For thousands of visitors throughout most of the 20th century, the Hotel Utah was an ultimate haven for guests, an elegant white wedding cake of a building with restaurants serving savory dishes, comfortable rooms and a great chandelier, plush lobby and mezzanine.
The 10-story structure at the northeast corner of Main and South Temple streets dates back to 1911, making it among the oldest surviving commercial buildings downtown.
As one of the world's grand hotels, it was a temporary home-away-from-home to U.S. presidents and movie stars, performers, Supreme Court justices and at least one astronaut. Three presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lived there: Presidents David O. McKay, Spencer W. Kimball and Ezra Taft Benson.
Fond recollections remain in the hearts of many who stayed in the hotel, visited it or worked there.
In the 1960s, a young woman was first exposed to that strange pink soup, cold borscht made from beets with a dollop of sour cream, in the downstairs restaurant. Visiting dignitaries met reporters for interviews in that restaurant, including Russell Peterson, former governor of Delaware and then-chief of the National Audubon Society. In the restaurant, an aquarium large enough to house a pod of killer whales fascinated diners.
A rooftop restaurant offered spectacular views of downtown, Temple Square and the Salt Lake Valley, while concerts were performed downstairs.
Thousands of couples spent their honeymoon in the venerable inn. It was a place where young people worked and interviewed for jobs or dropped in just to lounge in the plush easy chairs and watch the bustle of visitors going in and out through the lobby's revolving glass doors. Waiting to check out, or just relaxing, guests read newspapers in the great entrance room. College students waited tables or washed dishes in the restaurants.
In years past, a circular counter served soup and salad to downtown office workers who popped in for lunch.
Throughout its long history, Hotel Utah hosted a plethora of formal banquets, with many an important speech delivered in the mezzanine meeting rooms.
Some Utahns, however, remember it as a bastion of segregation that allowed black employees but no black guests. Even famed perfomers in town to present programs to huge audiences were barred from the hotel's elevator. That racism was overcome decades ago and the hotel was fully integrated.
A remodeling project about 35 years ago added a ballroom and two new wings.
In 1987 it was decommissioned as a hotel and a great surge of renovating and updating began. Reopening in 1993, the structure began a new life as the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.
Then-President Gordon B. Hinckley of the LDS Church said the name came into his mind because "the Lord wanted this building named the Joseph Smith Memorial Building."
Today, the LDS Church maintains restaurants and offices in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Yearly Christmas displays enchant visitors. Banquets may be arranged there, a chapel is available downstairs, and the building's Legacy Theater has regular free showings of the movie "Joseph Smith, the Prophet of the Restoration."
A marble statue of Joseph Smith, more than 9 feet tall, graces the lobby.
As a 1993 Deseret News article reported, "breathtaking," "exquisite" and "inspiring" were breathed when the building was reopened. "Visitors to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building are likely to be touched with nostalgia immediately upon entrance to the lobby," it added. "Efforts were made by architects and artisans to remain as loyal as possible to the Hotel Utah's original interior design."
For a time, while remodeling work was carried out at the LDS Church's Family History Library, 35 N. West Temple, some of the library's resources were shifted to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building and patrons roamed the stacks, doing genealogical research.
Photographs from the Deseret News archives, selected by Utah history expert Ronald Fox of North Salt Lake, document the story of the Hotel Utah. Besides those in the print editions, other photos are posted on the newspaper's Web site.
Sources for this article include recollections by several Utahns with long memories, articles in the Deseret News and the paper's Mormon Times, an article by Heidi Swinton in the Utah History Encyclopedia and history-oriented Internet sites.
Anyone with memories of the Hotel Utah is invited to share them on the Deseret News Internet site.