COME, COME YE ALL The Melting Pot of Gentile, Saints and the Rest

Salt Lake City has always been a unique, even peculiar place, and change here has come slow. For example, Brigham Young forbade followers from joining the gold rush or prospecting for minerals. Later, though, federal troops in Utah discovered rich veins of silver and copper, and the age of the silver barons arrived. The railroad brought an influx of laborers who would add diversity in both faith and Mormon-defined vice to the mix. Still, Utah remained apart with a dominant religion, which dictated politics and individual conscience. But those old mining claims would become privately owned ski resorts, and the jet set had a reason to skip Colorado. Finally, the 2002 Winter Olympics cast aside the veil and shone a light on it all—Mormons, gentiles, sinners and saints—at the base of a vast outdoor playground. 

MORMONOPOLY ON MAIN STREET

The end of Main Street and the consolidation of "Church Block" changed the dynamic of Utah's Capital City

THE HOTEL UTAH

Salt Lake City was founded to be the international headquarters for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The physical manifestation of this presence dominates the town and Main and State Streets with the iconic Salt Lake Temple, its grounds and the 26-story LDS Church Office Building. 

The church’s presence, just down the street from the Utah State Capitol building, has been under heavy construction since long before the announcement of City Creek Center. This confluence of religion and commerce in the heart of the city is not seen in any other American capital city. Main, for example, used to be a public and heavily-used through street. It once passed between the eastern wall of Temple Square and the Hotel Utah, a grand-dame of an inn built in 1911 and a neutral meeting ground for gentiles and Mormons, visitors and residents alike. But in 1987, the LDS church, which was a major shareholder in the enterprise, shuttered the hotel and remodeled it as offices and a reception hall, renaming it the Joseph Smith Memorial Building and changing the nature of the city’s community. 

THE DESERET GYM

Continuing up Main Street, to the direct north of Temple Square, the Deseret Gym once operated. The gym, although owned by the church, served as something of a community recreation center and, like the Hotel Utah, was unspoken neutral ground for members and non-members to mingle. Philanthropist Phillip McCarthey and descendent of silver baron Thomas Kearns said of its demolition, “It was a sad day when they tore down the gym. It was a place where we could all meet and do business.”

The Deseret Gym gave way to the LDS Conference Center. Completed in 2000, this ziggurat-like granite monolith (jokingly called the “Supernacle”) now dominates the northern flank of Temple Square and accommodates 21,000 of the faithful during the church’s semi-annual general conferences and other seasonal events.

In this 1978 photo of Salt Lake City, Main is a through street passing between the Hotel Utah and the walls of Temple Square.

CHURCH BLOCK

The final piece that completed the church’s ownership of the “Church Block” was the creation of the Main Street Plaza. In 1999, Salt Lake City sold the section of Main that runs between North and South Temple to the church. The space was supposed to allow for a public easement and to be run like any other city park. 

But the final documents allowed church administrators to restrict behavior on the plaza with broad latitude. “Loitering, assembling, demonstrating, picketing, distributing literature, erecting signs or displays, using loudspeakers or other devices to project music, sound or spoken messages, engaging in any offensive, indecent, lewd or disorderly speech, dress or conduct,” were all prohibited. Meanwhile, the church itself was allowed to play music and messages and distribute its own literature. The ACLU and a group of concerned citizens and churches filed suit against the city and the church in 1999. The case bounced around courts until 2003, when SLC in a much ballyhooed compromise orchestrated by then-Mayor Rocky Anderson and John Huntsman Sr., abandoned its earliest wishes that the plaza be maintained as a public forum. 

It is now unquestionably the church’s space, and although it remains the site of protests, such as the pro-gay rights “kiss ins” staged in 2008, it is considered private property, no longer public.

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