Susan Wright: From preserving downtown Murray to embracing change
Apr 06, 2020 03:54PM
By Shaun Delliskave
Susan Wright inspects some of the many costumes that she will still rent, mostly online. (Shaun Delliskave/City Journals)
By Shaun Delliskave | [email protected]
Once the champion of protecting downtown Murray, store proprietor Susan Wright now says it is time to embrace change. For the last 50 years, Susan and her husband, Bill, have restored the Murray Mansion and Murray Chapel as well as run the Ballet Centre, Wright Costumes, and the Murray Art Centre. In April, Susan will move her costume operations next door to the Ballet Centre.
“The buildings are just like people; they wear out eventually,” Susan said. “You can keep replacing parts. Eventually, they just need to go.”
While husband Bill has retired, 78-year-old Susan still rents and makes costumes. She will manage the costumes mainly through e-commerce; however, Susan still needs no database since her memory can recall every tutu she has in inventory.
“I have red, blue, and green in that size,” she tells a customer on the phone. Without needing a calculator, she figures out the tax and total in her head.
Susan intends to keep working in downtown Murray but has been off-loading properties that she fought fiercely to restore. The former ballerina opened the Ballet Centre (4907 S. Poplar St.) in Murray in 1970. She taught scores of students, including her daughter, Michelle Armstrong, who now runs the enterprise. She originally named it the Christensen Centre in honor of Ballet West founder and personal mentor William Christensen.
“I had to rename it the Ballet Centre because so many people thought it was a church,” Susan said.
When not teaching ballet, she made costumes. The Wrights originally worked out of a small store on 4800 South, but after running out of space, they found a location on State Street and 5th Avenue. Since then, they have been outfitting not only the Ballet Centre but also school productions and Murray cultural arts events.
The Wrights saw an opportunity in the blighted downtown area and purchased the Murray Mansion. Initially built in 1902 as the home of brick-making industrialist John P. Cahoon, the Wrights restored the house and lived in it while also hosting weddings.
They also bought the former Murray Baptist Church chapel across the street and renovated it to host weddings. They rechristened it the Murray Chapel. They purchased another storefront on State Street and opened the Murray Arts Centre (MAC).
For 35 years, the MAC hosted dances four nights a week and developed a loyal following. When Salt Lake County announced that they were going to build a performing arts center on State Street and 4800 South in 2015, the Wrights decided that it might be a good time to retire.
“When Murray and Salt Lake County announced that they were going to put in a big performing arts center, they approached me and my husband, but we really had no idea or plans of leaving,” Susan said. “But we thought, ‘that’s a really good thing.’ So, we decided to sell the arts center. Maybe it’s time we just wound down and retire.”
The Wrights sold everything but the Ballet Centre. However, the county backed out of the deal and moved the theater to Taylorsville, leaving Murray with the property. Mayor Ted Eyre convinced the Wrights to keep the MAC and costume shop in business.
Three years later, Murray is now ready to remake downtown, including constructing a new city hall. The Wrights have closed the doors of the MAC forever, hosting the last dance in November 2019. In April, Susan will move her costume operation across 5th Avenue to the old Elks Club building, and the city will make plans to demolish the former Wright Costume Shop and MAC.
While Susan has preserved many of these buildings, she doesn’t regret that her former State Street storefront properties will soon be turned to dust.
“I hope that they bring in a developer here and do something. I think it would be wonderful if they would put in a small grocery store,” she said. “I hope they do something like they did up on Holladay Boulevard and Murray-Holladay Road. It looks old, but it is not. They got the bell tower and put up a façade; it would still look like old downtown Murray.”