SALT LAKE CITY — Neil Wilkinson has always had a special spot in his heart for the volunteer pianists in the lobby of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.
Many years before Wilkinson became the director of marketing and tourism for the LDS Church's Temple Square Hospitality with an office on the ninth floor, his family would travel from their home in British Columbia, Canada, to visit his mother, Lorraine Wilkinson, in Utah. She was a volunteer pianist at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.
"Thursdays were her day. She would sit at that piano in the lobby and play. If there were little kids, she would invite them over and ask, 'What's your favorite song?' She could play any song by ear. She was an accomplished pianist," Wilkinson said. "You can see that memory daily down there. You can watch these volunteers play the piano and see how others react to that beautiful music."
Whether it's a volunteer playing the piano or a choir singing in the mezzanine, listening to the music in the elegant lobby is one way the Joseph Smith Memorial Building has become what Wilkinson calls a "welcome center."
June marked 25 years since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints finished renovating the Hotel Utah and transformed it into the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, with space for a 500-seat theater, private event dining and ballrooms, administrative office space, a family history center, a chapel, restaurants with a view and even a special room for hosting foreign ambassadors, dignitaries, VIPs and other high-level visitors.
"The Joseph Smith Memorial Building has been an integral part of the Temple Square experience," Wilkinson said. "For the last 25 years it has served as a welcome center. When people are coming to see the Christmas lights or other activities, they always say, 'I'll meet you in the lobby of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.' It's that kind of beautiful welcome center that helps people feel at ease and comfortable when they come to Temple Square."
In 1987, the church closed the Hotel Utah, which had been in business since 1911. According to "Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley," by Sheri Dew, the building, a downtown landmark, was outdated and worn out. The church wanted out of the hotel business. When President Hinckley determined to renovate the structure for church purposes, the decision was met with harsh criticism, Dew wrote.
A prominent local business leader told Wilkinson he met with President Hinckley to talk him out of closing the Hotel Utah. President Hinckley promised the man he didn't need to worry and everything would work out, Wilkinson said.
The renovation was completed in 1993. Initially, the church was going to call the new structure the "Utah Building," but President Hinckley had second thoughts. After a "middle-of-the-night experience," the church leader realized the city had several monuments to Brigham Young, but little that memorialized Joseph Smith. The name was changed to the Joseph Smith Memorial Building and was solidified when a "heroic-sized" sculpture of the Prophet was found and placed in the lobby. The new building was dedicated on June 27, 1993, the 149th anniversary of the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Dew wrote.
Years later, Wilkinson was having dinner with the same business leader in The Garden Restaurant. "President Hinckley was right," the man told Wilkinson. "That was the right decision."
Brent Shingleton, who served as the president and CEO of Temple Square Hospitality for 20 years, agrees.
After the building opened in 1993, Shingleton remembers getting to work before 7 a.m. and finding lines of people around the block who had come to see the film "Legacy" in the Legacy Theater. People were also eager to take tours and eat in the restaurants.
"It was just booming," Shingleton said. "It was an exciting time."
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's visit with the First Presidency in 1996, Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young's wedding reception in 2000, the wedding reception of John Willard "Bill" Marriott Jr.'s daughter, and the 100-year Gala celebrating the Hotel Utah and Joseph Smith Memorial Building are among Shingleton's favorite memories over the years.
"It's a unique building, unlike any other building owned by the church, because it's really a social center for everybody," Shingleton said. "You can come there and have a lunch or dinner, see the movie, look up your family history or have a business or wedding event. The building is for everybody."
Shingleton continued: "You go there and there is a level of excitement all the time. You go there at Christmas time and it’s electric, just fun. President Hinckley promised the community it would be opened up and people would enjoy it. I think that’s true."
Speaking of the 100-year Gala, Wilkinson almost becomes emotional when he recalls Mormon Tabernacle Choir's performance that night.
