SALT LAKE CITY — It's a symbol of church headquarters, and to church leaders it's even a miracle maker.
The mountainous, 28-story Church Office Building soars above North Temple Street, where it has been the nerve center for the tremendous growth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the nearly 35 years since its dedication.
"The Church Office Building has served very, very well for 35 years as kind of a symbol of church headquarters," Bishop H. David Burton, presiding bishop of the church, said in a recent interview with the Deseret News.
"What do you see when you come into the valley?" he said. "You certainly see most prominently the lovely Capitol building and some of the buildings downtown, but this building is very visible and very symbolic, that this is the international headquarters of the church. More than any other single thing, that established the international aspect of the church — here was the spot from which the church would go forward around the world. What has happened in the 35 years since has been a miracle."
The towering, 420-foot-high building, which houses the administrative support staff for the LDS Church, turns 35 on July 24, having been dedicated in 1975, though it was in partial use by 1972.
"It has served well, indeed," Bishop Burton said. "It has been a great blessing. I don't know if there are very many people around who could remember that period of time, but church entities were spread to virtually all four corners of this city — spread out and housed in 20 to 30 different locations. The opportunity of bringing together the operational aspects of the church into a single place brought a lot of synergism, a lot of efficiency — and it also brought a togetherness not formerly possible with people so spread out, particularly the General Authorities."
Although the Joseph Smith Memorial Building directly honors the first president of the church, the Church Office Building was originally envisioned to do so too — with a planned 38 floors, to commemorate the 38 years of Joseph Smith's life.
The 38 floors didn't materialize — for a variety of reasons — or the building would have soared more than 500 feet high.
So what happened to the additional 10 stories?
J. Howard Dunn, who was in charge of project development for the LDS Church's building committee, said in a 1962 Church News article that the plans were changed and eight stories were scrapped to better meet mechanical requirements of the engineering department. Heating and air conditioning for the skyscraper would best be handled in 14-story units, beginning above the first two floors. At that time, the high-rise was to be 30 stories. Later, two more stories were also eventually deleted from that plan.
The building height was reduced for two other reasons as well: First, construction began on the Granite Records Vault in Little Cottonwood Canyon in 1960 and reduced the downtown office building space needed; second, departing missionaries were to be housed elsewhere, again reducing required space.
The original building plans had called for housing space for up to 430 outgoing missionaries in the first few floors of the Church Office Building. As it turned out, missionaries were housed across the street to the north in an old school until the Missionary Training Center opened in Provo in 1978. (Missionaries were fed in the Church Office Building cafeteria in the early 1970s.)
The Church Office Building cost $31.4 million (the equivalent of about $185 million today). The new building led to the substantial widening of North Temple and State streets, too.
"The building is designed for immediate and future needs of the church," Mark B. Garff, chairman of the church building committee, told the Deseret News in 1969.
George Cannon Young designed the building, which was under design as early as 1961. The old Deseret Gymnasium, 37 E. South Temple, had to be relocated across the street to where the LDS Conference Center is now. Some LDS Business College buildings and other structures also had to be moved to make room.
Work on the three-story, underground, 1,400-space parking structure — Utah's largest building excavation at the time — began first in 1962 and was finished by about 1967. The extracted dirt, 250,000 cubic yards, provided fill material for original I-15 construction in Salt Lake County.
When completed, the Church Office Building also allowed the church to temporarily house all General Authorities there while doing a substantial remodel of the Church Administration Building, 47 E. South Temple.
"You'll remember when this (Church Office) Building was first built, this is the floor (the 18th Floor) the First Presidency occupied for several years," Bishop Burton recalled. "When this building was completed, the Administration Building was then torn apart and restructured as it currently is, and all the church departments formerly packed in that building like sardines were now over here or in other places, and it was time to make that truly the administrative nerve center of the church."
Bishop Burton continued: "My memory is that it was President Kimball's administration that occupied these three offices that the Presiding Bishopric now occupies, just as they were built 35 years ago. For the better part of two years, this was the home of the First Presidency."
Constructed prior to today's more stringent seismic codes, there's occasional debate of how the building would fare during a major earthquake.
"Building codes have changed some, and if we were to build this building again today, we'd build it probably the same way but probably with a little more stringent standards," Bishop Burton said. "It's good, it's served well, it's been a great asset to the church in every way. It has been a marvelous addition to church headquarters."
The building also remains a top Utah tourist attraction, with thousands each year who enjoy the commanding, bird's-eye view from the 26th floor observation deck — some 400 feet high.59 comments on this story
"Enjoy a magnificent view of the Wasatch mountain range on the east, the Oquirrh range to the west, and the state Capitol building (patterned after the nation's Capitol) to the north," reads a section on places to visit at lds.org. "A view from this observation deck is a great way to become oriented on your visit to Salt Lake City."
Visitors to the Church Office Building may also want to admire some of the first floor lobby's artwork.
Visitor hours year-round: MondayFriday 9 a.m.-4 p.m. and April through September 9 a.m.4:30 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m.2 p.m. April through September. Call 1-801-240-1000 for more visitor information.