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Whatever happened to ... the Hotel Utah?

First Published      Last Updated Jan 12 2016 09:22 am

Editor's note: In this regular series, The Tribune explores the once-favorite places of Utahns, from restaurants to recreation to retail.

The Hotel Utah — closed 28 years ago for conversion into the LDS Church's Joseph Smith Memorial Building — was Salt Lake City's first world-class hotel, an unusual one that would not serve alcohol because of its church ownership in later years.

It wasn't always that way.

It once had a bar, which led the church's president to explain why in an LDS General Conference address (where he also urged members not to imbibe).

And in what may be a surprise for Utahns now, the hotel began its long life as a symbol of Mormon and non-Mormon cooperation — and was initially jointly owned by members of those often-sparring groups.

The hotel's story began in 1909, when civic and church leaders worried about Salt Lake City's lack of a truly fine hotel for important visitors — and believed creating such a building could show that the city was coming of age.

"The Hotel," a book by Leonard Arrington and Heidi Swinton, says several Mormons, Jews, Roman Catholics and Protestants formed a citizens group and decided to ask LDS leaders to allow the construction of such a hotel just to the east of Temple Square.

They proposed using a corner that held the church's tithing office and its Deseret News. The corner previously was home to the church's mint (used when it issued its own coins in pioneer times), and was the first home of the territorial fair.

John S. McCormick, in his book, "The Historic Buildings of Downtown Salt Lake City," said the church approved the use of the site in part to ensure "that as Salt Lake City grew, the area around Temple Square remained a vital part of the downtown area."

The citizens group proposed that the church provide the land and additional funds to own 50 percent of the hotel stock ($500,000), while cooperating businessmen would provide the other half of the initial $1 million in ownership. They proposed raising the other $1 million needed to build the hotel by issuing bonds.

Joseph F. Smith, then the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told local newspapers that he was enthusiastic about the project.

Besides the LDS Church, some other early hotel shareholders included prominent non-Mormon banker W.S. McCormick and Daniel C. Jackling — president of the Utah Copper Co. and a principal non-Mormon entrepreneur, who later would live in a suite in the hotel with his family.

Even mining magnate Samuel Newhouse — who then planned and would later build his own hotel on Main Street — bought $5,000 worth of stock to show goodwill.

A toast to cooperation • The success of the hotel venture, Arrington and Swinton wrote, inspired similar cooperative efforts.

For example, Rotary International earlier had turned down a request for a club in Utah, believing that Mormons and non-Mormons could not work together. The hotel changed that, and the new Salt Lake Rotary Club was formed in 1912 — and met weekly in the hotel. Rotary held its international convention there in 1919.

The 10-story hotel opened on June 8, 1911. Hotel Monthly, a national publication, described it as "a noble white palace … centered in a setting of beautiful gardens. No other hotel anywhere in the world has a more interesting or beautiful setting, or more self-contained features for pleasure and comfort."

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