Hotel Utah, 100 years of history

From the Hotel Utah to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building

By Ray Boren

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, June 7 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

In a seeming nod to Utah's state symbol — the beehive — downtown Salt Lake City is industriously buzzing. Skeletons of steel rise along Main Street. A newspaper headline declares that the metropolitan makeover "will eloquently illustrate" the community's development and growth.

No, the story and photographs of strapping new buildings are not trumpeting the ambitious City Creek Center in 2011.

The paper is the long-departed Salt Lake Herald-Republican, and the webs of steel include the Kearns Building; the Newhouse Hotel; and what is to be the most elegant of them all, Hotel Utah. The palatial hostelry is to debut in 1911 on the prime northeast corner of Main and South Temple streets — topped, appropriately enough, by a massive beehive.

And so it did, one century ago.

On June 9, 1911, the Deseret Evening News proclaimed:

"Utah Hotel Opens in Blaze of Splendor."

Today the creamy-white structure, sheathed in enameled brick and terra cotta, is no longer a hotel, though such it was for 76 memory-stuffed years.

It is the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. In 1993 it was rechristened in honor of the Mormon church founder, having been repurposed for various functions, from administrative offices to gathering places, by its owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The LDS landmark is a key component of the expanded Temple Square campus.

And it continues to generate memories.

For Salt Lake resident Joanne Milner, whose grandfather Antonio "Tony" Furano was a Hotel Utah chef for more than four decades, it continues to hold "a special place in my heart." It represents, Milner says, what she has discovered to be the foundations of her life: faith, family, friends — and, of course, food.

For Ted Gallegos, the Hotel Utah was a place where life lessons were learned. In 1974, when Gallegos was 17 years old, he created a striking, large-scale pencil drawing of George Harrison. The shy teen encountered the former Beatle, who was in town for a concert. Harrison signed the artwork at the hotel.

The experience "gave me the confidence to do anything," Gallegos says today.

For others who have been commenting on the anniversary Web site www.hotelutah100.com and its Facebook sibling, the Hotel Utah/Joseph Smith Memorial Building recalls dining and dances, dates and proposals, jobs and meetings.

And baby steps.

As Kathryn Mortensen Harmer related in just such a post, "My father, A. Russell Mortensen, was born on 30 January 1911 and took his FIRST STEP about a year later in the beautiful lobby of the Hotel Utah."

For Rob Sibley of BYU Broadcasting, the commemoration is a chance to delve into a century of stories like these. He's developing a TV documentary called … well, he doesn't have a title yet.

He likes "The Grande Dame," but to capture the Hotel Utah's grace and 100 years of elegance, you need to be sure to pronounce it in the French manner. Sometimes that doesn't come through right away, Sibley acknowledges. And with this classy lady, you don't want to sound like a character in a Damon Runyon story.

There's always "The Hotel," signifying its central place in Salt Lake City's — and Utah's — social and cultural history, and the title of a 75th-anniversary history of the then-Westin Hotel Utah by Leonard J. Arrington and Heidi S. Swinton.

But Sibley's is a work in progress, due to be completed by year's end, pledge-drive time at KBYU. So he has time to come up with a title and is deep into his research. He's following the stories — and people — of the Hotel Utah and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

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