The Story of the Utah State Capitol

by MATTHEW A. SMITH

The Utah State Capitol building could be considered the crown of the Salt Lake Valley. Nestled high atop the northernmost hills of Salt Lake City, this beautiful statehouse can be seen from miles around in most directions. Despite its current location overlooking the capital city in which it resides, Salt Lake City was not the original choice for the Utah State Capitol.

In 1851, legislators for the then-territory of Utah decided the small working-class town of Fillmore, named after the sitting President Millard Fillmore, would be the ideal place to construct a government building. Construction began in 1855 for what was to be called the Utah Territorial Statehouse. (Fillmore City)

Funding for the project came in part from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which had recently arrived from the Midwest to start colonizing the new territory. Other construction funding came from the federal government, with a personal touch from President Millard Fillmore himself, who had become sympathetic to the young territory’s quest for statehood. (Fillmore City)

Fillmore’s goal of achieving capital city status never was fully realized. In 1856, after only part of the statehouse was completed and just one legislative meeting, territory lawmakers determined the bigger town of Salt Lake City would be the better option for a permanent location. (Fillmore City)

However, the capitol building as it is seen today took some time before it became a reality n Salt Lake City. Many local buildings in the area were used for the purposes of conducting territory business while officials pondered a final government home. (Fillmore City) In 1896 Utah was finally granted statehood by the federal government and that accelerated plans to come up with a capitol building. In 1900, the “Capitol Commission” was started as a special group dedicated to creating plans, searching locations and securing financing for the project. (“May Construct State Capitol”)

A few places in Salt Lake City were top candidates for the new construction, including the grounds of Fort Douglas, downtown Salt Lake City near the city/county building that had served as the temporary state building for some time, or the northernmost hills of Salt Lake City known as Arsenal Hill. (“Surveying Site of New Capitol”) Arsenal Hill was a more popular choice among decision-makers due to its central location and elevation. The site was not without its obvious challenges, though. The state legislature as well as the Capitol Commission had strong doubts regarding the placement on Arsenal Hill. Not only was there a large, natural grade, but there was also a large presence of residential neighborhoods and private property. Lawmakers knew it would be expensive to secure the land for the project to move forward. (“Surveying Site of New Capitol”)

Despite these concerns, Arsenal Hill was chosen. Thanks to a $1 million bond provided by the state legislature and receipt of an inheritance tax in the amount of $800,000 that was charged to the estate of Union Pacific Railroad President E. H. Harriman, the finances were secured for construction of the Utah State Capitol. (About the Capitol)

Once the finances were secure, Utah architect Richard Karl August Kletting won the bid out of 10 other national and local candidates to design the capitol building. (“Plans Selected by Commission”)

Kletting wanted to start right away because the governor of the new state of Utah, William Spry, who also served as the chair of the Capitol Commission, promised the citizens of Utah the project’s foundation would be poured by the time the following session of Congress commenced. (“Construction of State Capitol”)

Throughout the construction process, the Capitol Commission and Kletting worked together to ensure satisfactory completion. There was a clear understanding between the two that the capitol building be “functional, distinguished and lasting.” (Centennial Exhibit)

The materials involved in the construction were specifically chosen with Kletting’s eye on perfection and architectural significance, the sort that made him a name in the industry up to that point in his career. A priority that both Kletting and the commission agreed upon was the need for this building to be as fireproof as possible. (Centennial Exhibit) As most structures in that day were created with stone and wood, the destruction a fire would have on a building of such scale was certainly apparent. So, Kletting used reinforced concrete for the frame instead of wood, the standard framing option then. He also ensured the further protection by installing a vacuum system for fire suppression and stone walkways. (Centennial Exhibit)

capitol

The Tribune announced on March 14, 1912, that the esteemed architect Richard K. A. Kletting had been selected to design the capitol.

Aside from pragmatic construction methods, the pride Kletting had in Utah’s own natural resources gave way to the use of Utah granite, copper, Sanpete limestone and Utah onyx on the construction site. (“Marble Dial in Stone”) This was crucial in Kletting’s attempt to make this capitol building unique and representative of the local environment. These resources adorn the entire building, from the rotunda to the basement, and granite and limestone make up a large part of the capitol footprint. (About the Capitol)

Unfortunately, the state legislature was not able to hold its meeting, as promised earlier by Gov. William Spry, on the capitol grounds. Construction delays prevented the ability to open the capitol on time, thus an alternate location was designated for the session. (“Construction of State Capitol”)

The Utah State Capitol was finally completed enough in 1915 for many state workers as well as state legislators to move in. Improvements were still being completed to the satisfaction of the Capitol Commission and Kletting, but most of the working quarters were complete enough to house many people.

Then on October 9, 1916, as reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, the Utah State Capitol was dedicated before a crowd of nearly 40,000 people. Citizens, out-of-state guests, dignitaries and reporters attended the dedication on the steps of the capitol.

Gov. Spry addressed the crowd and said, in part, “I want to tell you how glad we feel that such numbers have turned out to accept from us this home that we now turn over to you.” (Centennial Exhibit)

Matthew A. Smith is a junior at The University of Utah. He is majoring in mass communication with an emphasis in journalism and religious studies.

Primary Sources

“Fillmore City,” http://www.fillmorecity.org/historyoffillmore.html

“About the Capitol,” https://utahstatecapitol.utah.gov/explore/about-the-capitol

“Centennial Exhibit,” https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B4l_fw7iWWaLSTdvNi1xSWNqZk0/

“Capitol Commission and City Are Agreed,” Salt Lake Herald, October 13, 1912.

“Construction of State Capitol,” Wasatch Wave, August 2, 1912.

“Plans Selected by Commission for Utah’s New State Capitol and Photograph of Richard K. A. Kletting, the Winning Architect,” Salt Lake Tribune, March 14, 1912.

“Surveying Site of New Capitol,” Salt Lake Tribune, August 12, 1911.

“May Construct State Capitol,” Salt Lake Herald, June 11, 1909.

“Marble Dial in Stone,” Deseret Evening News, January 16, 1900.

 

 

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