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About Utah: Landmark Walker Center will turn 100 this year

SALT LAKE CITY — All the fuss is a block away, where the new City Creek Center is about to open its doors after five years of construction and anticipation.

But down on the corner of Main and 200 South, in the very heart of downtown, one of Salt Lake's most iconic structures is also getting ready to party in 2012.

The Walker Center is turning 100.

There are buildings that are older and there are buildings that are taller. But there aren't any buildings in Salt Lake City that are older and taller.

Or any more of a landmark.

The Walker Center started out as the Walker Bank Building in 1911-12. The first shovel of dirt was turned over on Nov. 1, 1911, and a little more than 13 months later, in December 1912, the grand opening was held and tenants started moving in.

At 16 stories, it was the tallest building for hundreds of miles. You could start walking west from the Mississippi River and not find anything taller man-made until you got to San Francisco.

The four Walker brothers, Samuel, Joseph, David and Matthew, made it happen. They were emigrants from England who came to America with barely a farthing to their names and 30 years later were the J.P. Morgans of Utah. They anchored their new office building with the headquarters of Walker Bank, their namesake, and anchored the bank with a 5,000-pound safe. If somebody figured out how to crack the lock, good luck carrying it away.

A century later, the safe is still in the basement, although pretty much everything else inside, other than the steel beams, has changed.

Walker Bank disappeared into First Interstate Bank in 1981 and by 1984 the Walker Bank building was in serious need of an overhaul.

A top-to-bottom renovation was completed in late 2007, turning what had deteriorated into a Class C structure back into one with a slightly altered name (now it's the Walker Center), and a Class A rating.

Capping the renovation, literally, was the re-introduction of the cone-shaped scaffolding tower on the top of the building.

Originally, the tower was a radio antennae, but later on it became the city's tallest logo, with "Walker" spelled out in massive letters that, when lit up at night, doubled as a weather forecaster.

When the letters were blue, it meant clear skies. Flashing blue meant cloudy skies. Solid red meant rain. Flashing red meant snow.

The tower disappeared in 1981, done in by a city ordinance that deemed it exceeded the city's height regulations.

For the next 26 years, while the lights atop the building continued to flash and forecast the weather, the dramatic effect of the tower was gone.

But by 2007 the building had made it onto the National Register of Historic Places, and that card was enough to trump city regulations.

The principles of the Walker Center's ownership group, Jim Tozer and Raju Shah, insisted that the restored tower become the capstone — the crowning touch — of the new renovation.

The "Walker" letters have been lit up ever since, serving as both a throwback to the past, when people in Salt Lake could look out their window and decide whether they needed an umbrella that day, and a nod to the present, when technology makes weather forecasting instantaneous.

As Michael Morse, commercial vice president of Pinnacle, the company that manages the building, points out, "As quick as there's a change in the weather forecast, we can change the color of the lights from our computers."

People notice if the colors aren't right, adds Chloe Gehrke, also with Pinnacle.

"Lots of people are very familiar with the sign; they tell us they look at it all the time," she says. "If they're natives, they remember when they checked the top of the Walker building before their left home to see what the weather was going to be like that day. That sign is a big part of Salt Lake City."

Chloe says Pinnacle plans parties all year long to celebrate both the sign and the building underneath it, all leading up to a big culminating birthday bash on Dec. 9, 1912. That's the day the Walker Center officially turns 100. Everyone's invited. To see if you'll need an umbrella, just look up.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday. Email: