Westin Hotel Utah, 76-year landmark, will close in August

Deseret News, 12 March 1987, page A1

Westin Hotel Utah, a Salt Lake landmark for 76 years, will cease operating as a hotel Aug. 31 and eventually be converted to an office building for various departments and affiliated organizations of the building's owner, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The announcement, made 9:30 a.m. Thursday by the First Presidency of the church, came as a shock and surprise to Salt Lakers, many of whom have celebrated some of the high points of their lives in the hotel's grand meeting rooms and restaurants.

The hotel's 348 employees were told of the plan to close at a morning staff meeting. Church spokesman Jerry Cahill said the hotel will continue to operate “full bore” until the Aug. 31 closure date. In the meantime, Cahill said, efforts will be made to assist employees in finding other jobs.

He speculated that the closure will create enough additional business for other downtown hotels that they will need additional staff.

Cahill said provisions for retirement have been made for employees over age 55. Severance pay will be paid on the basis of two weeks for the first year of service and one week of pay for each subsequent year of employment. Accrued vacation pay will be paid in a lump sum.

In its announcement, the First Presidency praised the hotel's employees and their families for their devoted years of service in making the hotel the state's premier hotel and assured them that, “Every effort will be made to assist employees in securing alternative employment.”

Management of the hotel was assumed by the Seattle-based Westin Hotels and Resorts in June 1984, and the facility's name was changed from Hotel Utah to Westin Hotel Utah. Westin will continue as managers until closure. In its statement, the First Presidency said service will remain at the traditional high level.

“Individuals and groups presently holding reservations or planning to visit the hotel can be assured that they will receive the same gracious hospitality and professional service that have been the hallmark of the Hotel Utah throughout the years.”

The First Presidency expressed gratitude to Westin for its expertise and assistance in handling the details of the pending closure.

All media inquires to the hotel and the Westin headquarters were referred to spokesman Cahill.

Asked if the hotel is being closed because it has been unprofitable, Cahill said the Hotel Utah's financial record of recent years has been “consistent with the hotel industry in general.” It is no secret that the hotel industry in general has been hard hit locally as demand has not kept pace with the construction of new facilities.

The “larger consideration,” in the decision, Cahill said, was the long-term plans of the church, not the financial position of the hotel.

Cahill said all of the hotel's long-term commitments will be handled through the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau, which will re-schedule meetings, conventions, dinners and other events that are on the calendar beyond the Aug. 31.

The news of the closure was met with dismay by many people who quickly assumed the building would be razed. Cahill was emphatic that that is not the plan for the building, named a Utah historic site in 1979.

“The hotel will not be torn down,” Cahill said. “We will attempt to maintain the architectural integrity as much as possible. From the outside, it will look much the same, as will the lobby."

The announcement said the planned interior remodeling, anticipated to take place over the next few years, will also include meetinghouse facilities with chapel, cultural hall and classrooms to handle what was described as “the urgent need for ward and stake purposes in the downtown area.”

That need has resulted from construction of apartments and condominiums in the lower Avenues and business district, the First Presidency said.

“The use of space in the hotel structure will make unnecessary the building of a costly new meetinghouse in the area," the announcement said.

With the construction of several new hotels in the downtown area, the First Presidency said the original need for a first-class hotel – when the Hotel Utah was built in 1911 – no longer exists.

The announcement said the planned closure of the hotel operation is consistent with the growth of the church, the prudent use of church resources and the long range plan for the church administration block and is in harmony with a long term program under which the church as withdrawn from competition with private business interests.

In the near term, the decision stemmed from the need to either substantially update the hotel – in a market now more than adequately served – or to convert it to other uses, the First Presidency said. The decision was made to take the latter course.

As for the building itself, the First Presidency said, “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.” Work is currently being done on the exterior restoration.

The announcement was met with shock, surprise and sadness in the community.

Gov. Norman H. Bangerter said, “We are very disappointed to see the closure of a landmark of that stature and a facility so important to Salt Lake City and the people of Utah.

“We recognize that the economics that are behind this decision are an important factor. We are pleased that the building will continue to be a landmark in our city and hope that it will be used productively and will enhance the economics of this state.”

Salt Lake Mayor Palmer DePaulis said the closure of the Westin Hotel Utah feels like a death in the family.

“I think the first reaction is one of great sadness that the Hotel Utah is closing because it has been a symbol of our civic pride and shared heritage. That has been our flagship hotel for the city,” he said. "It is something we're just going to really mourn as a community.”
The closure will have impact statewide, he said. “Its use as a hotel has drawn a lot of people here.”

City officials have made a commitment to work with the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau to keep the hotel's business coming to Salt Lake City. The mayor said he is worried other cities will try to lure away meetings and conventions already booked at the hotel.

“As far as the long term, it's really tough to speculate what will happen. On the positive side certainly the hotel industry is in a very slow period right now. Short term, this closure will certainly help them,” DePaulis said.

He said he hopes the closure might lead to a major hotel located on Block 57 between Main and State streets, a downtown block that the city has been working to redevelop for years.

Long time hotel tenant Maurice E. Anderson, whose father moved his clothing business into the hotel in 1934, said he will either move by Aug. 31 or close the business. He has worked in the business for 54 years.

“I'm sure a lot of people will be disappointed by the closure of the hotel. This has been a meeting place for people for 75 years. It's a landmark that will be sorely missed,” Anderson said.

Norm Tanner, president of Rotary Club No. 24, which has been meeting at the hotel almost since it opened in 1911, siad the announcement shocked him. “I just can't understand it. It's a real blow to the people of this city,” he said. He is assigning a committee to find a new home for the Rotary Club.

David Payne, manager of E. F. Hutton, located on the southwest corner of the hotel, said hotel management told him several months ago that changes at the hotel were likely. “It's a disappointment to us. We use the hotel and we love the hotel.” Payne said E. F. Hutton has another year on its lease, with a five-year option, and he doesn't know at this point what the firm will do.

Former Hotel Utah Manager Stuart G. Cross, now an executive with a small hotel chain based in San Francisco, also expressed dismay.

“It's very sad,” said Cross, who managed the hotel for 10 years, until 1984 when he took early retirement.

“Great hotels have symbiotic relationships with a city and represent that city. The loss of the hotel probably makes a change not just in the hotel but in Salt Lake City as a community, which has changed a great deal over the last 15 or 20 years.”
Cross said his greatest feelings of loss are reserved for the employees.

“I have heartfelt sympathy for all those marvelous employees who have been there so many years. It will be very difficult for them because many had a deep personal identification with the hotel. It's very distressing for them. I'm very, very sorry, but I'm sure there are good business reasons for making the decision. It's just too bad.”

Fred S. Ball, Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce president said, “I am extremely disappointed and feel this will be a tremendous loss to the entire state. The Hotel Utah has been the grande dame of the hotels in the West for a number of years. I am not surprised by the decision, because we are overbuilt on first class hotels and none of the Sale Lake City hotels are doing well.