Discovery of pioneer Social Hall provides a glimpse into past

A glimpse of the past came into view unexpectedly when construction workers in Salt Lake City unearthed the foundation and the lower portion of the walls of the Social Hall, which was built in 1852.

The pioneer building was one of Salt Lake City's earliest landmarks and was the first theater built west of the Missouri River. It was built under the direction of Brigham Young only five years after the pioneers settled in the Salt Lake Valley.The hall's foundation emerged after construction workers, working on an underground pedestrian walkway in downtown Salt Lake City, unearthed the south wall of the building.

The two-story structure, constructed on the east side of State Street between South Temple and 100 South, was dedicated Jan. 1, 1853. The building was built "for uses implied by its name, social and semi-social functions, balls, feasts, amateur theatricals, birthday anniversaries of prominent persons and the like," wrote B.H. Roberts in A Comprehensive History of the Church.

Some sessions of the Territorial Legislature were also held in the building, as were council meetings of the priesthood, Elder Roberts stated.

The first floor of the hall was used for banquets while the upper story was a theater with a stage on the east end, beginning a new and distinctive dramatic era in Salt Lake City.

Officials from Zions Securities Corp., the property development arm of the Church responsible for building the $2 million underground walkway project, were amazed to find so much of the foundation intact.

"We were surprised to find it in as good of condition as it was in," said Jim Walton, vice president of Zions Securities. "We knew there would be some things there, but we didn't think it would be anywhere near as intact as it is."

A team from BYU's Office of Public Archaeology began chiseling away at the foundation soon after it was unearthed on May 9. They worked until June 10, examining structural features and finding artifacts within the enclosure of the foundation walls that might have been left when the building was demolished in 1922.

Zions Securities plans to preserve as much of the walls as possible. On June 11, crews from the company began cutting the walls in sections for preservation. "We are going to see if we can't take each wall out in 8- to 10-foot sections, store them off site and then bring

them back and incorporate them partially within the enclosure," Walton commented.

"One of our hopes is that we can create a historic setting or historic gallery in the walkway by displaying the wall and hopefully some of the artifacts. If we can, we would like to put it back in the same location and at the same elevation."

Don Southworth, staff historian and archaeologist in the BYU office in charge of the archaeology work at Social Hall, said the main artifact found is the building itself. "We have tried to find its archaeological features, how the building was designed, how it worked, where things were held in the building and its special features."

The foundation and the exterior walls of the ground floor were built with sandstone from nearby Red Butte Canyon and the second floor was made of adobe bricks. Both the sandstone and the adobe were held together with sand and clay mixed with water, Southworth said.

According to the Encyclopedic History of the Church by Andrew Jenson, the Social Hall was demolished after its surroundings became a thriving business section and the hall was condemned as unsafe.

The adobe brick from the second floor of the hall was knocked inside the building and covered up with dirt. The area was then converted into a park. Construction crews dug out the crumbled adobe to get a better look at the foundation.

"We know a lot about the outside [from recordsT, but not much about the east side [the back sideT or the interior of the building other than a small description," Southworth remarked. Excavation work has helped archaeologists learn more about the building.

One of the most surprising discoveries came when workers found that the Social Hall's replica built in 1980 at Pioneer Trail State Park at the mouth of Emigration Canyon in Salt Lake City is slightly bigger than the original. The original building was 71 by 36 feet, said Southworth.

Aided by students trained in archaeological work from the BYU Historic Field School from Camp Floyd and workers from Zions Securities, workers unearthed two sandstone brick ovens on the east wall of the building.

A rock retaining wall a few feet in front of the hall's west entrance was discovered as well.

The walls of the hall are solid, measuring two feet wide, with an architectural feature used to heat and cool the building throughout the years. The thick walls retained heat in the winter and cool air in the summer.

The building had a stone support system where log joists sat across stone footings, with the floor built on top of that.

After construction crews cleared away the brick and dirt left inside the foundation walls, archaeologists dug an additional two to 12 inches into the ground and discovered such things as porcelain door knobs, slate pencils, inkwells, a piece of a slate writing board belonging to student Henry Pugsley, bone buttons, arms from a porcelain doll, marbles, a penny from 1913, a lantern lens, a plate from 1852, bottles, tumblers and numerous pieces of glass.

They also found four chicken wishbones on the west side of the excavated enclosure, as well as a variety of other chicken bones spread below what once was the floor. The bones apparently feel through the floorboards of the Social Hall, remnants of the building's banquet days.

"The building is 139 years old. It stood for 70 years and has been buried now for 69," Southworth said. "We have gone through the building's history just in the artifacts we've found."

According to the Encyclopedic History of the Church, "Dancing was the principal feature of the public gatherings in the Social Hall in the early days, the cotillion, minuet and other square dances being favored, as President Brigham Young opposed the waltz and round dances generally."

In 1853 the Deseret Dramatic Association was organized and performed in the Social Hall. Most theatrical productions were held in the Salt Lake Theatre after it opened in 1862.

Social Hall continued to be used for more than half a century after. It was used as a Mutual Improvement Association library and gymnasium, as a training school by the University of Utah, as a Red Cross station during World War I and by a performing group from the university. It was also the first site of LDS College.

"This is our history of where we came from, and we want to remember our ancestors' contributions to our lives," Southworth said. "They gave us our architecture and we want to preserve it."