Friday, September 6, 2013

Block 57: The LDS Church Administration Block

Historic photo courtesy of Digital Collections

Since settling the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, Salt Lake has been the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly referred to as the LDS or Mormon church.  As such, downtown Salt Lake has seen a steady change throughout its history as the LDS church grew and expanded and the need for an administration building steadily increased.  One of the most prominent and continual changes can be found on Salt Lake's Block 57, the block just east of Temple Square, which historically was called the Church Administration Block.

The Deseret News reported, "The first office building for LDS church leaders in Salt Lake was built in 1848 by Daniel H. Wells, superintendent of public works.  It measured 18 feet by 12 feet and had a slanting roof covered with boards and dirt.  Its exact location is unknown, but it was the church headquarters for two years.  The 'White House' or 'Mansion House' came next.  It was constructed between 1848 and 1850 and was the home of President Brigham Young, on East South Temple Street, where the Elks Club building now stands [139 E. South Temple]."  After the White House, several different locations were used, such as the Beehive House and the Gardo House.

By the early 20th century, the LDS church realized that the President's Office did not provide adequate space for the growing church.  Throughout the first years in Utah, the LDS church was bogged down by debt.  By the beginning of the 20th century, with debts finally cleared, the LDS church began several ambitious construction projects on the Administration Block, including the Hotel Utah, the Deseret Gymnasium, and the Administration Building.  Only after these projects neared completion did Joseph F. Smith, then-president of the LDS church, begin to consider a church office building. 

Joseph Don Carlos Young, the son of Brigham Young, served as the architect and quickly began to draw out plans.  A five-story neoclassical building was designed with 24 stone columns to give it a more classical feel.  The same quarry was used that previously served to furnish the stone for the Salt Lake Temple.  However unlike the Salt Lake Temple, which used loose boulders along the valley floor, the building that later became known as the Church Administration Building (or CAB) used stones carved from the granite cliffs.  The largest stone weighed 8 tons; more than 6,200 tons of granite was excavated for the building.  After 3 years of construction, the building was officially completed on Oct. 2, 1917.

A common practice among the LDS church is to dedicate a building after its completion and before its use.  Even though the CAB was finished in 1917, it was not dedicated until 1972.  A series of events, such as the death of Joseph F. Smith and limited public gatherings due to the outbreak of the Spanish Flu, prevented the building from being dedicated after it was completed.  After several years the dedication was altogether forgotten, and the oversight was only realized after close examination by church historians 55 years later.

For a complete history of the Church Administration Building, please refer to this excellent BYU article.  The building currently houses most of the offices for high ranking LDS individuals and is not open to the public, although it is occasionally used for various events and ceremonies, such as funerals and the location of a meeting between then-president Gordon B. Hinckley and past US president George W. Bush in 2002.

Historic photo courtesy of Digital Collections

Initially, the Church Administration Building housed all administrative offices of the LDS Church, but as membership grew, LDS workers were scattered in office buildings throughout Salt Lake City, and some were located as far as Brigham Young University, 40 miles to the south in Provo.  By the 1960's the CAB was completely inadequate, and the LDS church looked to expand its small headquarters.

Plans developed to construct a new office building, which later became known as the Church Office Building, or the COB.  Construction occurred between 1962 and 1972 at a cost of $31.  When completed the building soared 420 feet, 28 stories, above the corner of State and North Temple.  However, originally the plans called for a building 38 stories high.  Feasibility in the plumbing and heating systems caused planners to ultimately cut the top 10 stories.

The saddest story regarding the construction of the COB was the complete disregard of historic buildings on the Administration Block.  The COB required extensive excavation, at the time the largest in Utah's history, and several buildings were demolished to make room for the COB and eventual gardens.  An excellent blog regarding the demolished buildings can be read by clicking here.  The Latter-day Saints' University, which included the LDS Business College Building, Barratt Hall, and the Brigham Young Building; the Genealogical Society Building; the Sherrill Apartments; and the Mission Home were all destroyed to accommodate the COB.  That same year the Bishop's Building and the Deseret Gymnasium were demolished to make way for the gardens at Temple Square.  I found it difficult to find any information on any of these building, but I did find an excellent source from Google Books about the Deseret Gymnasium that can be read by clicking here.  Below are pictures of some of the buildings that were demolished:

Historic photo courtesy of Digital Collections

Historic photo courtesy of Digital Collections

Historic photo courtesy of Digital Collections.  Photo dated 1910.

Historic photo courtesy of wikimedia

Photo courtesy of Digital Collections.  Photo dated 1962.

The demolition of these buildings creates an interesting argument on the value of historical buildings and whether those buildings or the current gardens would have better served the missionary oriented goals of the LDS church.  Millions of people visit Temple Square every year, several to walk around the beautifully manicured gardens.  It could be argued that those same people would not have visited to see old historic buildings that were dwarfed by more important buildings at Temple Square, such as the Salt Lake Temple and the Tabernacle.

Historic photo courtesy of Digital Collections.  Photo dated 1909.

Whether or not the demolished buildings would have served the gospel-sharing mission of the LDS church, the demolition of the buildings on the Administration Block set a horrible, anti-preservation precedent for the LDS church.  This precedent led to the demolition of many historical buildings, such as the LDS Temple Annex, the Lehi Tabernacle, and the Sixth Ward Chapel.  Ultimately I do not believe that the discussion should be about historical preservation versus modernization because I think that the two can and should coexist.  It is simply a matter of creating priorities and preserving Utah's architectural heritage while creating a modern architectural heritage of our own.  The gardens at Temple Square could have and should have been created with historical preservation in mind.

The Central Office Building has had a prominent role in Salt Lake, if not its skyline.  Upon completion, the COB was the tallest building in Salt Lake at 420 feet.  It was rumored for several years that buildings taller than 420 feet were not permitted as to allow the COB to be the tallest and most principal building in Salt Lake.  Even though a taller building was finally built, the Wells Fargo Building, the COB still appears taller since it sits at a higher elevation.  Interestingly Salt Lake zoning laws in the downtown area prohibit buildings over 375  feet unless additional setbacks are incorporated into the architecture and additional money is spent on "enhanced amenities," such as public art.  As such, it is likely that the COB will continue to soar over the central business district for some time to come.

Photo courtesy of Digital Collections

photo courtesy of wikipedia

One of the most enjoyable parts of the building are the observation decks located at the top.  Visitors can enjoy views of Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front between 9 AM and 4:30 PM on Mondays through Fridays.  A few years back, some adventurous individuals decided to take advantage of this opportunity and BASE jump off of the observation deck.  While it is illegal and they were eventually caught and charged, it did provide a really entertaining video.

Church Office Building from Marshall Miller on Vimeo.

Thank you to the following sources that assisted me during my research of the Administrative Block: the Deseret News (which provided two sources, the second being this one),, wikipedia (which also provided two sources, the second being this one),,, and BYU.

LOST IN HISTORY: In 1972, the COB stole the record of "tallest building in Salt Lake City" from a building that held the record for 57 years.  What was that building?  As an additional hint, it was not the Walker Building (which would have been my first guess).

Answer to the previous "Lost In History": The animal that started calling the Joseph Smith Memorial Building home in 1984 was the peregrine falcon.  If you would like to watch the falcons, you can check out these video cameras that have been set up in the two nesting boxes near the top of the building.  Also, as you travel south on State Street, there is a street sign near the Joseph Smith Memorial Building warning motorists to be aware of people slowing down in their cars to view the falcons.

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