Utah’s Capitols

Everett L. Cooley
Utah Historical Quarterly 27 July 1959

Fillmore House

Fillmore State House Drawing. Truman Osborn Angell was the architect.

Symbols play a significant role in human relationships. Just as national and state flags have symbolic meaning to those living under a specially designated ensign, so too have capitols their special symbolism. Closely associated with the rise of nationalism and sovereignty is the adoption of symbols representing a nation’s dreams and aspirations. Aside from any functional purpose it might serve, a capitol is a symbol of nationhood, of sovereignty. . . . Utah had scarcely settled into territorial status when her citizenry determined that a capitol should be built. In fact, the very first legislative assembly of the territory of Utah, by joint resolution, designated Pauvan Valley in central Utah as the capital. On the same day, October 4, 1851, Millard County was created by the legislature, and Fillmore City was named the county seat and the place where the capitol was to be built. . . .

Prior to the construction of the capitol at Fillmore and after its abandonment, the “headquarters” for the territorial government shifted from place to place. At least five different buildings in Salt Lake City served as the meeting place for the legislative assembly, and many more served as offices for the executive and judicial branches of the government. The legislature met at the Council House (Main and South Temple streets), the Social Hall (Social Hall Avenue), the old Salt Lake County Courthouse (Second South and Second West streets), the Salt Lake City Hall (First South near State Street), and the present Salt Lake City and County Building (Fourth South and State streets). Offices of the territorial officials were also located in these buildings at various times. In addition, just prior to Utah statehood, the territorial offices were moved into the abandoned Woman’s Industrial Christian Home (present Ambassador Club) located on Fifth East near Second South.

Even after statehood came to Utah, there was no sudden rush to erect a capitol. The scars of forty years of strife were not sufficiently healed to permit unity to a degree that the people of Utah could work together toward the creation of their symbol of statehood, a state capitol. Although the Salt Lake City fathers, in 1888, donated approximately twenty acres of land on the north bench overlooking the city, a building was not erected thereon until 1916. Almost thirty years elapsed from the beginning steps to the final completion of Utah’s magnificent capitol. It was a trying period for those who worked valiantly for the building.

Positive action took place when the 1909 Utah Legislature provided for the creation of a seven man Capitol Commission with power to select the design and to expend not over $2,500,000 on a “suitable State Capitol.” In the same session of the legislature a bill was passed which permitted a special one mill levy if approved by vote of the people. The measure failed to win approval, and it appeared that another prolonged period of waiting would follow. But an unexpected windfall to Utah brightened the otherwise gloomy picture. On March 1, 1911, Mrs. E. H. Harriman paid the sum of $798,546 in inheritance taxes into the state treasury for the settlement of the Harriman estate. The legislature responded with a $1,000,000 bond, and the capitol was an ensured reality.

Capitol under construction

Governor William Spry promptly exercised his powers by selecting the members of the Capitol Commission. They were: John Dern and John Henry Smith, Salt Lake City; M. S. Browning, Ogden; and C. E. Loose, Provo. Governor William Spry, Secretary of State C. S. Tingey, and Attorney General A. R. Barnes were the ex-officio members. Subsequently, David Mattson succeeded C. S. Tingey and Anthon H. Lund was appointed to the vacancy left by the death of John Henry Smith. Mr. Tingey was named secretary of the commission to replace John K. Hardy.

One of the first actions of the newly-organized commission was a tour of inspection to several eastern capitals. Plans of the capitols of Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Kentucky were procured and studied. These served as guides for the preparation of a program of competition to select an architect and design for Utah’s capitol. Numerous resident and several nonresident architectural firms participated in the capitol competition. In March 1912, the award for design was made to Mr. Richard K. A. Kletting, of Salt Lake City.

Nine months later plans for the building were sufficiently complete that excavation could begin. Mr. P. J. Moran, of Salt Lake City, was given the contract for excavating, filling, and making rough grades on the site.  With the equipment all in readiness, the commission broke ground on December 26, 1912. Mayor Samuel C. Park, of Salt Lake City, in addressing the crowd gathered to witness the ground-breaking ceremonies, voiced the feelings of frustration and hope of many. He said, in part, “We are about to realize the hope of decades and the fruition of the efforts of patriotic citizens for a quarter of a century. Here, today, we break ground for the material edifice that shall house the offices of our chief executive, our legislative and judicial bodies. The time has been long and we have waited and labored in patience, but the reward is now certain, for the means are available and the people have decreed that in this place a house shall be built which, for its purpose, shall be one of the most beautiful as well as one of the most modern of public buildings in the world.”

