Quantcast

Hotel Utah, 100 years of history

From the Hotel Utah to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building

Published: Saturday, July 4 2015 6:57 p.m. MDT

Exterior of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building for a special section on Hotel Utah's centennial Wednesday, May 18, 2011, above Salt Lake City, Utah.  (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Exterior of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building for a special section on Hotel Utah's centennial Wednesday, May 18, 2011, above Salt Lake City, Utah. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

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.

A look down to the lobby of the old Hotel Utah with a photo taken July 13, 1974. (Deseret News Archives) A look down to the lobby of the old Hotel Utah with a photo taken July 13, 1974. (Deseret News Archives)

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.

Hotel Utah, Oct. 23, 1945. (Deseret News Archives) Hotel Utah, Oct. 23, 1945. (Deseret News Archives)

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.

Saratoga Springs resident Ted Gallegos, then a teenager, admired a photograph of George Harrison he saw in a newspaper ad in advance of a Utah concert in 1974. He created a detailed portrait based upon the image and managed to get the ex-Beatle to sign it at the Hotel Utah. (Deseret News Archives) Saratoga Springs resident Ted Gallegos, then a teenager, admired a photograph of George Harrison he saw in a newspaper ad in advance of a Utah concert in 1974. He created a detailed portrait based upon the image and managed to get the ex-Beatle to sign it at the Hotel Utah. (Deseret News Archives)

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.

A fan of George Harrison, in 1974 young Utahn Ted Gallegos created an impressive pencil drawing of the former Beatle then drew another of himself, wearing a similar hat, with the earlier drawing of Harrison seemingly looking over his shoulder approvingly. The large-scale self-portrait won first prize at the Utah State Fair, Gallegos says.  (Deseret News Archives) A fan of George Harrison, in 1974 young Utahn Ted Gallegos created an impressive pencil drawing of the former Beatle then drew another of himself, wearing a similar hat, with the earlier drawing of Harrison seemingly looking over his shoulder approvingly. The large-scale self-portrait won first prize at the Utah State Fair, Gallegos says. (Deseret News Archives)

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.

In conversation, Sibley breaks it all down into increments of decades — which isn't a bad way to go about it.

Before the hotel

For most of the 19th century and until 1909, the Deseret News occupied the corner of Main and South Temple streets, where the Hotel Utah now towers.

The LDS Church's Deseret Store and tithing offices were on the first floor, and the News staff and printing plant occupied the second and third floors of the adobe-brick building, Wendell J. Ashton wrote in "Voice of the West," his 1950 centennial history of the newspaper. Surrounding the complex was a high cobblestone wall, plastered with poster advertisements.

Returning to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building brings back a host of wonderful memories for Giovanna Fortunata Furano Milner, left, and her daughter Joanne Milner. Their father and grandfather, Tony Furano, was a gifted Hotel Utah chef most of his life.  (Deseret News) Returning to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building brings back a host of wonderful memories for Giovanna Fortunata Furano Milner, left, and her daughter Joanne Milner. Their father and grandfather, Tony Furano, was a gifted Hotel Utah chef most of his life. (Deseret News)

One common misconception about the hotel is that it was built and always owned by the LDS Church alone. In fact, the idea for the grand edifice arose in 1909 after industrialist Samuel Newhouse, who was not a Mormon, urged rapprochement between the city's usually warring Mormon and non-Mormon business factions.

Days later, according to "The Hotel," a citizens group composed of Jews, Protestants and Mormons came together, proposed the hotel and took the idea to LDS Church President Joseph F. Smith. He was enthusiastic, and quickly approved the exciting plan.

The church would be the majority investor, but others would have shares as well. These ranged from mining entrepreneur Daniel C. Jackling of the Utah Copper Co. (who would eventually live in a luxurious seven-room apartment in the hotel) to Newhouse himself (who was planning his own high-rise hotel on 400 South, an area in which he also built the era's near-twin Boston and Newhouse skyscrapers).

To Giovanna Fortunata Furano Milner, left, and her daughter Joanne Milner, the Hotel Utah/Joseph Smith Memorial Building is part of the family. (Deseret News) To Giovanna Fortunata Furano Milner, left, and her daughter Joanne Milner, the Hotel Utah/Joseph Smith Memorial Building is part of the family. (Deseret News)

For the building's location, the initiators wanted the important crossroads site on Main Street and South Temple, east of Temple Square. President Smith said OK to that, too, envisioning a " 'splendid edifice' ten stories high," Arrington and Swinton wrote in "The Hotel."

