgson recalls man who built Ogden

Saturday , November 15, 2014 - 7:36 AM

OGDEN — It’s odd to think that one man’s work could define an entire city, but if anyone in Ogden’s long and eclectic history could boast such a claim, it might be Leslie Simmons Hodgson.

Hodgson’s Art Deco and Prairie School style buildings are peppered throughout Ogden. Washington Boulevard through the downtown area serves as a living shrine for his work, with Peery's Egyptian Theater, the Eccles Building, the Ben Lomond Hotel and the Ogden Municipal Building all sitting within a few blocks of each other.

Moving further east, you’ll find the U.S. Forest Service Building, the Peery Apartments and perhaps his most recognizable design, Ogden High School.

According to a biography of Hodgson by Teddy Fullmer and Peter Goss found at the Special Collections Department of the Stewart Library at Weber State University, Hodgson’s career spanned 40 years and more than 75 buildings.

His work is gaining new relevance today as Ogden City begins work on a project that will include a major historical renovation of his Ogden Exchange Building. That West Ogden monument was built in 1930, but according to city officials, has sat uninhabited for nearly 40 years. The city plans for the renovated Exchange Building to serve as the centerpiece of a new lifestyle business park in the area.

November also marks the 74th anniversary of the Municipal Building’s formal dedication.

This week, the Standard-Examiner sat down with Jeanine Downing, whose paternal grandfather is Hodgson, arguably the most well-known and prolific architect Ogden has ever produced.

“He was quite a man,” Downing said of Hodgson, who she refers to as ’Pop’. “He had a big impact on my life, but I think he had a bigger impact on the city of Ogden as a whole. In a lot of ways, he’s responsible for the overall atmosphere (of Ogden).”

Hodgson was born Dec. 18, 1879 in Salt Lake City. His father, Oliver Hodgson, was a respected building contractor in the Salt Lake City area.

According to his biography, Hodgson studied architecture for five years as a draftsman in the Salt Lake City offices of Samuel Dallas and Richard Kletting. He gained his architect’s license in 1904 and soon after moved to Southern California to practice.

He moved back to Utah and settled in Ogden in 1906, opening his own firm in the Eccles Building he designed.

“I think he just loved Ogden,” Downing said of her grandfather deciding to permanently reside in the city. “He loved it and he wanted to make it great.”

Downing said she knew her grandfather as a well-respected and kind man with many friends and interests. He loved music and art, but he also loved things like firearms and hunting. According to his biography, he was a member of the Ogden Chamber of Commerce, the Weber Club and the Ogden Golf and Country Club. He was the Ogden City Board of Education’s architect for 25 years and also served on the state Architectural Board.

Downing said Hodgson was the most meticulous person she’s ever encountered. Precision was required in everything he did, down to even the most menial labors.

“I remember Pop had this cabin up in South Fork and it had this big gravel walkway,” Downing said. “Every single rock was in the exact place he wanted it. I can’t tell you how many times I saw him raking that gravel in place. I think my grandmother must have had an awful hard time living with him.”

Downing also describes her grandfather as someone with impeccable integrity and a generous soul.

“I remember hearing the story of him giving his prized bamboo fishing rod to a poor man on a fishing trip,” Downing said. “He wanted to give this man his rod, but he didn’t want to embarrass him by giving it to him in front of everyone else. So he told this man to sneak off and grab it while everyone was around the campfire.”

Downing said her father, Robert, who also became a prominent architect in Ogden, was a young boy on the trip and saw the man grab the fishing rod.

“For many years, my dad disrespected this man because he thought he had stolen (the rod),” Downing said. “Finally Pop told my dad what happened and warned him to never judge someone based on appearances. That kind of thing was very important to him and he wanted his children to understand it as well.”

In addition to being morally principled, Hodgson also had quite a sense of humor. According to the Fullmer/Goss biography, he had “a quick wit and a large repertoire of jokes.” The hieroglyphics seen on Peery’s Egyptian Theater allegedly spell out “Old Man Hodgson is a merry soul.”

Downing, who turns 79 in February, is an accomplished artist herself, with her work hanging in collections in places as far away as Denmark and Tasmania, as well as several museums in the United States. She’s won acclaim in the Sydney Art Gallery in Washington, the San Bernardino County Museum and various other invitational shows in Southern California.

She began her life in art at a very early age and vividly remembers her first grade teacher calling her “The Little Artist.” Downing says she worked to cultivate her creative and artistic sensibilities, but now realizes some of her talent came from the genes passed along by her grandfather.

“He admired good workmanship,” Downing said. “He admired something as simple as a well-dug ditch and he respected the man who dug it as much as any other kind of artist or builder or designer.”

Downing said admiring the ditch digger speaks volumes about Hodgson’s humility. Despite working for many years as a highly sought after architect, Downing said the 1930s were hard for her grandfather.

“The Great Depression hit him like it hit everybody else,” she said. “He struggled to keep his office open.”

It was during these tough times that Hodgson created his masterpiece. 

Ogden High School was completed in 1937 for nearly $1.2 million. The school was built under President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency that employed millions of people to complete public works projects like the construction of public buildings and roads.

According to a Utah Heritage Foundation historical profile on the school, Ogden High was the first million-dollar high school constructed in the U.S. and “many taxpayers protested the building of such a lavish educational facility.”

“I think he was very proud of Ogden High,” Downing said. “It put people to work and gave Ogden something to be proud of during a very difficult time.”

Downing went to Ogden High School, but said her favorite building designed by her grandfather is not his magnum opus.

“When I was at Ogden High, I never thought to brag to anyone, ’Hey, my grandpa built this place,’” Downing said. “I didn’t realize the significance of (the school) until much later. My favorite building will always be the Eccles Building because that’s where his office was and I have such fond memories of it.”

Downing said Hodgson died of a heart attack on July 24, 1947 “while tending to his roses.” Downing said her grandfather would be happy the city is taking a new interest in the Exchange Building and that so many of his other works have stood the test of time.

“I was thrilled about the old Ogden Exchange Building; it’s wonderful to see so things happening like that in Ogden,” she said. “And I think Pop would feel the same way.”

Contact reporter Mitch Shaw at 801-625-4233 or mishaw@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchshaw23.

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