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Hotel Utah: Colorful history of elegance

Known for many years as "The Hotel" in the Intermountain West, the Hotel Utah has a colorful history of elegance that has been recaptured as it prepares to reopen as the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

In early 1909, an "independent citizens group" composed of people of various faiths met to consider plans for a "good hotel" on Salt Lake City's Main Street. The preferred site was owned by the Church at the northeast corner of Main and South Temple streets.At that time, the site was occupied by the Church's Deseret Store, which housed the Church-owned printing press and newspaper, the Deseret News; the Presiding Bishop's office; and general store. It was a busy location, as members stopped there regularly to make tithing contributions of livestock, produce and other items.

During this period in Salt Lake City, there were still deep-seated feelings between some Mormons and non-Mormons. Church leaders, business leaders, citizens group and others were hopeful that cooperation could be increased among all segments of the community and encourage business development and civic harmony. Elder Heber J. Grant, then a member of the Council of the Twelve and a business promoter, was involved with the citizens group and encouraged its efforts to have a hotel constructed.

A proposal was made to Church President Joseph F. Smith, and he approved construction of a 10-story hotel on the Main and South Temple site. A 17-person board of directors - including most of "Salt Lake's leading businessmen, both Mormons and non-Mormons" - was organized as the Utah Hotel Co. to supervise construction of the facility. President Smith was president of the board, with W. S. McCornick as vice president. Elder Grant was also a board member.

The group wasted no time in moving the project forward, and construction started in June 1909. Shares of hotel stock were sold to finance the estimated $1.2 million project. Another $400,000 was needed to furnish the edifice and completely prepare it for opening, and additional bonds were issued to raise the needed capital.

Despite several labor disputes that led to strikes and two bomb blasts at the construction site, the hotel opened two years later, on June 9, 1911, to widespread acclaim as a facility of elegance and charm. Boasted one newspaper account, "From the Atlantic to the Pacific, there are bigger and more expensive hotels, but none more splendid, more elegant, or more comfortable."

The building required 3,700 tons of steel, 3.5 million bricks, 10,000 cubic yards of concrete, 400,000 square feet of partition tile and 20 miles of piping. A granite and white terra-cotta exterior gave the facility a brilliant facade. Its main entrance had a resplendent 87-foot by 87-foot lobby with a 30-foot ceiling and 12 huge pillars. The building was topped with an ornate white dome in the shape of a beehive, the pioneer Utah symbol of cooperative industry.

After its original construction, the hotel went through several renovations and additions through the years, the last one in the mid-1970s. The hotel originally included 400 guest rooms and had 560 when it was closed. At one time it had as many as 625 guest rooms, but some were eliminated to make space for other facilities.

One of the first VIP guests was U.S. Pres. William Howard Taft, who stayed at the hotel for $6 a night in October 1911. Records show that his breakfast included cantaloupe, sliced peaches, broiled sirloin steak, bacon, eggs, potatoes mashed in cream, crescents, toast and rolls - all for $2.15.

His complimentary comments concerning the hotel were picked up in the newspapers, helping spread the word about its extraordinary hospitality.

Through the subsequent years, countless dignitaries and celebrities stayed at the hotel, including every U.S. president through Ronald Reagan. Several Church presidents have resided in the hotel. The facility was the site of numerous conventions, banquets, receptions and parties - which functions except for overnight lodging will all be part of the new Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

Source: The Hotel by Leonard J. Arrington and Heidi S. Swinton.

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