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

The writer bragged a bit:

"There are larger hotels than the Utah, and there are those which cost more money, but there is not a hotel from the Atlantic to the Pacific which has the elegance, the comfort and the general beauty possessed by the Hotel Utah."

He was not alone. Hotel Monthly magazine chimed in: "No other hotel anywhere in the world has a more interesting or beautiful setting."

To the '30s

Hotel Utah's first really big-wig VIP, lodged logically in the $6-a-day Presidential Suite, was U.S. President William Howard Taft, in 1911.

President Taft was a rotund man. "Big Bill" weighed about 300 pounds, "but he was good-humored and friendly." The staff loved him, "The Hotel" notes. And he was ravenous. The book observes that for breakfast, in addition to broiled sirloin steak, plus bacon and eggs, he consumed cantaloupe, sliced peaches, potatoes mashed in cream, toast, rolls and coffee. The meal cost $2.15.

Hotel Utah became the place to meet, drawing civic groups, conventions and banquets. World War I curtailed travel and guests (occupancy dropped by 50 percent), but when it was over, the hotel added 100 rooms, and in 1925 another 64.

During the '20s, other U.S. presidents dropped by, Sibley notes: Woodrow Wilson promoting his League of Nations concept, Warren G. Harding en route to Alaska. Soon after their Salt Lake visits, Wilson suffered a stroke and Harding died. Sibley is not sure what to make of this.

And it became a party place. This was, after all, the Jazz Age, as well as the era of Prohibition.

Wallace Stegner, a former Utahn and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, described a youthful wing ding in his novel "Recapitulation." The story is entirely set in Salt Lake City, with many scenes at the Hotel Utah.

During a 1970s visit, Stegner's autobiographical main character, Bruce Mason, recalls that during his youth fraternities and classes would rent a room during a dance. Despite Prohibition, illicit booze would be on the premises, often "Green River red-eye."

Mason didn't drink — although not a Mormon, he was suffering from ulcers — but he'd gargle a swig so he would have "distinguished breath" when he returned to the party, Stegner wrote.

The Great Depression

In October 1929 the stock market crashed. The economic depression that followed would reverberate through the next decade. Hotel Utah profits precipitously declined, followed by annual losses for years to come, Arrington and Swinton observe. Nevertheless, the hotel vowed to maintain its staff — and ultimately expanded, adding a parking garage and new heating plant.

Giovanna Fortunata Furano Milner — Joanne Milner's mother and Tony Furano's daughter — is 82 now, but sitting amid the elegance that is the Joseph Smith Memorial Building's beautiful, column-lined lobby, she vividly recalls coming to the Hotel Utah "as far back as I can remember."

"This was home," she says.

The children would come to see their dad — and he was a Hotel Utah chef, an impressive role to them and to their friends — and a treat would be forthcoming. They would visit the kitchen, be taken aside and great gobs of ice cream came their way. An instant party.

"She loves being in the Hotel Utah building," her daughter says. Every visit generates a spectrum of feelings and emotions.

The Furano kids did not have to dress formally, of course. But other guests were required to meet stringent requirements — even if their name was Will Rogers, renowned as a cowboy-comic-wit-entertainer.

The hotel has been showcasing thematic displays in its lobby as part of the centennial celebration. A recent subject was women's dresses and attire, with an aside about Rogers.

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