Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Grande Dame: the Hotel Utah (aka the Joseph Smith Memorial Building)

Historic photo courtesy of Digital Collections.  Photo dated ca. 1855

The block directly east of the Salt Lake Temple is historically not considered part of Temple Square.  However after the purchase of Main Street between North Temple and South Temple by the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly called Mormon or LDS) in 1999 that block feels very much a modern extension of Temple Square.  All of the buildings currently standing on that block have deep Mormon ties, and as such are relevant to the posts about Temple Square.  The Joseph Smith Memorial Building, originally called the Hotel Utah, is the most striking of all of the buildings to me.  It is the only building in Salt Lake that I remember visiting during various vacations throughout my childhood to Utah.  It holds a very fond place in my memory and my heart.

Prior to the construction of the Hotel Utah, the northeast corner of Main and South Temple was the location of the LDS Church's general tithing office, a bishop's storehouse, and a printing location for the Deseret News.

The idea of the Hotel Utah was first conceived in 1909.  While the LDS church was the main investor, it was the brainchild of several prominent Salt Lake businessmen, both Mormon and non-Mormon.  Plans for construction were quickly assembled.  Within two years the the 10-story building was completed.  The building had a concrete and steel structure and was covered with white glazed terra cotta and brick.

At the time of its completion, the Deseret News claimed, "There are larger hotels than the Utah, and there are those which cost more money, but there is not a hotel from the Atlantic to the Pacific which has the elegance, the comfort and the general beauty possessed by the Hotel Utah."  The Hotel Monthly magazine echoed, "No other hotel anywhere in the world has a more interesting or beautiful setting."  Below is a picture of the main lobby.

Historic photo courtesy of Digital Collections.  Photo dated 1911.

The Hotel played an important role in early Utah social life.  "The largest and finest bar in the West" was installed in the basement to help pay for the cost of construction.  Due to its central location at South Temple and Main, it become a convenient location for gatherings, and latter became a location for parties during prohibition and the jazz era of the 20's and 30's.

The Hotel hosted every president from Taft in 1911 to Ronald Reagan in the 1980's.  Taft, who was the heaviest president ever, lodged in the $6-a-day Presidential Suite.  Records from his stay show that for breakfast "Big Bill" ate broiled sirloin steak, bacon, eggs, cantaloupe, sliced peaches, potatoes mashed in cream, toast, rolls, and coffee.  The meal cost $2.15.

The hotel went through several renovations after its construction.  By 1925 the Hotel had added an additional 164 rooms.  In 1940 an underground parking garage was added, which some claim to be the first of its kind in the US.  In 1961 the restaurant on the roof of the building was enclosed to provide year around dining.  Air conditioning was added in 1967.  In 1974 the East and West wings were expanded towards the north to accommodate 160 new guest rooms, a grand ballroom, a spacious exhibit area, smaller meeting rooms, and another restaurant.  Evidence of this expansion can be seen upon close examination of the building.  If you look at the wall on the west side of the building while standing in Main Street Plaza, you may notice that the bricks about 2/3rds of the way from South Temple suddenly turn to a slightly different shade of white, although they are hard to notice unless you know to look for them.

Historic photo courtesy of Digital Collections. Photo dated 1914.

In January, 1978 "the grande dame" was named to the National Register of Historic Place, for, as the state-prepared nomination form says, its uniqueness, "architectural beauty, historic location, and tradition [that] makes it the best known hotel in Utah."

Historic photo courtesy of Digital Collections.  Photo dated 1911.

In 1987, the Hotel closed for extensive renovations.  The building reopened in 1993 as the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.  Then-president of the LDS church Gordon B. Hinkley decided to name the building after Joseph Smith because Utah's capital had several locations named in honor of Brigham Young yet none in honor of Mormonism's founder.  Today, the building continues to serve the LDS Church and includes the FamilySearch Center, the Legacy Theatre, three restaurants, and several rooms that can be rented for receptions and weddings.

2011 was the 100 year celebration of the building.  An excellent website was developed where people can record their memories about the Hotel Utah.  The stories are touching, and I encourage you to go through and read a few.  A quick blurt from one of the stories from 1934 goes, "We stayed at the Hotel Utah that night and it seemed like the spacious beauty of Heaven."

Historic photo courtesy of Digital Collections.  Photo dated 1912.

Thanks to the following websites for their assistance in researching the Joseph Smith Memorial Building:, and the Deseret News.

LOST IN HISTORY: On a yearly basis, the Joseph Smith Memorial Building is in the news because of a specific animal that started calling the building its home in 1984.  What is the animal?

Answer to the previous "Lost in History":  Three temples located in Utah were announced after construction had begun on the Salt Lake Temple but were completed before Salt Lake Temple finished in 1893.  These were the temples located in St. George (1884), Logan (1884), and Manti (1888)

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