"I've seen lots of school choirs and different things up there, but to have the Mormon Tabernacle Choir stand up there and circle the mezzanine and sing in the beautiful lobby is a memory I will never forget," Wilkinson said. "When you come here there is a great feeling of history and a great feeling of elegance, but a welcome elegance. Here is a special place where you can come and sit, reflect, feel welcome and enjoy this beautiful edifice. It’s kind of like it’s just for you."
Over the last two decades, one room in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building has served a special purpose.
The church has used the Ambassador Room on the 10th floor, with its stunning view of the Salt Lake Temple, the state capitol and other parts of the city, to host dinners and events for ambassadors, heads of state, national and local government officials, religious and business leaders, as well as other famous people.
Many VIP visitors are greeted in the lobby by Elder Don R. Clarke, who served as a General Authority Seventy before he was granted emeritus status in 2015, and his wife, Sister Mary Anne Clarke, who serve together as the directors of Church Hosting for the last three years.
In any given year, the Clarkes and other two other couples host over 1,500 visitors from more than 100 countries. In most cases, these notable people are in Utah for another purpose and make time to include a visit, Elder Clarke said.
"They find us, we don't find them," Elder Clarke said.
"Most of them don't know very much about the church," Sister Clarke said.
Depending on the guests' time, they visit Temple Square, Welfare Square, the Humanitarian Center, the Bishop's Central Storehouse and the Family History Library. Some of the guests are treated to lunch or dinner in the Ambassador Room, The Roof or The Garden Restaurants.
Almost without exception, the visit far exceeds the guests' expectations and leaves them with a positive impression of the church. They are impressed with the beauty, the peace and friendliness of the people the meet. They also praise the church's humanitarian and welfare programs, along with all it is doing to help the poor and alleviate suffering around the world.
One ambassador told the Clarkes: "What I read about you and what I feel are two different things."
Another dignitary remarked: "What they told me about you is not true. I've never seen anyone take care of the poor the way you do."
In 2016, an official from Latin America walking through the lobby asked if he could have his picture taken next to the 9-foot, 6-inch white marble statue of Joseph Smith. The Clarkes were touched to see the man pose in the same manner as the statue, even holding his new copy of the Book of Mormon the same way.
Shortly after his visit, the man sent a thank-you card to the Clarkes and promised to come again: "My experience passed from a social-political one to a spiritual one, and I value it greatly. I also learned more about life, thanks to you."
"This visit was a treasure for us," Elder Clarke wrote later. "This man has a special feeling in his heart for the church, and will continue to be a friend of the church in representing his country."
The VIP dinners in the Ambassador Room are highlighted by the International Children's Choir. With an ambassador, an LDS general authority and others seated at a long table in the middle of the room, children dressed in authentic, colorful costumes from the ambassador's respective country surround the table. They display that country's flag and sing in that country's language.
"Many of them (ambassadors) are in tears after they hear what the children are singing, a song like their national anthem, something that is very close to their hearts," Sister Clarke said. "They feel very welcome and appreciated, and that has to do with Heavenly Father’s spirit that is in his building as we take care of our guests. It’s holy ground."
These special performances, going strong for 21 years now, are a favorite among those with the choir, said Kathy Sorensen, the founder and director of the choir.
"There is just such a feeling in there that they can’t get anywhere else," Sorensen said. "I don’t know how to describe it, it’s this love and camaraderie, and wanting to let the people know that we love them and their country, and it comes across."1 comment on this story
Whether it's a foreign head of state or local family, Elder Clarke hopes all guests leave the Joseph Smith Memorial Building and Temple Square with a better understanding of the LDS Church, its belief in Jesus Christ and the goodness of its people; a greater appreciation of the pioneer sacrifice; the central importance of families; and a general feeling of peace.
"We want them to understand Jesus Christ and what we believe. That’s what makes us better. We want things to represent him. We do things because of him," Elder Clarke said. "We want them to feel peace. As they walk in the shadows of the temple, this is holy ground. We’ve had ambassadors go on to Temple Square and say 'there is such peace here.'"