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City-County Building holds a lot of history

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In its 115 years, the historic Salt Lake City-County Building has hosted presidents and prophets, protest rallies and Olympic celebrations. It has housed city councils, county commissions and state government.

The state's constitutional convention, which laid the groundwork for Utah's statehood, was held in the building.

The courtrooms inside were the focus of national and international attention in 1914 when Joe Hill was tried and convicted for murder. Years later, serial killer Ted Bundy was convicted of aggravated kidnapping in what is now Room 445.

Once known only as the "Joint Building," the edifice was the subject of community controversy when it was built at a cost of $892,534, and again almost 90 years later when it was restored at a cost of $30.3 million.

The building was a tourist attraction from the start. In June 1895 city and county officials hired George Lindell, a young African-American, to escort tourists to the 256-foot clock tower and "to work for tips," but "with instructions that no one need give him any tips for showing the clock and the landscape in general unless they felt like it."

On Saturday, May 2, visitors will be invited to climb the clock tower once again as part of "Celebrate the City 1894," an event to mark the 20-year anniversary of the completion of the City-County Building restoration.

Karen Hale, director of communications for Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, said the day's activities will the themed around the time period when the building was completed, with arbor tours, tethered hot air balloon rides, barbershop quartets, brass bands, bicycle parades, games and activities.

"It's really an opportunity for the city to celebrate this historic building," Hale said. "We are trying to recreate an 1894 carnival atmosphere."

The day will also mark the start of the city's Historic Preservation Fund, which will raise money to preserve and restore other historic city-owned buildings.

Activities will run from 3 to 7 p.m., with a procession of past and present mayors beginning at 5:30 p.m., with former mayors Jake Garn, Ted Wilson, Palmer DePaulis and Deedee Corradini joining Becker.

Photographs from the Deseret News archives, selected by Utah history expert Ronald Fox, document the story of the building.

The building was actually the second attempt to build a structure to house city and county government. The first failed attempt started in 1889 when the foundations were started at the corner of 100 South and State Street. That building literally never got off the ground.

After five months of debate, city and county officials decided to try again at Washington Square. The original cost was estimated at $350,000. The completed building cost more than double that amount.

The City-County Building is noted as one of the finest examples of the Richardson Romanesque style in Utah. The intricate relief carvings on the exterior of the building were created by a French sculptor named Linde, who set up his workshop right on Washington Square. His portrait can be seen on the north facade between the words "City" and "Hall."

The first City Council meeting was held Nov. 19, 1894, and the building was dedicated on Dec. 28. Wilford Woodruff, then-president of the LDS Church, gave the opening prayer. Judge Edward F. Colburn said the building was a "monument to the architects who conceived its plan, a credit to the public officers who directed its construction, and imperishable evidence of the progressive spirit of the citizens who supported it."

Three months after the dedication, 107 delegates from throughout the state met in the building for a Constitutional Convention, a document they hammered out over the next nine weeks.

When statehood for Utah was achieved on Jan. 4, 1896, a large steam whistle sounded from the tower of the building, adding to the din created by shotguns, cannon, bells, fireworks and shouting. Ninety-nine years later, a similar ruckus was raised on Washington Square when it was announced on June 16, 1995, that Utah would host the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.

For its first two decades, the building was the seat of city, county and state government. One of the Utah senators, Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon, a noted physician, was the first female state senator in America. She served in the Utah Senate after defeating her husband, Angus, in the 1896 election. Room 335 is named in her honor.

State meetings in the building ended in 1916 with the completion of the state Capitol Building.

Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft spoke from the building's steps, and it housed the first Salt Lake City Public Library. Throughout both world wars, the building was a first-aid training center.

The building generated controversy again in the 1980s, when it needed extensive repair. The county had by then moved into its own offices. The publicly funded restoration took three years to complete, and included restoration of the exterior sandstone and the return of several rooms, including the City Council Chambers, to almost their original condition and decor.

It was the first historic building in the world to be retrofitted with a base isolation system made up of 443 "shock absorbers," designed to withstand earthquakes up to 7.0 on the Richter scale.

The building was reopened with a three-day celebration in 1989.

Sources for this article include John S. McCormick's "Beehive History," in the Salt Lake City Web site.

E-mail: marchaddock@utwire.com