Public buildings have a way of causing trouble for politicians along the Wasatch Front.

Take the Salt Palace, for instance. Things are quiet now, but it has, in its various forms, helped bring down two Salt Lake County commissioners in the past four years. Or consider The Gallivan Center Plaza on Block 57, with its enormous cost overruns and construction problems.These have been the Los Angeles Clippers of public projects. Anyone who takes control of them loses.

A century ago, the same thing could have been said about the City-County Building. The building officially turns 100 on Dec. 28. Although the official birthday celebration took place last summer, this would be a good time to remember some of the long-forgotten pain involved with that birth.

Time tends to erase petty political disputes. Today, the City-County Building is a jewel in Salt Lake City's skyline, one of the nation's most impressive city halls and a rare example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture, featuring large stone blocks, cavernous door openings and arches over windows and doors.

But more than a century ago a local newspaper called it an "ornate, gingerbread, paste-diamond pretension," and that was kind considering the public mood at the time. No matter who took over while the building was being constructed, trouble became a constant companion.

Most of my information comes from a compilation by John McCormick, a history professor at Salt Lake Community College. It was lent to me several years ago by a city official. The story sounds painfully familiar.

When city leaders first started thinking about constructing a new public building in 1888, they chose a site on the corner of 100 South and State Street. When they heard of the plans, most voters thought it would be a waste of money - an interesting conclusion considering the dearth of inflammatory talk radio at the time.

At that time, the People's Party was in charge, and it was traditionally supported by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Seizing the moment, the anti-Mormon Liberal Party played to public sentiment and attacked the plans as extravagant. As a result, voters in 1890 elected the city's first non-Mormon mayor, George M. Scott, as well as a non-Mormon council.

But campaign promises didn't mean much more in those days than they do today. Three months later, the new administration changed its mind and decided to forge ahead with construction anyway. Shortly after, city officials started bickering with the architect.

They fired him and started arguing with county officials. Worked stopped for five months while debate raged. County leaders wanted the building at the present site, 400 S. State. Meanwhile, the People's Party had become the one critical of lavish expenditures.

At last, despite the fact that a foundation already was built, the Liberal Party decided to scrap everything and move to the new site. The old foundation, meanwhile, remained as a monument to government waste for many years.

But the troubles had only started.

The ground at the new site was too soft, filled with clay and quicksand. The footings cost $40,000 more than expected. A labor dispute followed. (Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.) The city was hiring only married men to do the work, paying $2.25 per day. One city councilman felt it was wrong to discriminate against single men.

Halfway through the project, the general contractor started arguing with both governments and the stone and brick subcontractors over money. Workers were striking regularly. Eventually, the committee overseeing the project fired the general contractor and took over the job itself.

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Soon it was 1893 and the nation was mired in a depression. Unemployment in Utah reached 20 percent, and the city and county ran out of money for construction. Officials had to omit 14 stained glass windows and two elaborate fountains. They decided to pay workers in scrip, redeemable at local stores.

By the time it was dedicated, the $150,000 project envisioned in 1888 had cost more than $900,000, but taxpayers had a long way to go. The city and county each issued bonds to cover costs. The county retired its debt in 1926, paying a total of $852,000. The city didn't finish paying its portion until 1952, which came to $1.5 million.

Everything ended happily, of course. The building somehow helped heal many rifts in the community, symbolized by the president of the LDS Church being invited to offer a prayer at the dedication.

The happy ending is worth remembering, particularly for any politician put in charge of the Salt Palace.

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