While the commission favored the use of Utah products wherever the material was of good quality, the difference in price forced the use of non-Utah materials for some purposes. The commission decided to use mostly Georgia marble on the main floor with Utah marble in the legislative chambers and Supreme Court. However, plans were modified to increase the use of Utah stone. Birdseye marble or golden travis from Utah County was selected for the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, and the State Reception Room (Gold Room). The front vestibule was constructed of Utah onyx or travertine, and the stone was also generously used in the Senate Chamber. Sanpete oolite or white sandstone was chosen for the walls of the ground floor. The monolithic columns, the walls and stairs of the main floor, and the railings were the only parts of the building constructed of the grey Georgia marble.

A lively contest ensued over the selection of materials for the exterior of the building. Quarries were uncovered in Sanpete County, in Beaver County, and in the canyons adjacent to Salt Lake City with the hope that stone from these areas would be used. However, the granite of the Consolidated Stone Company, in Little Cottonwood Canyon, was selected because the quarry had been successfully developed for past construction such as the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City.

Although the original plans for the capitol called for fifty-two sectional, unpolished granite columns on the exterior of the front and sides, the commission was pressured to spend considerable time and study devoted to the possible use of polished, monolithic columns. At first, Junius F. Wells, representative of the non-Utah firms, urged polished Indiana or Vermont granite. When the commission took a definite stand against the Vermont and Barre granites, various groups and individuals then urged the use of polished Utah columns—even at an additional expense of $200,000. Several commission members, especially Governor Spry, opposed the monolithic columns because of the extra cost and the developing shortage of funds. The Utah Association of Architects and the Utah State Board of Architects opposed their use on aesthetic grounds—pointing out that the polished columns “would produce a discordant, rather than a harmonious note” to the exterior of the capitol. By a simple majority vote, the commission finally agreed to adhere to the original plans and retain the unpolished, sectional columns.

The saving on this item alone permitted the expenditure of considerably more funds on the finishing and furnishing of the building. Even so, the commission had to go to the legislature on two different occasions for an increase of funds to complete the building. Although a limitation of $2,500,000 had been set, this was exceeded by $239,000. The increases, notwithstanding, original plans for “extensive pieces of art work” were never fulfilled. Funds were just not available. The only art works commissioned were paintings for the House Chamber, the Senate Chamber, the State Reception Room, the lunettes, and a portrait of the Capitol Commissioners.

Murals in the House Chamber were painted by eastern artists A. E. Forringer (Jim Bridger and the Discovery of Great Salt Lake) and Vincent Aderente (Dream of Brigham Young or Brigham Young Laying Out Salt Lake City). The mural in the Senate Chamber was painted by local artists A. B. Wright and Lee Greene Richards and shows a scene looking westward across Utah Lake. Lewis Schettle, of New York, purportedly executed the mural in the “Gold Room.” A local artist, Girard Hale, and Gilbert White, of New York, teamed up to win the contract for the murals in the lunettes of the main corridor. These show the pioneers entering the valley and an irrigation scene. J. W. Clawson, of Salt Lake City, painted the portrait of the Capitol Commissioners.

Although the original plans for the building called for statuary in the niches of the rotunda, the commission had no funds left for sculpture. Three of the niches were eventually filled. In 1928 the women of the state contributed to the creation of a bust of Emmeline B. Wells, prominent Mormon pioneer leader. Cyrus E. Dallin executed this bust in marble. The second bust placed in a niche was of Simon Bamberger, governor of Utah, 1916–1920. This was presented to the state by the family of the governor in 1943, and was sculptured by Torlief Knaphus. The third niche was filled in 1956, when the National Society, Sons of Utah Pioneers presented to the state a bust of Brigham Young, governor of Utah, 1851–1857. This artwork was also the creation of Torlief Knaphus, local artist.

There was also a proposal for a piece of statuary for the center of the rotunda. But again, lack of money prevented the execution of this plan. Dallin’s “Signal of Peace,” which stood before the Hall of Relics during Utah’s semicentennial celebration, then moved to the Salt Lake City and County Building, was moved to the rotunda of the capitol on orders of the Capitol Commission. At a later date it was transferred to the ground floor when a plaster model of Cyrus E. Dallin’s “Chief Massassoit” was given the center position in the rotunda. Here it was admired for a quarter of a century by thousands of capitol visitors. In the summer of 1958, a bronze casting was made of Massassoit which was then mounted on a handsome pedestal in the rose garden in front of the capitol. Two other bronze statues to replace Massassoit are located in the main corridor beneath the east-west arches. These heroic statues were designed to commemorate the work of Daniel C. Jackling, prime mover behind the successful exploitation of Utah’s low-grade copper ores, and Thomas L. Kane, pacifier and friend of the Mormons. The statuary is the creation of Avard Fairbanks and Ortho Fairbanks, respectively. Both of these bronze pieces and the bronze Massassoit were presented to the state of Utah through the efforts of Nicholas G. Morgan, Sr.