As detailed in leather-bound minute books in the possession of Neil Wilkinson, Temple Square Hospitality's marketing director, the Utah Hotel Co. was subsequently organized, with $1.5 million in initial capital. "The duration of this corporation shall be one hundred (100) years," the minutes decreed. Joseph F. Smith was named the first president, a post subsequently held by generations of LDS Church leaders. The managing Hotel Utah Operating Co. followed in early 1911.

Construction work began lickety-split.

The Hotel Utah opened 100 years ago. No longer a hotel, it is now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. (Tom Smart, Deseret News) The Hotel Utah opened 100 years ago. No longer a hotel, it is now the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

1911

With few delays — but including two ultimately ineffectual bombings by radical steelworkers — the handsome Hotel Utah was born, and on June 9, 1911, the Deseret Evening News reported:

"The Hotel Utah opened its doors strictly on time, in accordance with the announcement made for months past, at eight o'clock this morning. From that hour till ten, the dining room was occupied by the regular guests which have been registering the last few days. While groups of workmen are still in evidence in various parts of the house, notably in the big grill room below, which will not be ready for some days yet, and on other parts of the interior, the big hostelry can be said to be fully ready to receive its guests, and from now on it will take a leading part in the commercial and social life of the community."

 (Deseret News Archives) (Deseret News Archives)

Mr. Marcus Harris, "the well-known St. Louis wool merchant," was the first guest to sign in. Dramatic actress Ethel Barrymore had rooms reserved.

The next day the newspaper led its social and culture section with two pages about the grand opening, under the heralding headline, "The Magnificent Hotel Utah."

The main story described the edifice as "a veritable palace from the dome with its myriad electric lights to the cellar, where is the most wonderful kitchen in the world.

"The dazzling white exterior of the structure and its artistic decorations (of) terra cotta relief give a general idea of the magnificence of the interior, where art and quiet richness abound."

The writer bragged a bit:

The Hotel Utah juts against the sky in an undated early photo. Near the hotel are auto, trolley and horse and buggy. (Deseret News Archives) The Hotel Utah juts against the sky in an undated early photo. Near the hotel are auto, trolley and horse and buggy. (Deseret News Archives)

"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.

Antonio (Tony) Furano a saucier/chef at the Hotel Utah. (Provided by Joanne Milner) (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Antonio (Tony) Furano a saucier/chef at the Hotel Utah. (Provided by Joanne Milner) (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

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.

Tony Furano posing with the large kettles he used to make sauces and other dishes, in mass quantities, for the Hotel Utah restaurants. (Deseret News Archives) Tony Furano posing with the large kettles he used to make sauces and other dishes, in mass quantities, for the Hotel Utah restaurants. (Deseret News Archives)

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."

Antonio (Tony) Furano, his wife Matilda, and three of their young children. Tony was a saucier/chef at the Hotel Utah.  (Provided by Joanne Milner) (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Antonio (Tony) Furano, his wife Matilda, and three of their young children. Tony was a saucier/chef at the Hotel Utah. (Provided by Joanne Milner) (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

"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.

One shows Antonio (Tony) Furano in 1919, about when he joined the Hotel Utah staff, of which he was a member for over 40 years. (Provided by Joanne Milner) (Tom Smart, Deseret News) One shows Antonio (Tony) Furano in 1919, about when he joined the Hotel Utah staff, of which he was a member for over 40 years. (Provided by Joanne Milner) (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

It seems that one evening the humorist approached the Empire Room for dinner … but was refused entry. Will Rogers! He was not wearing a coat and tie. Rogers borrowed them from the front desk, a display placard noted, and "returned to the Empire Room to dine in style."

The wartime '40s

Although World War I adversely affected the hotel, the same was not true of World War II. Except for difficulties caused by fluctuating manpower, due to military volunteers and call-ups, and some supply shortages, Hotel Utah was busier than ever.

"The Hotel" notes that Salt Lake City was a travel and rail crossroads between Denver and the West Coast during the war. Several Utah inland bases were either established or expanded during the 1940s, including Hill Field (later Hill Air Force Base); Defense Depot Ogden; Clearfield Naval Supply Depot; Wendover Field and the Wendover Bombing and Gunnery Range; and Tooele Ordnance Depot (later Tooele Army Depot).

Still, the war did bring hard times, unjustly so in too-many cases. Japanese — immigrants and U.S. citizens alike — were interned in camps, some at Topaz near Delta. Those with German and Italian names, too, were looked upon with suspicion.

In 1942 the Salt Lake Telegram, an evening newspaper, decided to publish a series of stories about Americans born in countries with which the United States was then at war — and Italian-American Tony Furano was one of them.

His granddaughter, Joanne Milner, is a former Utah legislator and Salt Lake City Council member who is now Mayor Ralph Becker's education partnership coordinator. In her late teens, she became fascinated with her genealogy, and with family stories in particular. This was during the 1970s "Roots" phenomenon, sparked by writer Alex Haley, who Milner met while working at Deseret Book.

"I was getting books out, and he's signing them. He says, 'So, Joanne, what's your story? What about your family? Where are they from?'"

Her grandfather became a focus of Milner's resulting inquiry.

Antonio Furano was born in 1896 in Savuto Di Cleto, Cosenza, in Calabria — near the toe of Italy's peninsular boot. In 1913, at age 17, he came to America, where his father and older brother were working in coal mines near Helper, sending money home. His father eventually returned to Italy. Both he and his brother, refugees of the terrible 1918 influenza epidemic, were wandering the West when his brother died of the disease in San Francisco.

Tony returned to Salt Lake City and wrangled a job as a chicken butcher at the Hotel Utah, Milner learned. He was "more of an artist than a miner," the Telegram reporter wrote in 1942. In 1919 Furano had "traded the pick and shovel for the mixing bowl and skillet."

"He found he had the sense of taste," his grandddaughter says. "It's like an artist: It's a gift." And in his cooking, it wasn't a cup of this and a cup of that, Milner observes. Furano was filling vast kettles to serve scores of people, and seasoning to taste.

The trained culinary artisans he worked for — such as Chef Nick Theodore, Chef Jack Kohler and Chef Gerard Bueneman — recognized this. "He was taught by the masters," and rose from the ranks to become Hotel Utah's king of sauces, its "saucier," Milner says. Brueneman said of Furano, "He seasoned his soups with herbs, true, but he added devotion and pride."

He also had become an American citizen.

"We have no ties to Italy," Furano told the reporter in 1942, in a brief story accompanied by a photo of his wife, Matilda, and four children, including young Giovanna, Milner's mother. "I'm glad we're here and not over there. … America is my country — it has been since I came over here, and Italy means nothing to me — I'm 100 per cent American."

Opulent '50s and '60s

At least, that's what Arrington and Swinton call this era in their history.

The two decades "had a different culture," says Sibley. Hotel Utah had become a destination for shoppers. Utahns from smaller towns, say Spanish Fork or American Fork, would head to "the big city" at Christmas time to go shopping. They would rent a room for a day.

"They could meet there, take a nap, eat supper," the BYU documentary maker says. "Some would stay overnight. They would have the department stores send packages to their rooms."

Because of its midtown location, Hotel Utah was also popular with those attending the LDS Church's general conference sessions twice each year.

The hotel was changing with the times, although like much of the nation it was slow, and occasionally inconsistent, in accepting black guests. Concert contralto Marian Anderson was given a room, but had to use a freight elevator; fellow singer Harry Belafonte found it necessary to go to the Newhouse, although it previously had the same policies, according to a Utah State Historical Society website about blacks in Utah history.

In 1958 Utah Hotel Co. opened the 150-unit Hotel Utah Motor Lodge nearby on North Temple and West Temple streets, with amenities such as a modern swimming pool, an exhibit area, an auditorium and a restaurant.

In the old days, Hotel Utah's open-air Roof Garden had awnings, pots and planters "and the smell of freshly watered plants," Stegner wrote in "Recapitulation." In 1961 it transformed into the enclosed, year-round Sky Room restaurant. The temple grounds, then as now, were arrayed below, where one could dine and look out the window "while the sky began its phases from gray to red, red to purple, purple to saffron," he wrote.

The modernization continued in 1967. "New chandeliers, new furniture, new carpets, new draperies, new lighting," fresh new colors — and air conditioning everywhere, crowed an advertisement in the Deseret News.

Bigger and better

Ted Gallegos and the Hotel Utah both saw their worlds get just a little bit bigger in the 1970s.

The hotel grew, quite literally, by one-third. An expansion that began in 1974 extended east and west wings on the building's north end, adding 160 new guest rooms, a grand ballroom, a spacious exhibit area, smaller meeting rooms and another restaurant.

Everything possible was done to make the changes look seamless on the outside, with new glazed white brick and terra cotta facing replicating their gleaming predecessors from 1911, "just like a dentist matches the enamel on your teeth," consultant and former resident manager Phyllis L. Steorts told a reporter.

The hotel's publicity theme for the project: "Getting better with age."

In January 1978 "the grande dame" was named to the National Register of Historic Places, for, as the state-prepared nomination form says, its uniqueness, "architectural beauty, historic location, and tradition make it the best known hotel in Utah."

Gallegos, of course, is the teen who finagled an introduction to ex-Beatle George Harrison. His story involves art, planning and inspiration, not unlike that of the Hotel Utah itself.

In November 1974, as the hotel expansion was getting under way, Harrison came to town for a concert at the Salt Palace with friends Eric Clapton, Ravi Shankar and Billy Preston, Gallegos recalls. The young Utahn noticed an intriguing new image of Harrison in a full-page newpaper ad.

"The picture was in the ad: long hair, a straw hat. I thought, wow, this is unique, and thought I should draw that," Gallegos says in a room in his Saratoga Springs house. The room, a mini-museum, brims with Beatles-related objects: Richenbacker, Gretsch and Hofner guitars and instruments; a drum set; amplifiers. The young artist had also become a musician, over the years. And this is in addition to the Beatle-related records, CDs, trading cards, photographs and figurines he has collected.

He had a month before the concert, "so I did this drawing," pointing to a larger-than-life pencil drawing — dimensions: 31 by 40 inches on mat board. George Harrison in black and white, with long hair and a straw hat.

It is truly a remarkable, and impressively detailed, artwork.

When the day of the concert arrived, 17-year-old Gallegos took it to the Salt Palace, hoping to meet Harrison. No one knew where the star was. No one had a clue. Most discouraged Gallegos from trying to meet his favorite Beatle, the one he admires most for "his music, his singing, his songs."

"I went home, all sad, laying down. I thought: I'll never meet a Beatle, but at least I'll see him in concert."

Then resolve kicked in: Gallegos decided to try one more time "or I'll regret it."

This time someone gave him a name: Denis O'Brien, Harrison's manager. He went to the Hotel Utah, thinking George might be staying there — and in fact saw keyboardist Billy Preston emerge. A chauffeur verified that Harrison was indeed at the hotel. A new friend from India, "Gabs," who Gallegos met on the street, helped him write a note to O'Brien.

Later, Gallegos felt a tap on the shoulder. "I'm Denis O'Brien," a man said. "He says, 'Let me see what you have. That's really good.'" O'Brien wondered: If Harrison signs the portrait, will Gallegos be inclined to sell it? At first Gallegos says "Yes!" thinking the ex-Beatle might buy it, but O'Brien wants to know if the artist will sell it at all. Gallegos says "No!"

O'Brien took the art board and returned with it signed.

"Very Good Ted," it says near the bottom. "Love from George Harrison. Hare' Krishna," with several religious symbols and writing below.

"In a couple of minutes, the elevator opened, and there he was." George Harrison, all alone, smaller than Gallegos expected, i.e., about the teen's own size. "He said, 'I want to talk to you. Are you the artist? Did you do that?'"

Afterward, Gallegos amazed, Harrison walked off toward the Hotel Utah lobby's west exit, to Main Street, got in a light green mobile home, sat in the drivers seat — and drove off.

The lesson learned, Gallegos says today:

"Nothing is impossible."

All Things Must Pass

That, of course, is the title of George Harrison's landmark 1970 album. It rings true in song, in life and for the Hotel Utah era.

In 1980 the Hotel Utah Motor Inn closed. In 1984 the Utah Hotel Co. passed management of the Hotel Utah to the Westin Hotels organization. The hotel celebrated its 75th birthday in 1986, with media fanfare, the book "The Hotel" and high hopes.

However, in 1987 the LDS Church closed the 76-year-old hotel, planning new things for a new era. The structure itself was saved, and following adaptive renovation reopened in 1993 as the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

Rob Sibley was recently coming back from the airport when he noticed the forest of Salt Lake skyscrapers; the iconic gray Salt Lake LDS Temple; the lower, domed Salt Lake Tabernacle.

But the Hotel Utah's bright-white gleam amidst the cityscape concentrated his eye. Maybe the hotel's centennial and his own KBYU documentary project had something to do with Sibley's refreshed perspective.

"The building," he says, "really does stand out."

Additional articles in the Rediscovering Deseret series:

  • Old age among myths of Daughters of Utah Pioneers membership

  • Pioneer Memorial Museum: Salt Lake's treasure house of artifacts and stories is a 'secret' everyone can share

  • The area of Deseret started huge, got smaller as it became Utah

  • Shifting shape: Salt Lake City is a living metropolis

  • Living history: The past comes to life at Antelope Island's Fielding Garr Ranch

  • Escape to another time at Lagoon's Pioneer Village

  • Life in 'Old Deseret' — This Is the Place Heritage Park carries on LDS pioneer traditions

  • Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company