Utah's State Capitol a longstanding symbol of democracy

By Chase Larson

Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Feb. 6 2011 11:25 p.m. MST

At left, the state Capitol is shown being built in 1914. At right, the state Capitol undergoes restoration in April of 2006.

Photo courtesy of Ronald L. Fox, Photo courtesy of Ronald L. Fox

Set against the backdrop of snow-capped Wasatch and Oquirrh mountains looming high above Utah's most populated metropolis on 40 well-kept acres, majestically lies the State Capitol building — a symbol of American democracy and pride for a state with rocky beginnings.

With the state legislature now in its 45-day, 59th session to debate immigration, healthcare and gun control, photo historian Ron Fox has dug through the Deseret News archives to provide a look back at the history of the edifice that now houses the state's large-scale decision making.

Under the leadership of Brigham Young — roughly from 1858 to 1896 — there was a struggle between Mormons and non-Mormons regarding Utah gaining statehood. Finally after achieving such a status in 1896, the people lacked a capitol.

In an article written for the Deseret Evening News on Jan. 10, 1907, John C. Cutler, Utah's second governor, expressed his desire for a state capitol to commemorate and elevate Utah's public achievements.

"With material wealth the envy of all neighbors; with schools the admiration of the world; with churches innumerable pointing their spires heavenward; with farms and factories and flocks and herds, and mines and mills pouring forth their wealth, the future glory of Utah is assured," Cutler said. "Now let that glory be crowned by the erection of a beautiful, stately, commodious capitol on the splendid site so wisely chosen for it. It will be both a fitting outgrowth of the splendid past and a potent element in the glorious future of our own dear Utah."

Perhaps surprising to some, Utah's current capitol isn't its first. The original building designated as such was the Territorial Statehouse, built in 1855 in Fillmore with the design of Truman O. Angell — head designer of the Salt Lake City Temple — under the direction of Brigham Young. However, only one wing of the statehouse — and one full session of the Legislature — was completed before relocating to Salt Lake City.

After the unsuccessful attempt to construct a thriving meetingplace in Fillmore, thought to be a potentially booming city, the newly-formed state sought funding for a permanent capitol building.

In a stroke of good fortune, money came in 1911 when the state collected $798,546 in inheritance tax from wealthy Union Pacific Railroad president E.H. Harriman, allowing Utah to secure a one million dollar bond and construction of the capitol to begin.

Known to some as the "Dean of Utah Architecture," Richard Kletting was tapped in a statewide competition to be the impending state capitol's designer. After breaking ground back in 1909, construction was finally underway three years later on December 12, 1912 with its first use unfinished in 1915 and completion in 1916.

In the "Utah History Encyclopedia," historian Geraldine H. Clayton described some elements of Kletting's structure.

"The exterior of Kletting's capitol design is similar to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.," Clayton said. "The Utah building perhaps achieves some of its grandeur from the condensation of the same elements — the porticos, pediments, and monumental columns-onto the simple, but carefully proportioned, rectangle."

The 404-foot long and 240-foot wide statehouse is steeped in pride, rife with the Utah's industrious beehive symbol as well as two monuments — to the West and East respectively — commemorating the 388 Utah natives who died in the Vietnam War and 500 Mormons who marched in the Mormon Battalion.

The Capitol's interior is centered on a 165-foot tall rotunda watched over by the statued likenesses of some notable including Brigham Young and TV inventor Philo T. Farnsworth. The building is flanked by the Supreme Court to the East and the House of Representatives on the West.

In "Temples of Democracy," a 1976 book critiquing American state capitols, Henry Russell Hitchcock and William Seale praised Kletting's work.

"His plan was the simplest and most dramatic," they wrote. "Wide but not deep, its dome and its continuous range of colossal Corinthian columns echoed the national capitol. There was so little incidental decoration that the general effect was more strictly Classical than Renaissance ... Surveying the Great Salt Lake and ranges of mountains that fade to pink and violet in the setting sun, the Utah Capitol combines ... simplicity with ... [a] taste for the spectacular."

In 2008 — after nearly 92 years since its first dedication — the Capitol building concluded restorations and seismic upgrades and celebrated with a program mirroring that of the original ceremony, now almost a century ago, with a speech by Gov. Jon Huntsman, dedicatory prayer by Gordon B. Hinckley and music by the Mormon Tabernacle choir among others.

"It is important that we always remember this is more than a building," said David Hart, chief architect over the reconstruction. "It is a special place. It is — "the people's house. It is a temple to democracy. It is the physical manifestation of our constitution and our rights."

e-mail: clarson@desnews.com

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