SALT LAKE CITY — It was a birthday party 100 years in the making. It was "a unique event, a joyous occasion," as Brent Shingleton, president and CEO of Temple Square Hospitality, put it, celebrating the life and spirit of a building that "has served and continues to serve this community like no other building in Salt Lake."
Hotel Utah, which opened its doors in 1911 and is now known as the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, was honored and feted in a special birthday party Thursday evening, a party that included remarks and a ribbon cutting by LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson; music, including a rendition of "Happy Birthday," by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; documentary clips of memories of the building; and even birthday cupcakes.
There was a time, noted President Monson, when the building had perhaps filled its usefulness as a hotel, and a debate arose as to whether or not the building should be torn down.
"Those who wanted it preserved were driven by the power of memory," he said. The building figures in some way in the memories of everyone who has come in contact with it, and he is no exception. One of President Monson's treasured memories was the night he took his date, Frances, to dinner there just before he went into the Navy in World War II. "I told her that I felt like I was lucky and that I would come back. She thought that would be a good thing."
Over the years, President Monson said, the building has served so many people. "The great and the humble all enjoyed being here."
Taking big scissors in hand, President Monson snipped the ribbon to open a special exhibit the building will have on display through the first of October. A highlight is a shiny black 1912 Cadillac — just the kind that may have once driven up to Hotel Utah's door. There are dishes and linens and other building artifacts. And, in word and photo, a lot of memories of another era: cutouts of some of the famous people who stayed in the hotel; a wall of special moments in the lives of people who were touched by the building.
Shingleton shared a very special memory of his own.
"Who would have thought," he said, "that a boy who grew up near here and who once camped out in this lobby to see his heroes, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird board a bus for the NCAA finals that were held in Salt Lake City that year, would now be at the podium for an occasion like this."
It was a night for memories, but also a night for honoring heroes: not only those who have visited and stayed in the building, but also those who have worked so hard over the years to make the building what it is today. And especially, the one the building is now named for.
As President Monson entered the lobby, he took a moment to salute the white marble statue of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith that now graces the west side. That salute was repeated by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in a rendition of "Praise To The Man," that resounded reverentially from the mezzanine.
It was also, as the choir also sang, "a grand night for singing," and also for "falling, falling in love."
The building means so much to so many, said Shingleton. "I've been totally overwhelmed and happy at how much support we've received from everyone. So many people have shared their love of this building."
It has been a privilege, added President Monson, "to be associated with such a historic treasure. This building came within an inch of being torn down, but I like to think the Lord intervened, that he wanted us to take care of the Grand Old Lady, just to give her a new dress."