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Quarry House: Belonging to Ruin

Quarry House is all walls and rafters—no roof, doors, or windowpanes. Concrete crumbles along edges and in corners. Iron hinges cling to rotting wood frames, swinging easily at the slightest touch. There are missing sandstone bricks, like lost puzzle pieces, in places acutely vulnerable to gravity—the undersides of arches and chimneys, the outer edges of walls. Snow blankets the interior of the house as thickly as it does the exterior.

Aside from a few iron fixtures, the bricks and the concrete that binds them are all that remains of this structure. While time has dislodged stones here and there, the house stands remarkably solid. Its walls are a tight geometrical patchwork of sandstone prisms, recalling shapes like squares and rectangles, trapezoids and triangles. In human hands, this mineral motley found form, logic, and purpose as component parts of human homes.

Quarry House was built by immigrants who saw beauty in straight edges and right angles. Uncertain of what the weather might bring, they set about assembling four walls, a roof, and two doors. They gathered and rearranged nearby resources to fit their designs, harvesting Nugget Sandstone in Red Butte Canyon, cutting Douglas fir on its north-facing slopes, and drawing water from its creek. When the house was finished, the settlers lit its two hearths and set to work shaping stones that would lay the foundations for many of the city’s original buildings: Fort Douglas, City Hall, and the Salt Lake Temple.

To the pioneers who built this place, the contemporary view from the foothills on which Quarry House sits would be foreign. Yet, they might recognize the imperial grip of the structures dominating the landscape as the culmination of their collective vision. For in the valley below, an urban machine extends its reach into canyon after canyon along the Wasatch Range. Heedlessly, it hums. People, goods, and services move as if mechanically toted on invisible belts that connect homes to neighborhoods, schools to box stores, mines to plants to warehouses to retailers.

Less discernible in this modern configuration of space, however, are the many debts it owes to its surroundings: the materials that give its people food, water, shelter, and energy seemingly without limit. On a clear day, one might not care to wonder how the machine keeps running—the cycles of carbon extraction and emission it all depends upon.

Atmospheric carbon behaves like a hearth stone exposed to fire: it traps solar heat and then releases it gradually over time. And so here, and elsewhere in the West, things are warming up, drying up, and burning up. Parched riverbeds bear long stretches of cracked earth, peeling at the edges; exposed mineral stains on rocks show alarming disparities in reservoir levels; wildfires scorch the land with apocalyptic ferocity; forests grow sickly, wildlife goes hungry, and agricultural fields lay barren.

Ruins are the idle remains of lost plans. Contradictory tales of caution and longing churn around the weathered bricks and fallen debris of ruined dwellings, temples, and towns. They tell us origin stories and collapse stories; they represent an ideal and its failure.

Americans say the democratic ideal was built by immigrants, brick by labored brick. They also say the ideal was ruined by immigrants—different ones, of course. Not the hardworking souls of Quarry House, but illegal aliens with criminal motives—murder, arson, and theft. To the xenophobic citizen, a white immigrant might readily undergo naturalization, but a brown immigrant threatens the existing social order with collapse.

Ruin disrupts divisions—between inside and outside, us and them. A crumbling wall is easily trespassed. With few obstructions, weather, plants, animals, and people might move across these indistinct borders. Atmospheric carbon transgresses borders, too. It ties the hearth to a planetary system, the local to the global. Its effects are as intimate as they are far-reaching. Our responsibilities exceed national boundaries.

Us-and-them tales run deep. Humans use them to build identities. Yet, survival has always been collaborative. Our well-being has depended, and always will depend, upon the well-being of our human and more-than-human neighbors.

Today on our shared planet, there are over 70 million people displaced by resource conflict and religious and racial persecution. Untold more will face climate disruption by the century’s end. Yet, as many of those migrants arrive at our border with rightful claims of asylum, the United States prefers to isolate, retreating behind a wall of denial, wherein its citizens might live in an alternate reality—of American exceptionalism, self-reliance, and cultural homogeneity—rather than open its doors. In 2016, Salt Lake City welcomed over 1,300 refugees into the community; this past year, under new federal immigration limits, that number dropped to just over 350.

To offer asylum—safety, shelter, a place to belong—is to offer unconditional care through collaboration: fresh produce gathered alongside clean water and blankets, legal services among housing and health services, access to nature and access to education. The citizen in solidarity with the newcomer. A home is not just a haven from the world’s weather, but the necessary gathering place of diverse elements and beings.

The pioneers of the past, like today’s immigrant communities, came to the Salt Lake Valley to escape ruin from persecution, poverty, and exhausted ecosystems. Mistakenly, some of those early settlers laid the foundations for the same systems they left behind—of extraction and emission, of inequality and intolerance. At one time, teams of oxen overgrazed the foothills, lumbering deforested sections of Red Butte Canyon, and sandstone tailings polluted the creek; miners fought for labor rights and settlers fought to displace and convert Shoshone and Ute tribes. We all live with these legacies.

Yet, ruin also opens possibilities. Environmental change invites communities to form new coalitions—of unfamiliar ideas, practices, and people. Human visitors to Red Butte Garden often encounter Quarry House by chance. They feel drawn to what is present and absent, to what it suggests or allows us to imagine. Amid the indistinct forms of ruin, we might gather to revise our thinking.

The most fully intact features of Quarry House are its two hearths—one in each room. Beneath a crumbling chimney, which they share, rests an assortment of hearth stones. Perhaps they are not the same stones the pioneers first set there; anonymous others have since replaced and rearranged them. Even so, this motley bed of minerals still beckons passersby to gather—in a house with no roof, doors, or windowpanes.


Taylor Cunningham is a second-year graduate student in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah. She is currently writing a thesis about migration and water justice in southern Arizona. b. 1993

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