Two unexpected demands upon the funds for the capitol prevented the commission from carrying out all their plans to decorate and finish the building. Shortly after the beginning of the construction, it became quite apparent that the twenty acres deeded by Salt Lake City for the capitol would be insufficient land to adequately landscape a building of that size. Furthermore, the commission desired the capitol to be placed on the State Street and Seventh Avenue axis. Such a plan necessitated the acquisition of land to the east. Both the building architect and landscape architect recommended that the building be located so that it would offer an unobstructed view from the south, east, and west. To prevent obtrusive homes from being erected on the east of the capitol, along the rim of City Creek Canyon, the commission purchased the homes already standing along this rim and also the remaining unimproved lots. The capitol grounds thereby included all the property along the canyon rim from Second North to Fourth North streets. The Salt Lake City Commission co-operated in the project by moving East Capitol Street eastward to permit the capitol grounds to be extended in that direction. The purchase of this land and moving of the street necessitated additional excavation to provide a site, which would harmonize with the surrounding grades and approaches. Although the commission desired additional land to the west, it had to forego this because of insufficient funds. (Subsequently, the legislature provided funds to the Loan Commission to acquire the needed land to the west.)

Despite the many problems, the work moved forward at a rapid pace. By April 4, 1914, fifteen and one-half months after breaking ground, the capitol was sufficiently advanced that the cornerstone was laid in place with an elaborate ceremony. Representatives from state and city government participated along with men from church and industry. . . . A metal box containing copies of newspapers of the state, photographs of the Capitol Commissioners, copies of church books, and various coins of the period was placed in the cornerstone and sealed in place by the governor.

The commission urged the contractor to double his efforts to finish the work on the third floor so that the Eleventh Session of the Utah State Legislature could meet in the new building. By November, it appeared that the legislative chamber would be sufficiently finished for the convening of the legislature. Unfortunately, delays occurred, thereby forcing the continued use of the Salt Lake City and County Building. One month after convening, however, on February 11, 1915, the legislature was able to move to the new capitol to hold the remainder of its session.

More than a year passed before all the executive and judicial officers of the state could occupy their new quarters. And it was not until October 9, 1916, that the building was considered completed and could be opened for public inspection. On the afternoon of that day, at two o’clock, the Utah State Capitol was formally opened and presented to the people of Utah. . . . The program was followed by a public reception—the guests were received by the governor and the members of the Capitol Commission. It was estimated that more than thirty thousand people viewed the capitol this day.

And what was their reaction to what they saw? While we do not have written accounts of the many visitors, we do have the feelings of correspondents for newspapers and periodicals. With one accord, they proclaimed it certainly the most beautiful public building in the state if not in the nation. Paraphrasing the words of one writer (in The New West Magazine), Utah’s capitol was declared to be the most magnificent building of its kind in the nation. The magnificence of the interior was attributed to the simple, uncluttered design of the main floor with its beautifully proportioned dome, marbled arches, and graceful stairways.

The general style of architecture of the capitol is Corinthian. It is 404 feet long, 240 feet wide, and 285 feet to the top of the dome. The inside measurement from the ground floor to the highest point inside the dome is 165 feet. Near the base of the dome, in the spandrels, are four murals depicting important scenes in Utah’s history: Father Escalante entering Utah Valley, 1776; Peter Skene Ogden at Ogden River, 1828; John C. Fremont visits Great Salt Lake, 1843; and Brigham Young and the pioneers entering Salt Lake Valley, 1847. Other historical scenes are painted on the friezes of the dome. Designed by Lee Greene Richards, they were painted by local artists working under the WPA program in the 1930s. The giant chandelier hanging from the dome weighs three tons and is suspended on a chain that is ninety-five feet long and weighs in excess of three tons.

The State Reception room is most impressive to some observers and is commonly called the “Gold Room.” The Gold Room gained its name from the general golden appearance in the color scheme of the room and from the extensive use of gold-leaf trim. All colors used in the room blend with the gold trim and the golden travis marble. The original decorations for the Gold Room, including the marble but excluding the lighting fixtures and mirrors, cost approximately $20,000.

Whether the visitor to Salt Lake approaches from east, south, or west, he gains a glimpse of the capitol as soon as he enters the valley—even though the point of entry is twenty miles distant from Capitol Hill. The general impression gained from the first glimpse is one of grandeur. The feeling is not altered upon closer examination.