Feel the chill on Capitol Hill
Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City is Utah’s power center. The atmospheric energy in and around the historic building is simply electric. This is the People’s house, and in its marble halls, the excitement is palpable.
Powerful people come to the capitol to invoke change, ensure safety, address pressing legal issues, write (and re-write) the state’s budget, and learn. Yes, learning is what people do here most. Step inside the magnificent rotunda, close your eyes, and breathe. You will be smarter for just having stood there because this famous Utah landmark’s halls are witness to decades of democracy in action. The scene will thrill you, send a chill down your spine, and finally it will humble you.
Did I say powerful people frequent the halls, steps, and lush green grounds here? They do, but they’re not lawmakers and administrators. The most powerful people who enter these hallowed halls are citizens fighting (peacefully for the most part) for the changes they wish to see in their state, their cities, and their communities. Not everyone agrees, but here those people participate in the political process that shapes their lives.
Visit the Utah State Capitol at 350 State St, Salt Lake City, UT 84103 for lessons about the past, present, and future.
The building features the following:
- 2 active legislative chambers
- a ceremonial Supreme Court chamber
- working offices of top state officials
The complex includes Senate, House, and state office buildings. Inside the Capitol and around its 40-acre campus, a wide variety of original artwork, treasured artifacts, and historical monuments are on display.”
The Capitol is in the northeastern portion of the city. It is surrounded by neighborhoods like affluent Avenues, family-friendly Rose Park, a quaint Central City, and the city’s heart, downtown Salt Lake.
Visit the Utah State Capitol Hill Complex
Capitol Hill includes six buildings and manicured green lawns. It features a central plaza that boasts a reflecting pond and a .7-mile circular walkway. The walkway meanders through 433 Yoshino cherry trees. Monuments, plaques, and bronze statues grace the path too.
On April 24, 2023, an ABC4 television journalist reported, “The first cherry trees to be planted around the Utah State Capitol building were purchased from a Seattle nursery and planted on Arbor Day in 1931. After World War II, Japan presented Kwanzan cherry trees to the Capitol as a gift and a symbol of reconciliation and friendship.”
A 1999 tornado wreaked havoc with the trees and damaged many of the original trees. They were replaced during a Capitol restoration project that took four years to complete from 2004 to 2008. Workers planted 433 Yoshino trees at that time. Today, magnificent cherry blossoms attract hundreds of visitors to take in a stunning springtime display.
Things to do at Utah’s State Capitol Complex
There are many things to do at the Utah State Capitol Complex. There is a gift shop inside the Capitol where items are available for purchase. Other than that, you could pack a sack lunch and enjoy the area for an entire day. Tours, programs, and activities are free of charge.
1. Take a tour of Utah’s historic power center
2. Explore the Capitol’s rotating fine art display
3. Meander through the immaculate Capitol grounds
4. Discover outdoor sculptures and art
5. Visit exhibits
6. Attend an open Legislative session
7. View the exquisite art in the marble Capitol rotunda and touch the replica Liberty Bell
8. Schedule your event in any one of the available meeting rooms
9. Speak! Let your voice be heard
10. Participate in one of the fun activities hosted by the Capitol throughout the year
If you can only be there in your heart, the Utah State Capitol website features virtual tours and activities online!
Capitol built on ‘Arsenal Hill’ after tragedy
Capitol Hill towers over Utah’s most populous city, Salt Lake. It’s no accident the elaborate building was built high. The architectural wonder is a visual symbol of strength and an implied sacred center of unity. That kind of unity can only come through division and a democratic resolution (aka, politics).
Salt Lake City donated 20 acres to the Capitol Commission as its contribution to the massive project. The land has a sad, but fascinating history. Today’s Capitol Hill was once called Arsenal Hill for the four powder magazines on top of it. The area had become a storage site for explosives.
In the spring of 1876, some children were grazing their cattle on Ensign Peak (near Arsenal Hill). They were shooting guns at birds. A shot ignited some powder on the hill. Four people were killed, and hundreds were injured as 500 tons of mountain debris rained down on the city.
Statues honor military men and women, first responders, prominent Utah leaders
Utah is steeped in history. The state government is aware of the need to proactively protect and preserve the state’s stars and its stories. One of the ways they do that is with bronze statues on the complex grounds to remind people of the state’s progress and the hard-working people who made their marks in the annals of history.
