A look inside the building where prophets have worked for 100 years

It is one of the most recognizable structures in the Church and might be considered the nerve center of Church headquarters, where the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have their offices.

But notwithstanding its import, the Church Administration Building, completed a century ago this year, was never dedicated until 1974, following extensive remodeling.

On the occasion of this centennial year for the building, the Church News was invited to tour and photograph its interior. Photos are featured herewith.

“From the time it was opened under the administration of President Joseph F. Smith, it represented the best the Church had to offer,” reflected Reid L. Neilson, Assistant Church Historian and Recorder. “It was new, it was stable, it was strong.”

Neilson said the building “gave a sense of permanence, of stability, of longevity, a nod to the future, of hope for generations to come.”

Alluding to Doctrine and Covenants 94:3-12, Neilson said the building fulfilled an 1833 commandment that there be “a house for the presidency.”

“The idea of a centralized place where the First Presidency would have its office dates all the way back to the Kirtland period,” he said. “Because of their proverty, they weren’t able to realize it, and it took the administration of Joseph F. Smith 84 years later to fulfill that original commandment.”

Emily Utt, historic sites curator for the Church History Department, said one of the structures erected in Salt Lake City in 1852 was a governor’s office, which in 1853 became the Church president’s office for Brigham Young. “That was Church headquarters until 1917.”

Before that time, she said, “every member of the Twelve would need to find his own office somewhere. Some of them would rent space in one of the office buildings on Main Street; some would just turn their front parlor into an office. But they were spread out.”

By 1884, the idea of having a complex of buildings where the Church Administration Building now stands was considered. It would have included offices, meeting rooms and places for public gatherings, but would have necessitated the razing of the Beehive House and Lion House.

“I’m so grateful they didn’t,” Neilson said, “but after the turn of the century they decided they needed to bring a number of functions together.”

In a general conference talk in April 1917, President Joseph F. Smith, while talking about the completion of what is today the Church Administration Building, spoke of those early days: “As you know, for the last 60 odd years, the Church has had its headquarters in the little old buidlings, which were erected by President Brigham Young, away back in the early [18]50s, and which at the time served the purpose very well, and have continued to do so until now. Still, they have become worn with age and not quite in keeping with the progress of things.”

In a way, the new building was a reflection of President Smith and the times in which he lived, said Utt, the historic sites curator. “He was really trying to bring the Church into the modern age,” she said. “He was not a first-generation Mormon; he was technically second-generation, born and raised in the Church, and trying to get the Church into the 20th century.”

Designed by Joseph Don Carlos Young, Brigham Young’s son and the Church’s architect who designed much of the Salt Lake Temple interior, the building reflects the neo-classical theme, which Utt said “was all the rage in the early 20th century.”

The Utah State Capitol was built in that design, as were some of the older financial institutions in downtown Salt Lake City.

“Neo-classical was stately, it was dignified, it was permanent,” Utt said. “It was meant to evoke all of the beauties of what a democratic, governmental, bank people could do. So the Church Administration Building has Greek columns and pediments and those other neo-classical elements.”

It was constructed of the rock commonly known as temple granite and quarried from the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon in the mountains east of the Salt Lake Valley, the same stone from which was constructed the Salt Lake Temple, the federal building in downtown Salt Lake City and, much later, the LDS Conference Center.

“I like the idea,” Neilson said, “that you can look at the temple and the Church Administration Building near it, and see that they are built from the same granite. It gives the message that it’s the same priesthood that brings these two buildings together.”

Local materials were also used in the interior insofar as possible, Utt said. Birdseye marble from the town of Thistle in central Utah was used, “probably one of the most famous stones to come out of Utah. Several fireplaces in that building are made of this Birdseye marble. It’s stately, elegant and what you expect in a corporate office of that period.”

Construction commenced in 1913 and by February 1917, the building was ready for occupation, first by the Genealogical Society and the Church Historian’s Office, which occupied the top level of the five-story structure.

As distinctive as it was, it was not dedicated upon completion. That was for a combination of reasons, Neilson said. One was the influenza epidemic of 1917, which forced the cancellation of public gatherings, including general conference. Other reasons were the mourning by President Smith for the death of his son and the Church president’s own declining health.

Not until 1974 would the building finally be dedicated. That year, President Spencer W. Kimball wanted to rededicate the building following renovations. But researchers in the Church’s Historical Department informed him that a first dedication had never been held.

“So President Kimball said, ‘Well now’s the time to finally dedicate the building,’” Nielson related.

