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Wharton: Touring the Utah State Capitol Building

Published May 28, 2013 8:06 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

When you think about beautiful historic buildings in Salt Lake City, the list might have fewer than 10 sites. The Mormon Tabernacle, old Hansen Planetarium building, the Cathedral of the Madeleine, the Governor's Mansion, the Masonic Temple and a few mansions and churches on South Temple come to mind.

Three real gems are the Salt Lake City LDS Temple, Salt Lake City Hall and, of course, the Utah Capitol.

Of those, the Capitol sits on perhaps the most majestic perch. Its striking dome dominates the northern skyline in the Salt Lake Valley and is easily seen from the air or from many viewpoints downtown. It is a magnet for travelers, especially those who "collect" state capitol buildings when on the road.

Over the years, I've visited the building mainly when covering the state Legislature. When lawmakers are in session, the Capitol is a busy place, filled with lobbyists, citizens and schoolchildren who create a loud buzz that seems to echo off the top of the 165-foot-high dome.

Yet I've seldom taken the time to actually learn about the building itself.

So on a quiet spring day, with the help of Sara Howard, manager of public relations and visitor services for the State Capitol Preservation Board, and volunteer docent Lilly Christensen, I decided to take the time to learn more about Utah's Capitol.

Docents such as Christensen lead free public tours of the building at the top of the hour Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Though there is a free self-guided tour available, going with a docent not only offers historical insights but also provides access to the House of Representatives, Senate and historic Supreme Court.

The Capitol was financed through the use of an obscure and seldom-enforced law that stated that the stock of a Utah company was subject to a 5 percent tax. When railroad tycoon Edward Harriman died in September 1909, it was discovered that he owned $15,980,937 in shares of the Union Pacific Railroad, which was incorporated in Utah. His widow, Mary, elected not to contest the law in court and paid $798,546 to Utah. Then-Gov. William Spry and the Utah Legislature decided to spend $750,000 of that windfall as well as a $1 million bond to build the Capitol.

Utah architect Richard K.A. Kletting won the vote to design the building on March 13, 1912. Construction began in December, 16 years after Utah attained statehood, and the building was completed in 1916 with modern touches such as electricity, elevators and reinforced concrete.

Our tour started with a quick look at a topographical map of Utah and a glance at the Hall of Governors with portraits of each Utah governor beginning with Brigham Young. Lilly showed us a copy of the Liberty Bell, one of which can be seen in every state capitol building in America. There was also a copy of the Utah Constitution.

From there, it was time to visit the House of Representatives Gallery. We gazed upon a painting of Brigham Young at the temple grounds that guards the speaker's chair as well as paintings of the Engen brothers skiing and the discovery of Great Salt Lake. The view to the west out of what Christensen said were bulletproof windows was amazing. She showed off symbols that were part of the architectures including beehives, a lion head, five-pointed stars pointing to heaven and X-shaped sheaves of wheat. Some of the room was decorated with Utah birds-eye marble.

The coolest thing about the Senate were the historic roll-top desks each of the 29 senators uses during the session. That and the onyx from Tooele.

From a balcony, we gazed at several paintings of Utah scenes that surround the middle portion of the dome. These were part of the Public Works of Art Program formed in 1934 to put artists to work during the Great Depression. They were painted at the Utah Fairpark and then placed in the dome.

The tour continued to the Supreme Court room, a largely ceremonial place used for movies and occasionally by the state's five Supreme Court justices, who usually meet at the Matheson Courthouse.

We walked down the beautiful marble grand staircase to the main room, where we gazed at a painting of flying seagulls at the top of the dome and several historic statues representing science and technology, land and community, art and education and immigration and settlement. Each included an adult spirit with a child.

The Gold Room is the official state reception room, so named because of the use of 22-karat yellow gold leafing. Handmade carpets, fireplaces and turn-of-the century furniture fill the room.

The tour concluded with a visit to the Governor's Suite, a ceremonial office used by the governor to sign bills, hold news conferences and display gifts to the state.

I continued on by myself, fascinated by a display on movies made in Utah and surprised at the variety of Utah products found in a small Capitol store. My morning ended by looking at two of the four Capitol Lions on the outside. I later learned the four lions are named Patience, Fortitude, Honor and Integrity.

Sometimes we take what we see every day for granted. Taking an hour to tour a historic building such as Utah's Capitol can offer a whole different perspective.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribtomwharton