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Hotel Utah's past, future will blend in its new role

By JoAnn Jacobson-Wells
Deseret News, 31 August 1987, page B1

The Westin Hotel Utah – a grand dame of hotels, a landmark, a traveler's haven for the past 76 years – will cease operations as a hotel Monday at midnight.

But the white palace will continue to serve the community; it is going through a transformation, entering a new era.

The building's owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has repeatedly assured Salt Lakers that, with the change in the building's function, the hotel won't lose any of its architectural elegance and dignity. Its illustrious history, as rich as the crystal chandelier that gleams in its baroque lobby, will be preserved as it becomes a church office building.

The renovation, likely to take several years, will also provide an additional place of worship for the increasing numbers of church members in new apartments and condominiums in downtown Salt Lake City.

Parts of the hotel, particularly the lobby, will continue to be open to the public.

Memories of the elegant “lady” -- draped in French tapestry and adorned with baronial oak, European-style ornamental plaster and Italian-style marble columns – will remain part of the lore of downtown Salt Lake City.

The hotel – which some wanted to name the Smithsonian, after LDS Church founder Joseph Smith – opened in 1911. At a 1909 meeting that included former LDS Church President Heber J. Grant, other Mormons, and non-Mormons, the name Hotel Utah was chosen.

Upon the hotel's opening 76 years ago, the Deseret News heralded, “From the Atlantic to the Pacific, there are bigger and more expensive hotels, but none more splendid, more elegant or more comfortable.”

Since it opened in 1911, every president of the United States has been a guest there. So have kings, celebrities, church leaders, conference goers, skiers and visitors from around the world who were attracted to the opulent hotel, located in the business and cultural hub of Salt Lake City.

The rooms included the finest facilities of the times. The furniture was mahogany of the Nelson-Matter make. The beds were about evenly divided between wood and brass. On the dressers were decorated Syracuse china trays, water pitchers and candle sticks.

The lobby – exhibiting a lustrous, imported marble floor and a 14-foot chandelier – became among both travelers and Utahns for its beauty and warmth.

The finery was maintained through extensive renovations in 1935, 1961, 1967 and 1972.

After still another expansion and renovation program was completed in September 1976, the American Automobile Association awarded the Hotel Utah a Five Diamond “Renowned” rating in its tour book.

In 1979, it was designated as a Utah Historic Site on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1982, it became a member of the Preferred Hotels Worldwide Association, placing it in the same class as the Hotel Le Bristol in Paris, the Dorchester in London and the Excelsior Hotel Ernst in Cologne.

In 1984, management of the historic hotel was taken over by the Seattle-based Westin Hotels group and it was renamed the Westin Hotel Utah. With the transfer in management, the hotel joined the Westing St. Francis in San Francisco, the Plaza in New York City and 50 other hotels operated by Westin. Utahns were assured that Westin would operate the hotel in the tradition of quality for which it is justly famous.

Many of the Hotel Utah's longtime employees were retained as was its reputation as a first-class hotel.

Few people really knew the extent of its deterioration until March 12 when church officials announced that hotel would be closed.

Not surprisingly, the announced closure prompted an outpouring of public sentiment. Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce officials said they received more telephone calls on that issue than on any other single action in the past 15 years.

Mirroring widespread public and private sentiment, members of the Citizens for the Preservation of Hotel Utah and the Utah Heritage Foundation initiated a save-the-hotel campaign, complete with hug-ins of the hotel (yes, supporters actually hugged the building), button sales, billboards and a petition drive that generated more than 12,000 signatures in a five-week period.

When church officials announced in June that they decided to close the hotel because it had lost millions of dollars and felt it was inappropriate to subsidize the operations with members' tithe funds, the foundation proposed keeping it open with the help of a $30 million bond backed by private investors.

However the proposal to renovate and preserve the hotel was quietly dropped by the foundation, apparently because of lack of interest. The church has already begun the first phases of the exterior repair and restoration.

Work began last week on the restoration of the terra cotta exterior, the lobby skylight and art glass ceiling, beehive and roof over the central core of the hotel.

For the most part, Utahns now seem resigned to the hotel's new change.

Many people have expressed relief that the church never considered tearing down the building, the only other alternative when studies showed that even the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars to upgrade it to adequate status, would not guarantee its economic viability.

Converting it to other uses, officials said, emerged as the only feasible way to preserve the beautiful landmark as a viable structure.

This doesn't mean there isn't sadness in her passing.

Three hours before the building closes as a hotel Monday night, there will be a candlelight vigil of mourning people, who will gather in front of the hotel to sing “Auld Lang Syne.”

President Gordon B. Hinckley, first counselor in the church's First President, will bid his personal farewell to the hotel at 10 p.m. In the Empire Room.

A church spokesman said disposition of the hotel's inventory will be determined after completion of the design work. The items will be sold, auctioned off or used elsewhere in the church system.

Items showing the Westin crest will be retained by the Westin organization and used in hotels elsewhere.

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Hotel Utah's past, future will blend in its new role