The original purpose of the Hotel Utah was to provide Salt Lake City with a first-class hotel. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was the primary stockholder, but community and business leaders contributed. The firm of Parkinson and Bergstrom, Los Angeles, designed the building. When the Hotel Utah opened on 9 June 1911, the Deseret News said, “From the Atlantic to the Pacific, there are bigger and more expensive hotels, but none more splendid, more elegant or more comfortable.”[1, 2, 3, 4]
A writer for the Box Elder News visited the Hotel Utah in July 1911 and described it as “the great white palace, the finest thing of its kind west of the Mississippi river, and perhaps equal to anything in the United States. A stroll through its spacious corridors will convince anyone that for richness in furnishings, beauty in design and convenience in appointment, it is just about the acme of perfection. The lobby is one great room of dazzling beauty, the trimmings being done in a onyx with great onyx pillars supporting the Mezzanine floor. The great rug that covers the floor of the lobby seems to be inches thick, and is reported to have cost $150 per yard. The ball room is another dazzling department, fitted up in the most costly and elegant manner, with a floor like glass.
Extensive renovations were made in 1935, 1961, 1972, and September 1976. In 1973, the east and west wings were extended to the north and the grand ballroom was added. The American Automobile Association award the the Hotel Utah a Five Diamond “Renowned” rating in 1976. The building was designated a Utah Historic Site and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. In 1982, it became a member of the Preferred Hotels Worldwide Association. Seattle-based Westin Hotels and Resorts took over management in June 1984.[2, 4]
On 12 March 1987, the First Presidency of the LDS Church announced that the Hotel Utah would cease operations on 31 August 1987 and would be converted into a church office building. “In the conversion process, every feasible effort will be made to preserve the historical integrity and the impressive architecture of the hotel structure, including its lobby.”
The announcement came at a time when the demand for first class hotels in Salt Lake City had not kept pace with the construction of new facilities. The Hotel Utah had lost millions of dollars and the Church felt it was inappropriate to subsidize the business with tithing funds. The closure was consistent the Church's long term plan for the church administration block and with its program of withdrawing from competition with private business interests.[2, 4]
The announcement came as a shock to the community. Every president of the United States had been a guest a the Hotel Utah, along with kings, celebrities, and visitors from around the world. Salt Lake Mayor Palmer DePaulis said the closure felt like a death in the family and described the hotel as a “symbol of our civic pride and shared heritage.” The Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce received more telephone calls on the issue than on any other single action in the previous 15 years.[2, 4]
Michael Leventhal, Executive Director of the Utah Heritage Foundation said, “The Hotel Utah is special to so many people because it seems everyone has a favorite memory of the building. No other structure in the state has touched so many people. The building truly is the architectural crossroad of our state society.”
Three hours before the midnight closure on 31 August 1987, mourners gathered for a candlelight vigil in front of the building and sang “Auld Lang Syne.”
Speaking of the $41.8 million renovation project, Roger Jackson of FFKR Architects said, “Our written instructions when we began planning the hotel's reconstruction was that we make it a building for the public, a building the public can enjoy - as they did in the past.”
Every supporting beam underneath the building was raised one-sixteenth of an inch while installing a new foundation. The plumbing, heating, air-conditioning, sprinkler, and phone systems were completely replaced. To improve earthquake resistance, sheer walls were added to the structure's frame and the tenth floor addition was rebuilt with a stronger, lighter floor. A four-level, 350-vehicle underground parking terrace was built between the hotel and the Church Administration Building. Five floors were remodeled for use as church office, with three floors left unfinished for future expansion. The former Lafayette Ballroom became a 500-seat chapel to accommodate three LDS wards in the downtown area. A Family History Center with 130 computer stations was built in the former Bonneville meeting rooms. A Church Distribution Center was added in the basement. Terracotta detail work on three exterior walls of the building was extended to the east wall, which used to be plain, painted brick.[6, 7, 12, 15]
On 14 May 1993, the First Presidency announced that the former Hotel Utah would be renamed the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, after LDS Church founder Joseph Smith. President Gordon B. Hinckley said other church buildings have ties to Brigham Young, but “we have not had in this community a structure which stands as a fitting tribute to the man we respect and honor as the founder of this church.” The Church had originally considered, “the Utah Building,” but abandoned the name after the One Utah Center opened nearby.[8, 12] At a meeting in 1909, some had wanted to name the building the Smithsonian, after Joseph Smith, but the name Hotel Utah was chosen instead.
President Hinckley dedicated the Joseph Smith Memorial Building as a church office building and as a community center on 27 June 1993. Three days of public tours were held on July 3, 6 and 7.[10, 11]
The Legacy Theatre, built in the former Grand Ballroom, was designed as an extension of the visitor experience on Temple Square. The 500-seat movie theater was equipped with a 31-foot by 62-foot screen and a six-channel Dolby surround sound system. Images “sharper and brighter than you have ever seen” were projected using 70mm film running at an accelerated rate. Audio translations were available via a infrared transmitter system in French, German, Spanish, and Japanese.[7, 14, 20]
“Legacy,” a film on Church history, opened exclusively at the Legacy Theatre on 3 July 1993. The film was produced under the direction of the First Presidency of the LDS Church, with Kieth Merrill as writer and director. Music was performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony. Free tickets were distributed in the lobby of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, the North Visitors Center on Temple Square, and at the Church Office Building.[13, 14]
“Our goal was to capture the spirit of sacrifice, the spirit of faith, and the spirit of the people and make them real,” Merrill said. “Through Legacy we can be totally swept away in time and space as we meet early members of the Church—trek with them across the prairies, cry with them as they bury their dead, and rejoice with them as they marry and have children. These were real people who lived and breathed, who worried and cried, and who loved and laughed.”
Public demand for “Legacy” was so strong that tickets for the second day of the open house were gone by mid morning. Ivan M. Lincoln, theater editor for Deseret News, described “Legacy” as the “hottest show in town” and said the long lines forming in the early morning hours looked like “tickets going on sale at the Delta Center for Garth Brooks or Neil Diamond.” To free up showings at the Legacy Theatre for visitors, he suggested playing the film for a couple months in commercial 70mm theaters, such as the Villa Theatre, Cinedome, or SCERA Showhouse. More than 190,000 people had viewed “Legacy” by September 1993. That number rose to about 5 million by the end of its seven-year run.
On 24 March 2000 “Legacy” was replaced by “The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd,” which tells “accounts of Christ’s life and Atonement as related in the Bible and the Book of Mormon are told in conjunction with a fictional story of a family living in the New World during Book of Mormon times.” The 65-minute film was presented in 70mm with surround sound and featured music performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square. More than 1 million people saw "Testaments" within the first year of its debut.
The first digital projector in Utah was installed in the Legacy Theatre for “Joseph Smith, The Prophet of the Restoration.” The new film, which depicts the life of Joseph Smith from his early youth in Vermont to his martyrdom in Illinois at age 38, opened on 17 December 2005 as part of the 200th anniversary of his birth.[20, 21, 22, 23, 25] The film uses 4K technology, with a resolution of 4096 x 3072.
"The entire movie will fit on one big drive and is stored in a server as ones and zeros,” said Brian Rowland, who worked on the special effects. "With incredibly high resolution and having it shown on a 60-foot screen, things had to be as perfect as possible. There was no room for forgiveness."
Unlike “Legacy” and “Testaments”, “Joseph Smith, The Prophet of the Restoration” did not have an exclusive run at the Legacy Theatre. On 24 December 2005, it opened in “all of the visitors' centers and church historic sites around the country.”
1. “Joseph Smith Memorial Building”, wikipedia.org, accessed December 2011
2. "Westin Hotel Utah, 76-year landmark, will close in August", Deseret News, 12 March 1987 , page A1
3. “Salt Lake City Landmark Celebrates a Century of Memories”, newsroom.lds.org, 10 June 2011
4. "Hotel Utah's past, future will blend in its new role", Deseret News, 31 August 1987 , page B1
5. "Renovation of Hotel Utah to Begin Soon", Deseret News, 13 July 1990 , page B3
6. "Suspense is Building as Old Hotel Utah Gets Major 'Room Service'", Deseret News, 05 April 1991 , page A1
7. "Renovation of Hotel Utah is 75% Finished", Deseret News, 02 October 1992 , page A1
8. "Ex-Hotel to be Renamed Joseph Smith Building", Deseret News, 15 May 1993 , page B1
9. "Hotel Utah", Box Elder News, 20 July 1911, page 2
10. "Dedication Set June 27 for Smith Building", Deseret News, 13 June 1993 , page B1
11. "Joseph Smith Building to be Dedicated Sunday", Deseret News, 23 June 1993 , page B1
12. "LDS Leaders Unveil New S. L. Showpiece", Deseret News, 26 June 1993 , page A1
13. "Open House Will Include Film at Smith Building", Deseret News, 28 June 1993 , page B1
14. "Legacy", Ensign, 01 July 1993
15. "Renovated S. L. 'Grand Dame' Brings Out the Oohs and Aahs", Deseret News, 02 July 1993 , page B1
16. "Joseph Smith Building Showing 'Legacy' Film", Deseret News, 07 July 1993 , page B1
17. "Don't Assume Shakespearean Festival Tickets Are Gone", Deseret News, 08 August 1993 , page E7
18. "New Viewing Times Announced for 'Legacy'", Deseret News, 08 September 1993 , page B1
19. "New Church Film Testifies of Christ", Ensign, 01 May 2000
20. "Church making Smith film", Deseret Morning News, 23 October 2004
21. "Joseph Smith film to debut", Deseret Morning News, 14 November 2005
22. "Digital faith: Former U student creates special effects for new LDS film", Daily Utah Chronicle, 08 December 2005
23. "New Film On Joseph Smith Debuts Saturday", KUTV News, 16 December 2005
24. "New Joseph Smith Movie Ready to Open", KSL News, 16 December 2005
25. "Movie opens today about LDS founder", Deseret Morning News, 17 December 2005