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."
The lobby, which for many people is their first encounter with the building, has been restored to its former glory, with marble-like pillars, stained glass ceiling, huge crystal chandelier and views of the balcony-like mezzanine all designed to create a welcoming atmosphere. A lot of tour groups from China, Japan, Germany and other places around the world will walk in, says Wilkinson, "and they go absolutely silent for a few minutes as they look around. Then they start taking pictures."
The tour of the building is often an optional part of their tour, "and those that come take great delight in telling the others what they missed," he says. "Tour guides tell us that they get on the bus and talk about it all the way to Yellowstone."
A dominant feature of the lobby is the 9-foot, 6-inch white carrera marble statue of the building's namesake. "When they decided to change the name, we started looking for something we could use that would tie us to Joseph Smith," Shingleton says. "We looked at paintings, historic memorabilia, thought about putting in a display table, but everything looked so small in the lobby."
Then they came upon a crate that had come from the visitors center in Independence, Mo., and as they dug away the packing, there was the statue. "President (Thomas S.) Monson came to look at it and thought it was just what we needed, so President Hinckley came to look. 'Yes,' he said, 'that's just what we need,'" Shingleton says. "So then we had to decide where to put it. We had a guy stand on a ladder so he was the same height as the statue and moved it all around the lobby."
President Hinckley finally decided it should go not in the center, but at the side, says Shingleton. "That's where he thought Joseph would have liked to be — off at the side looking at everything that was going on."
They also decided not to set it off with ropes and stanchions. "President Hinckley decided it could be cleaned; that was better than barriers." It gets a lot of love, he says. "People like to take their pictures by it; we've even had kids hugging the legs and hanging on the arms."
In the west end of the lobby is the Nauvoo Cafe, which was added a few years ago when the Lion House was closed for renovations. It proved so popular that it was kept. Simple but tasty meals are served from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Across the hall is the Empire Room, one of the most elegant of the banquet rooms.
The mezzanine is home to a chapel, which accommodates two LDS wards. It is also used for other church meetings, seminars and gatherings.
On the other side of the mezzanine are more banquet facilities, including the President's Room, which contains portraits of all the church presidents.
On the north side of the main floor is the FamilySearch Center, which is, says Shingleton, "a great starting place for family history. A lot of subscription-only websites are made available here." A display on Ellis Island is among the things that have been added in recent years.
Legacy Theater is also part of the back area. Lines are not as long as when it first opened, but it still features eight free shows a day. Currently playing is a new version of the Joseph Smith film created for the bicentennial of the Prophet's birth. It's different enough, says Shingleton, that everyone will want see it again.
With three restaurants — Nauvoo Cafe on the first floor and The Garden and The Roof on the 10th floor — and 11 banquet rooms, food preparation is a big part of life at the building. On any given day, they cater between 18 and 26 events. Weddings account for the largest share of the banquet business, but business, civic and other groups meet there daily.
With a conveyor belt system, and depending upon the dishes on the plate, the banquet crew can plate 200 meals in 15-20 minutes, says banquet chef Don Sanchez.
Most of the food preparation takes place in the 10th-floor kitchens. But there is a pastry bakery in the basement. Another bakery, on the ninth floor, is where, starting at 2 a.m. each day, Lion House Rolls are made. They are still rolled by hand, says Wilkinson, and then baked 800 at a time in a huge walk-in oven. "Thousands of rolls are made here every week."
One of the most-famous of the banquet sites is the Ambassador Room on the 10th floor, where dignitaries and VIPs from all over the world are entertained. When church presidents lived in the Hotel Utah — President Ezra Taft Benson was the last one to do so — this was part of their suite, says Shingleton.
When British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher came to call, she was hosted in the Ambassador Room, where tables were set up in a large rectangle and the center was filled with flowers like an English Garden. "She was totally taken aback, totally delighted," Shingleton says.
Everyone talks about the famous people who stayed in the Hotel Utah, adds Wilkinson, "but there's an endless list of famous people who have been hosted here since it became the JSMB. We've had representatives from 90-plus countries as well as a lot of prominent Americans."
From top to bottom, the JSMB is a hive of activity. If you count the elevator equipment and storage rooms with old records on the top two levels, there are 12 floors in all, plus the basement. There, the area that once housed the old Coffee Shop, with its famous trout pond, is now an employee lounge. Also in the basement are a branch of the Church Distribution office and the church photo studio, among other things.
Floors 2 though 6 accommodate two church missions. The Family and Church History Mission currently has 340 full-time missionaries from all over the country, as well as 763 service missionaries from the Wasatch Front, who work there anywhere from one to five days a week, sorting, cataloging and extracting information from records.
The Hosting Mission, on the second floor, currently has 1,400 volunteers who work with greeting and accommodating visitors.
The second floor is also home to the church's Public Affairs department.
There are a variety of offices scattered throughout the building: business offices, the catering office, the bridal-planning center, an in-house florist shop and more.
Currently, the seventh and eighth floor are vacant. "They give us room to grow," says Shingleton. Because, he notes, the Joseph Smith Memorial Building is here for the long haul and is a forward-moving, vibrant place. The building may be 100 years old, but the future is bright.
"What is happening now is the greatest thing that has happened to this building," says Wilkinson. "It blesses the local community and it blesses the international community." People will always be welcome here, Wilkinson says, whether they come by the busload or as individuals. "They can meet and greet and partake of the spirit of the building."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company