Joseph Smith Memorial Building is still a place to mark special occasions

Published: Tuesday, June 7 2011 4:00 p.m. MDT

Detail from the old coffee house, now the employee lounge, for a special section on Hotel Utah's centennial Wednesday, May 18, 2011, above Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

An American Tours International group of German tourists had come to take a brief tour of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, and as part of the tour spent 20 minutes or so in the FamilySearch Center. When it came time to go to the restaurant for lunch, one man remained at one of the stations.

"I went over to him, and he had tears running down his face," says Neil Wilkinson, director of marketing for Temple Square Hospitality, which oversees that aspect of what goes on in the JSMB. "He told me in broken English that he never thought he would get on a bus in New York and travel across the country and find his grandfather. That was a life-changing moment for him."

It's the kind of thing that happens regularly in the building, not only in the FamilySearch Center, but in The Roof restaurant, where young men often bring their sweethearts for a marriage proposal. And in the many banquet rooms, where companies, groups, organizations and families gather for good food and camaraderie. And in the elegant lobby of the building, where a peaceful ambience shuts away the noise and turmoil of the world.

"This is a place to come to celebrate the special events in people's lives," says Brent Shingleton, president and CEO of Temple Square Hospitality. "It is a gathering place once again for everybody."

The building, which was once the grand Hotel Utah, "is still a vigorous part of the hospitality of Salt Lake City," adds Wilkinson. "We get visitors from all over the world, international and domestic, who still come here looking for traditional Mormon hospitality that the city is famous for, that this building has been famous for. It's not something that we've had to invent. It's been here for 100 years, and it is still here now."

People are welcome here, Wilkinson says, and whether they stay for a few minutes or several hours, the spirit of the building has the power to touch their lives.

Hotel Utah closed in 1987. Shingleton, who was there at the time, remembers seeing the Empire Room piled high with mattresses that had been removed from the beds as the hotel was dismantled.

Some people worried that the building would be torn down, "and that would have made more sense from a purely financial standpoint," he says. As it was, "we had to install new foundations and footings. Many of the floors were gutted and rebuilt." There are still places — such as the kitchens — where they have to cope with less-than-ideal working spaces. "But from a historical and good-will standpoint, the building had to be saved," he says. And it was.

It was going to be called The Utah building, says Shingleton. They even had food-related items printed with that name and ready to go.

"Then President (Gordon B.) Hinckley had an impression that it needed to be changed, that the building needed to be named in honor of the church's founder, Joseph Smith," Shingleton says.

The Joseph Smith Memorial Building opened in 1993. Gone, Shingleton says, were the coffee and tea. Nor is there wine. "Most Europeans like wine with their meals, but we are not licensed," says Wilkinson. "That means we have to stand on our food alone. But we get lots of letters from people who tell us that of all the meals they had in places from New York to San Francisco, the best meal of the entire crossing was the one they had at The Roof."

They are proud to carry the name of Joseph Smith, who was also famous for his hospitality. They are also appreciative of the spirit the name gives the building. You know, Shingleton says, that good things will happen here.

One of his favorite things is the view of the Salt Lake Temple that you get from the 10th floor. "No matter how many times I come up here, I pause to look at it. It's a view you get nowhere else."

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere