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125 years since Brigham Young Academy opened in Provo

Lorraine Day said her life changed the minute she entered the "hallowed halls" of Brigham Young High School in 1958.

“I was just this little shy Southern Utah girl,” said Day, 75, who lives in Sandy. “I walked in and it was like going back in time. The building was magical.”

Day was a senior and a transfer student to the school — located at the Academy Building in Provo. She desired better educational opportunities and a year later, she was a proud graduate of BY High.

Her father also attended school in the Academy Building, cleaning blackboards to pay his way through what was then called the “lower campus” of Brigham Young University.

Provo’s Academy Building has had different names, faced much resistance and undergone extensive reconstruction; yet, as this month marks 125 years since its doors first opened, the building continues to serve as “a center for public education and learning in the city,” Dina Blaes wrote in an article featured in Utah Preservation magazine in 2000.

After six years of construction, the instructors first welcomed 1,000 students to Brigham Young Academy on Jan. 4, 1892, making it one of the largest schools in the Rocky Mountains, according to a brief history provided on the Provo City Library website at

Despite the institution’s predominantly high school-aged demographic, the name changed to Brigham Young University in 1903. Brigham Young High School also formed at this time and was also at the Academy Building.

The fight for the Academy Building, now home to the Provo City Library, began in its early days. When financial challenges threatened the building, Abraham O. Smoot, mayor of Provo from 1868-1881, poured his soul and finances into the building, writing in a letter to his wife that “(The Academy) must live.”

School life in the Academy Building included a “well-rounded, well thought-out curriculum,” Day said.

She served as an advertiser for the activities committee and was required to make posters for school events. Day recalled how the art teacher once approached her and said, “Lorraine, if you want to continue on with this office you’re going to have to take some art lessons because your posters stink.”

Day enrolled in his art class and enjoyed it so much she ended up attending BYU on an art scholarship.

“But I still can’t make a poster,” she said with a laugh.

Day was also involved in a group called “Hi-Steppers,” which was the precursor to BYU’s Cougarettes.

“The deepest friendships and the deepest desires I ever learned I learned at BY High School,” Day said.

Both Brigham Young High School and BYU’s “lower campus” came to a close in 1968 when the university stopped using the building, according to the Provo City Library website.

With its school days over, the Academy Building entered an extended phase of uncertainty. It was sold in 1975 in hopes of being redeveloped; however, it sat unused until Provo City bought it in 1994 with the plan of tearing it down, despite the many efforts of residents to keep it maintained, according to "Miracle at Academy Square," by retired BYU professor L. Douglas Smoot.

As bulldozers prepared to demolish what was viewed to be a structurally unsound building, Smoot, great-grandson of early financial supporter Abraham O. Smoot, led a preservation effort with the Brigham Young Academy Foundation members and city council members beginning in 1995 that he described in his book as the "Miracle at Academy Square."

Through fundraising, advertising and petitioning, residents were rewarded for their diligence and the Academy Building received a vote of approval in 1997 to become the Provo City Library. The groundbreaking ceremony occurred two years later on July 9, 1999. The ceremony “demonstrated all parties’ commitment to put aside differences and work together,” Blaes wrote.

Much work remained to be done if the Academy Building was to transform into a city library.

“The idea of a restoration and almost a complete renovation of a building as well as adding a new wing to it was incredibly challenging, incredibly fascinating,” Provo Library Director Gene Nelson said in an interview with the Deseret News. "It was quite a project.”

A main goal in the reconstruction was to “maintain the veracity of the facility,” Nelson said. They did extensive research and strived for historical accuracy. Bricks from the initial time period were used, and the roof shingles were purchased from the manufacturer that produced the originals for the building in the 1890s.

Although the building’s interior was completely redone, they worked hard to salvage some things — including the ballroom, according to Nelson. He explained that at various times the ballroom had served as a study hall, a library and even a place for student housing.

“Traditionally and historically it was used in a very multipurposed sort of way, which is today how we use the room,” he said.

The Academy Building was rededicated as the Provo City Library on Sept. 8, 2001. Nelson said the location has allowed the library to become a gathering place for people in Provo.

“(The building) has such an incredible connection with the community that even after being open now for 15 years, I still have a lot of people coming back to see it for the first time,” Nelson said.

For Day, seeing the Academy Building brings her joy.

“(The building) was the beginning of my education, the beginning of knowing who I was and what I wanted," she said. "When I see it now, my heart skips."