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'Grand Dame' turns 100 Former Hotel Utah still elegant

Gala held at Joseph Smith Memorial Building of today

It was known in its day as the "Grand Dame of Hotels" in Salt Lake City and the Intermountain West.

Hotel Utah/Joseph Smith Memorial Building exterior has been a Salt Lake City icon since 1911. In 1974, work began to expand the north end.
Hotel Utah/Joseph Smith Memorial Building exterior has been a Salt Lake City icon since 1911. In 1974, work began to expand the north end. Photo: Tom Smart, Deseret News

"The Hotel Utah was, from the first, described as 'a 10-story glittering white palace,' " said President Thomas S. Monson at a June 10 gala to commemorate the centennial of the hotel, which, renewed and re-purposed, serves ecclesiastical and social functions today as the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

"United States President William Howard Taft, who stayed here a few weeks after its completion, said, 'It's a hotel that ranks with any in the world ... a great and imposing structure.' I like those descriptions," the Church president declared as he addressed a dinner audience that filled the building's elegant lobby and several adjacent dining halls, virtually identical to the way they appeared when it was the Hotel Utah.

Pres. Thomas S. Monson cuts ribbon for celebration, assisted by Mark Willes, left, Deseret Management Corp., and Brent Shingleton, Temple Square Hospitality.
Pres. Thomas S. Monson cuts ribbon for celebration, assisted by Mark Willes, left, Deseret Management Corp., and Brent Shingleton, Temple Square Hospitality. Photo: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Befitting the hotel's reputation as a community treasure, not just a Church property, the program also featured addresses from Utah Gov. Gary H. Herbert, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker and Zions Bank CEO Scott Anderson. The Cy Schmidt Band provided swing-era background music and the Beehive Statesmen barbershop chorus sang a medley of early 20th century standards.

The lobby was graced with an assortment of memorabilia from the hotel's glory days. Hearkening back to the hotel's birth a century ago, the exhibits included a 1911 Model T Ford (painted in the original red) and 1912 Cadillac roadster.

Lining gallery above lobby of Joseph Smith Memorial Building, Tabernacle Choir members sing for centennial ribbon cutting.
Lining gallery above lobby of Joseph Smith Memorial Building, Tabernacle Choir members sing for centennial ribbon cutting. Photo: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

The previous evening, when President Monson cut a ribbon opening the celebration, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir lined the gallery above the lobby and serenaded the wall-to-wall crowd below with "It's a Grand Night for Singing." After singing "Happy Birthday" to the building, the choir sang the hymn "Praise to the Man" in honor of the Prophet Joseph Smith for whom the building was renamed.

"From the windows of my office in the Church Administration Building, I can look out and see this beautiful 'white palace,' which has been a part of the skyline of Salt Lake City my entire life," President Monson reflected in his address at the gala. "It has stood through two world wars, through the Depression, and through numerous other world conflicts.

Jeanette Herbert, left, Harriet Uchtdorf, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the First Presidency and Gov. Gary R. Herbert converse on occasion of centennial gala for the Hotel Utah/Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Like some other guests, Gov. and Mrs. Herbert were in 1911 period dress.
Jeanette Herbert, left, Harriet Uchtdorf, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the First Presidency and Gov. Gary R. Herbert converse on occasion of centennial gala for the Hotel Utah/Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Like some other guests, Gov. and Mrs. Herbert were in 1911 period dress. Photo: Ravell Call, Deseret News

"It was here in the early days of radio and television. It's almost as old as the oldest automobiles. It has housed presidents of the country and presidents of the Church. In 1992 it withstood an F2 rated tornado."

He referred to "celebrities too numerous to mention" who have stayed at the hotel and countless galas and banquets held there.

Guests enjoy dinner at a gala as part of 100th birthday celebration of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.
Guests enjoy dinner at a gala as part of 100th birthday celebration of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Photo: Ravell Call, Deseret News

"The dining experience in the restaurants was unmatched anywhere in the city," President Monson said to the invited guests, who themselves had just enjoyed a five-course dinner of Hotel Utah borscht, smoked duck salad, beef tenderloin and lobster tail, reminiscent of the hotel's days as a dining mecca.

He reminisced about taking his future wife, Frances Johnson, to the hotel for a date prior to his departure to serve in the U.S. Navy in the summer of 1945.

Hostesses distribute birthday cake to attendees at ribbon cutting program in lobby of Joseph Smith Memorial Building.
Hostesses distribute birthday cake to attendees at ribbon cutting program in lobby of Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

He traced its recent history, speaking of the time in the mid-1980s when it became difficult to compete with first-rate chain hotels that had come to the city and when it also needed renovation.

"On March 12, 1987, the First Presidency, through the Presiding Bishop, made the announcement that the Hotel Utah would be closed later that year," President Monson recounted. "Although the interior would eventually be altered and updated and made over for a different purpose, the structure itself would continue to stand as it always had."

He then turned to personal remembrances, recalling the occasion when the Salvation Army asked if it could purchase an LDS meetinghouse in Salt Lake City that the Church no longer needed.

Tabernacle Choir sings in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building at a ribbon cutting for Hotel Utah centennial celebration.
Tabernacle Choir sings in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building at a ribbon cutting for Hotel Utah centennial celebration. Photo: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

"Since the Salvation Army filled a need in our society with people whom we didn't necessarily reach, my suggestion was that the Church make a gift to them of the lot and the building," President Monson recalled. President Ezra Taft Benson, then Church president, and others of the Brethren approved of the suggestion.

"So that we could give the gift in tiptop condition, before turning it over to the Salvation Army we put a new roof on the building and did some painting in the interior," he said. "We left them the piano, the organ and the pews. And then, because the Hotel Utah was being closed, we obtained for them silverware and dishes as well as tables and chairs from the hotel. What better use could they serve than feeding many of the hungry and homeless in our community?"

The structure was dedicated as the Joseph Smith Memorial Building on Sunday, June 27, 1993, he said. "The large statue of the Prophet Joseph Smith was placed in the lobby. What was once the Lafayette Ballroom became a chapel for the members of the Church who lived in the area."

Church leaders the following evening viewed the film "Legacy," the first cinematic offering to be shown in the building's new giant-screen theater, he recalled.

Workers serve slices of commemorative cake to spectators attending ribbon cutting.
Workers serve slices of commemorative cake to spectators attending ribbon cutting. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

"Now, 100 years have passed since the gala opening of the magnificent Hotel Utah in June of 1911," he said. "Today this building is, if anything, even more beautiful. Banquets and wedding receptions still take place. The Roof Restaurant is still one of Salt Lake City's finest. In addition, some offices of the Church are housed here, worship services are held, and Church movies are shown. The view of the Salt Lake Temple from any of the west windows is still as breathtaking as ever.

"In short this 'glittering white palace,' which still graces Salt Lake City's skyline, is as vibrant as ever. How grateful I am for this structure — a constant in my life."

Gov. Herbert in his address mentioned that all U.S. presidents from William Howard Taft to Ronald Reagan, along with celebrities, actors and musicians had stayed at the hotel, which he called an "Icon" and a "gathering place" for Salt Lake City.

The governor said when Bob Hope stayed at the hotel, he arrived late in the evening and, as was his custom, ordered a steak dinner. Disinclined to tell the famous actor/comedian that room service was closed, the hotel manager ordered a dinner from one of the city's all-night cafes and served it up on the hotel's china with silver and linens. Mr. Hope declared the steak "the best he'd ever eaten," not knowing that it had not been prepared at the hotel.

With crowds filling lobby to capacity, President Thomas S. Monson cuts ribbon opening celebration.
With crowds filling lobby to capacity, President Thomas S. Monson cuts ribbon opening celebration. Photo: Photo by R. Scott Lloyd

Mayor Becker spoke of the genesis of the hotel when, in 1909, a group of prominent citizens in the community identified a need for a good hotel in the upper end of Main Street. They wrote a letter to Church President Joseph F. Smith with their recommendations. Envisioned was a hotel that would be "a social center, a place to entertain important visitors to the city, a symbol of Mormon and non-Mormon cooperation and evidence of Salt Lake City's coming of age in the modern economy of the nation," the mayor said, quoting historians Leonard Arrington and Heidi Swinton.

With the passing of a century, Salt Lake City is again "coming of age" with a rising downtown skyline and new Main Street businesses and services, the mayor said, including the Church's City Creek commercial development that is nearing completion.

CEO Anderson of Zions Bank reflected on the connection between the hotel and the bank, which is located directly across the street. The bank moved there in 1889, he said, when the Central Hotel was constructed and the bank occupied the first three levels. In 1960, the Kennecott Building was constructed on the spot, eventually to be remodeled as the bank's building. It was at the Hotel Utah that a meeting was held in 1960 to announce the Church's sale of its interest in Zions Bank to Roy Simmons and his partners.

On April 28, 1909, the bank's board of directors approved a $25,000 investment in the forthcoming Hotel Utah, he said. "Zions is proud that the Hotel Utah over the last hundred years has become such a central part of this community, and now as the Joseph Smith building it continues to create the memories that have made the Hotel Utah so dear to so many of us."

Conducting the program, Deseret Management Corp. president and CEO Mark Willes said the original intent of the hotel was to be a community asset. "By design, it was not owned exclusively by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yes, they were the major shareholder, but on purpose other corporations, other business people in the community were asked to and decided to become shareholders so that it would become a community asset. It was intended to be a place that would cross all barriers: religious, cultural, political and anything else, for those who lived in the community and those who would come to Salt Lake City and visit."

The three guest speakers symbolized the first dinner held at the hotel, "when they had as speakers prominent businessmen, the mayor of Salt Lake City, the governor of the state of Utah and the president of the Church," Brother Willes said.

A film produced by BYU and featuring memories of the building by several individuals was shown in the building's Legacy Theater on each day of the celebration. Among memories highlighted were these:

Suzanne Nelson spoke of the tornado that tore through the city on Aug. 11, 1999, when her wedding luncheon was held in the Palmyra Room of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

Joanne Milner spoke of the career of her grandfather, Antonio Furano, who began working at the hotel in 1919 and became a prominent chef, the "head saucier." He served all guests, famous and not-so-famous, with dignity and distinction.

Hotel Utah/Joseph Smith Memorial Building exterior has been a Salt Lake City icon since 1911. In 1974, work began to expand the north end.
Hotel Utah/Joseph Smith Memorial Building exterior has been a Salt Lake City icon since 1911. In 1974, work began to expand the north end. Photo: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Marvin Furse, former hotel bellman, spoke of the visit to the hotel in 1971 of Elvis Presley, who performed at the nearby Salt Palace. As he departed, the rock-and-roll icon waved to him from a limousine. "I thought about all the fans who would have just died to have been there in my place, but it was too late: 'Elvis had left the building.' "

Nancy Frampton, daughter of "Uncle Roscoe" Grover, spoke of her father who in 1954 had a children's show on KSL-TV. One of the main sponsors of the program was Hotel Utah, and Uncle Roscoe would entertain children of dining guests by drawing cartoon sketches for them, including "Tubby," one of the goldfish in the aquarium at the hotel.

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