Known as the Church Office Building until an adjacent 26-story high-rise was completed in 1972 and given that name, the Church Administration Building “was the first effort to bring all of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency into one building,” Utt said.

“So every member of the Twelve had a corner office with the administrative offices and areas in between,” Utt explained.

That remains true today, with the Twelve occupying offices on the second through the fourth floors.

Twenty-one other General Authorities have offices in the building, including the seven members of the Presidency of the Seventy and other General Authority Seventies.

On the main level are the offices of President Thomas S. Monson and his two counselors in the First Presidency, President Henry B. Eyring and President Dieter F. Uchtdorf.

In the past, the First Presidency has held their meetings in President Monson’s office. These days, the two counselors meet in the First Presidency Council Room.

Also, on the first Wednesday of most months, the First Presidency meets in that room with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the Presidency of the Seventy and the Presiding Bishopric.

“It’s a report meeting, where they talk about who has traveled where, what they found and what they learned,” explained Brook P. Hales, secretary to the First Presidency.

“Through the years, whenever they’ve had a VIP visitor, he or she would come here,” Brother Hales said. Guests have included such former United States presidents as George Bush Sr., George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan; former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; numerous other heads of state from many lands; and celebrities who performed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Brother Hales pointed out the circassion walnut, with its distinctive butterfly pattern, that comprises the paneling in the room.

Paintings by John Hafen hang in the council room and elsewhere. He is one of the original art missionaries that the Church sent to Paris, France, for training so they could paint temple murals and other art works.

Chandeliers in the room are original from 1917, Brother Hales said, and have a similar appearance to those that hang in the main hall of the Salt Lake Temple.

The adjacent Onyx Room is named for the onyx stone that characterizes it, obtained near Manti, Utah, and used extensively in the temple in that city.

In that room is a small cabinet displaying a few of the numerous gifts that have been brought to the First Presidency by visitors from all over the world.

Perhaps the most memorable feature on the main level is the Pillar Room, with its distinctive marble pillars. An immense Persian rug, 20 feet by 40 feet covers the floor.

The rug dates back to 1974, when the building was remodeled. According to a notarized account by Douglas C. Miles, the rug was provided by his friend David Koshaba, a rug dealer who came to Salt Lake City from Iran (Persia). Miles and Sister Belle Spafford, Relief Society general president, went to Koshaba’s store and viewed the rug he had located in San Francisco. Miles wrote that the rug had originally been woven for a palace in Bulgaria before finding its way to the United States.

The rug was purchased at what Miles remembers as $13,000, with Relief Society funds that were scheduled to be transferred to the Church’s general fund. The rest of the cost was a donation by the rug dealer.

In color, the rug complements the pinkish hue of the marble in the room, and its cypress tree motif is consistent with the tree-of-life theology in the Book of Mormon, Brother Hales said. The weaving is such that the rug takes on a different appearance depending upon the angle from which it is viewed.

It is in the Pillar Room where the bodies of deceased Church presidents have lain in state for public viewing prior to their funerals. This was the tradition until the death of President Gordon B. Hinckley, whose viewing was held in the Conference Center.

Also on the main level is the West Board Room, where the General Authority Seventies meet on most Thursdays and where the Church’s Board of Education, Budget Committee and other committees meet. The room is set up electronically for video conferencing.

It is in the West Board Room where socials are customarily held to observe the birthdays of the Church president and his counselors.

In addition to elevators, a grand staircase leads to the upper floors where the other Brethren have their offices. Lobbies on each floor greet the visitor stepping off the elevator. On the second-floor lobby is a small portrait of President Smith, the first Church president to occupy the new building.

Located on one of the upper floors are a council room, newly refurbished with a new table, where the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles meet at least twice a week.

A nondescript but important part of the building are the two identical rooms adjacent to each other, each containing two large computer screens. In each room a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles sits with an aid from the Missionary Department.

These rooms are where assignments for new missionaries are made before the calls are sent to the missionaries. On one screen, the missionary’s application appears; on the other screen are missions where assignments need to be made. Under inspiration, the apostle makes his decision for each missionary whose application he views.

These days the rooms are used almost daily because so many missionaries are being called and assigned.

For a hundred years, the Church Administration Building has been a home base for prophets, seers and revelators. In the early 20th century it helped the Church of Jesus Christ come out of obscurity into the modern age. Today, it helps the Church meet the demands placed on a growing global faith charged with preparing the world for the coming of Jesus Christ in glory.