Millenial Time Capsule
Placed in the south staircase of the Capitol on January 4, 2001, the millennial time capsule will be unsealed on the first day of the 2100 Legislative Session. Inside the sealed container are records about Utah, news coverage from the 2001 Time Capsule ceremony, Olympic pins, dress shoes worn by Former Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, and a box made from trees that were destroyed on Capitol Hill during a 1999 tornado.
Ensign Peak Plaque
Ensign Peak towers over Capitol Hill. It’s part of the Wasatch Mountain Range. The view is unbelievable on the southwest Capitol Grounds. The Peak is of historic significance because when pioneers came into the Salt Lake Valley Brigham Young, former president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hiked up the hill with Wilford Woodruff and others to survey the land. Woodruff was a prominent church member and eventually became the fourth president. Young wrote an emotional journal entry about the magnificent beauty of the valley Mormon pioneers came to call home. The plaque monument was erected in 1934 in remembrance of the fateful day Young declared this his church’s new home. The men planted an American flag for the occasion. In truth, that area still belonged to Mexico.
There are two beehive sculptures on the Grand Staircase on the south side of the Capitol. Utah is known as the country’s “Beehive State.” On July 24, 1976, Kennecott Copper Corporation presented these sculptures to Utah. Early settlers were known to have been associated in some way with the Masons. Masonic scholar Allen E. Roberts is credited with the following pontification on bees:
“[A bee] works hard and tirelessly, not for himself, but for the swarm … He works in complete cooperation, and without dissension, with his fellow bees. He protects the Queen, refuses admittance to enemies, builds, makes honey, and lives in a society ruled by law.” ~Quoted from the Utah State Capitol government website.
Utah artist Cyrus E. Dallin created this sculpture. It is a memorial to a Wampanogas chief who met pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, Mass. This is a replica of a statue erected in Massachusetts in 1921. The figure was originally plaster and it was displayed in the Utah Capitol Rotunda in 1927. Eventually, a donor trust funded a duplication of the statue in bronze. It is located at the east entrance of the capitol.
Four lions stand guard, two at the east entrance and two at the west entrance of the Capitol. They are named Fortitude, Integrity, Honor, and Patience. Gavin Jack sculpted the original lions out of cement. Unfortunately, the material did not weather well. The sculptures were repaired once in 1977, but three decades later the sun, snow, wind, and rain had taken their toll. Master carver Nick Fairplay sculpted new lions of Italian marble during a major capitol restoration in the mid-2000s. Each lion is sculpted to represent a different age.
Mormon Battalion Monument
The Mormon Battalion sculpture commemorates the courage and selflessness of 500 Mormon pioneer volunteers who served in the army during the Mexican-American War. It features a 100-foot granite and bronze statue. An artist named Gilbert Riswold created it. It was dedicated in 1927. It is on the southeast corner of the south lawn.
Utah and the Civil War Monument
The Territory of Utah did not host any Civil War battles, but men deployed from Utah and California to protect communication lines like the mail and telegraph lines. The monument is dedicated to the Utahns who served to keep the lines of communication open. Lieutenant Henry Wells Jackson was killed in the war. He was believed to have been the only Utah man lost. He died from an infection of a gunshot wound he took in the Battle of White Bridge, Va. The Civil War Monument pays special tribute to Lt. Jackson. It is located on the southwest corner of the south lawn.
Utah Law Enforcement Memorial
This memorial to Utah’s law enforcement was dedicated on Sept. 6, 2008. The memorial was sculpted by Russian-born Utah artist Lena Toritch. There are three scenes in bronze. There’s a stone wall behind the sculptures featuring the names of 137 officers who died serving in Utah. A round inlay on the ground before the wall says, ”All give some, some give all.”
Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos Veterans Memorial
Utah soldiers who served in the Vietnam Conflict are honored here. The memorial features the names of 388 men and women who died or went missing in action. Artist Clyde “Ross” Morgan sculpted the soldier for a centerpiece. Mark Davenport built the circular wall around him. It was dedicated on Oct. 14, 1989.
Edward Harriman Memorial
A monument to Edward Harriman is located on the Memorial Walkway, northeast. Harriman was a railroad tycoon who left his fortune to his wife when he passed in 1909. An inheritance tax required Mrs. Harriman to pay $800,000 in inheritance taxes to the state of Utah. The majority of the money was used to build the capitol building.
Daniel Cowan Jackling
Daniel Cowan Jackling was an influential mining engineer. He is credited with having the vision to extract minerals at the Bingham Canyon Copper Mines. This beautiful bronze was created by Avard Fairbanks, a well-known Utah sculptor. It is located on the east plaza.
Brigadier General Thomas L. Kane
Brigadier General Thomas L. Kane is credited with assistance to pioneers as they traveled to modern-day Salt Lake City. He is also known to have helped mitigate early conflicts with the federal government before the territory became a state. Sculptor Ortho Fairbanks created this work of art. It is located on the east plaza.
Marriner Stoddard Eccles
Marriner Stoddard Eccles inherited his father’s business and at the age of 22, he took what was left to him and built the First Security Corporation multi-state banking company in 1928. The Utah State Capitol website says, “At the time of the nation’s financial crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, his keen mind and nerves of steel staved off financial disaster, with no depositor at any Eccles-led bank losing even one penny.” Utah artist Mark DeGraffenried sculpted the bronze statue located on the north plaza.
Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon
Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon was the first woman state senator in the United States and Utah. The piece was sculpted by Utah artist Laura Lee Stay Bradshaw. In 1896 Cannon ran for a State Senate seat in an at-large election. Cannon beat her husband and three other men to win the seat. She had a medical degree and helped develop important health policy in Utah. She was also a central figure here in the women’s suffrage movement.
Salt Lake wasn’t always Utah’s Capital City
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sought refuge from the religious persecution they endured in the Midwest. Scouts deployed to find the Church a new forever home. Their president Brigham Young ultimately approved of the Great Salt Lake Valley. Mormon pioneers followed him faithfully. They were on a mission to build their Zion (a biblical reference for a place of spiritual sanctuary).
The Latter-day Saints (commonly referred to as “the Saints”) were hungry. They were industrious and very well organized. They believed they were working for eternal life at the bequest of their Lord and Savior. That was some powerful motivation right there.
At its creation, the Territory of Utah included present-day Nevada (excluding Southern Nevada), much of present-day western Colorado, and the southwest corner of present-day Wyoming. The Organic Act of Congress, in 1950, officially recognized the territory. Young was inaugurated as its first governor on Feb. 3, 1851. The Act was a success for the Saints but it brought unwanted attention to the Church’s religious and administrative practices. The practice of polygamy was widely publicized. The Church got some pretty tough press coverage. U.S. Citizens were flabbergasted. Their sacred Zion became visible to the world and the world didn’t like everything it saw. Gaining statehood became a double-edged sword.
You’ve got to start somewhere, why not Fillmore, Utah?
Due to its central location, present-day Fillmore became the Territory’s capital city. A Utah Territorial Statehouse was built there. Its exterior was faced with local red sandstone bricks. It underwent construction from 1852 to 1855. When it stopped, the building was 25 percent complete. One wing of four (the south wing) was finished. Young had petitioned the United States for statehood. Administrators were anxious to complete what they expected to be their capitol. Young dubbed the intended new state “Deseret.” Among their critics were those who pointed out the U.S. Constitution’s guaranteed separation of church and state. Young’s petition was denied. Enthusiasm for the massive construction project waned (as did federal funding). The Utah Territorial Legislature met there one time in 1856. The building was abandoned and the Great Salt Lake City became the territory’s capital.
The Statehouse is carefully preserved and is now the centerpiece of the Territorial Statehouse State Park Museum. Tours are available. Many hands-on activities and events occur there throughout the year.
After many attempts, Utah achieved statehood
Statehood was crucial for the growing territory. Crops were flourishing, and minerals (many minerals) were found in the surrounding hills. The distant desert was starting to attract non-Mormons. The Church thought the entrance to the Union so important that it denounced polygamy, a principle central to the “building of Zion.”
Utah was admitted to the United States on Jan. 4, 1896. Its first two senators and one representative participated in Congress that year. The frugal administration made do with existing buildings in Salt Lake City until it just wasn’t feasible anymore. The calls for a capitol building began.
In 1912 a commission designated to oversee the construction of the capitol selected an architectural design presented by Richard K.A. Kletting. Kletting traveled to several capital cities in the East. His final plans relied heavily on that of the Kentucky State Capitol.
On Oct. 9, 1916, the completed Capitol was publically dedicated. It has undergone many restorations and changes since then, but its architectural style has remained very much the same. Some say its design is classical architecture. Local influencers compared it to Greece’s Parthenon. Still, others see Corinthian design elements.
Kletting’s vision for the building came closer to being realized when the Capitol underwent a full restoration. Today’s architects, in Kletting’s memory, made changes that the architect’s original design demanded.