Over the years, the Salt Lake Chamber called a number of office buildings home, some of them elegant, others not so grand. Their new offices on Fourth South and State Street were decidedly in the elegant category when they moved in 1986, thanks to an innovative plan to furnish them.
How that came to happen is a story in itself. But first, some background.
The Chamber had been in relatively few locations until 1968. It enjoyed being at the swanky Commercial Club Building for twenty-eight years, and in the utilitarian Walgreen Drug store upper floors for another twenty-eight. But in 1966 the J.C. Penney Company began an expansion program and acquired the Walgreen site for a new downtown store.
New executive secretary Maxwell E. Rich, in the job for just ten months, led the Chamber up the street July 1, 1966, to new quarters at 146 S. Main, above the Utah Theater, where KALL radio had been located. (The Retail Merchants Association, The Salt Lake Junior Chamber of Commerce, The Salt Lake Safety Council, The Better Business Bureau, The Downtown Planning Association, The Utah Legislative Conference, Utah Council of Retailers, the Bonneville Speedway Association, Intermountain Fat Stock Association, and Olympics for Utah, Inc., all associated somehow with the Chamber, tagged along and changed their letterheads.)
Rich then found a street-level location with more spacious quarters at 19 East Second South, where the Chamber moved in 1968. Among other things, more room made it possible to build a new, sophisticated State of Utah Briefing Center where nearly every day groups interested in economic development, conventions, or tourism assembled.
That was the situation when Fred Ball became executive secretary. Although it was a superb location, it was also beneath a twelve-story parking garage. That brought with it a lot of traffic noise and sometimes fumes. Ball remembers that the furnace and air conditioner were “very antiquated. Frequently the furnace would ‘blow’ and so I learned how to make the repairs. I kept work gloves and old clothes in the office so I could go to the basement and make the repairs,” he wrote.
The furnace was in the basement, which also housed a private club called the Press Club, so he found himself moving crates of lettuce and canned goods to get to his repair job. Chamber members became members of the Press Club. (The club later folded and D.B. Coopers took its place.)
The location had its advantages. Chamber aides were offered the use of Walker Bank’s executive dining room, located on the top floor of the building, when they needed it.
Nevertheless, Ball recognized early that new facilities would have to be located. And by the time the lease neared its expiration the space had become too small. “The big problem for the Chamber was that there were not sufficient cash reserves to really do an adequate job in securing new space,” he said.
The Chamber began looking for alternative homes. Desmond Barker, who would serve as Chairman of the Board of Governors in 1981, writes that in 1978 he headed a Chamber task force that evaluated downtown property ownership, and particularly focused on Block 53. That block extends from 300 to 400 South and from State Street to 200 East–just north of the City County Building. Owners of most of the property then were two elderly sisters, “heirs of the Auerbach family who lived in New York. They thought their property was worth far more than any offer and held up a planned major shopping center that would have anchored the south end of the city,” wrote Barker. Developers instead moved north and built the Crossroads Mall, he added.
Despite that setback, Barker and his committee continued to try to do something about the block, which was a significant part of downtown. Eventually, “the discussions led to meetings with N. Eldon Tanner, First Counselor in the First Presidency of the LDS Church,” he relates. “Wes
After talking with Utah Governor Scott Matheson, Hamilton (who was himself an old Chamber hand) was able to commit the state to building the first new building on the block: the Heber M. Wells Office Building, wrote Barker. Its neighbor would soon be the new Chamber of Commerce Building.
The Chamber actually had several offers for its new home, but developers of the City Centre, John Price Development Co. and Prowswood, “offered to name the building ‘The Chamber of Commerce Building.’ There would be a two-year free rent agreement and a graduated price per square foot that was very competitive,” said Ball.
The Chamber’s board accepted the deal, but then faced the problem of furnishing and equipping the office. It would get the sixth floor of the new building, but “it was just one large empty floor,” said Ball.
The solution was an innovation. Ball contacted designer Nan Conant, who came up with drawings and product samples for the various rooms. Then he and Deborah Bayle, his vice president for administrative services, took the designs out to show to various large Chamber members. “The idea was that each room in the facility would have a nameplate attached that would recognize the sponsors, or ‘owners’ of that particular section,” said Ball. On his very first call he was rebuffed, but after that every prospective buyer signed on. Thus the George S. and Delores Doré Eccles Foundation funded the boardroom, Jon Huntsman funded the entry and lobby, John and Glen Wallace did the presidents and CEO’s office (Ball’s room), and so on.
Within a few weeks the two had enough funding to complete the building. It became a real showcase, which the Deseret News called “elegant” and “posh” and which was referred to by The Salt Lake Tribune as “the most beautiful chamber facilities in America” at that time, said Ball. More than 150 businesses, corporations, and individuals contributed some $568,000 to design, build, and furnish the spaces. One board member, Merline Leaming, went so far as to have three dozen roses delivered every Monday for years to grace the offices.
But best of all, Ball reported, “Not one nickel of Chamber money went into these offices.”
They truly were very nice, with thirty-two rooms, an outside balcony, four conference rooms, and a multi-media center. It had taken two years to complete the project.
As a footnote, word of what had been done began to circulate through chamber communities, said Ball. “This was the first time a chamber had sold all of the rooms and moved into new, well-equipped offices with no capital expenditures…There was also the great advantage of having no depreciation, since the Chamber didn’t ‘own’ any of the furniture or equipment.” Other chambers copied the idea, which soon became known as the “Salt Lake City Plan.”
Sources: Fred Ball manuscript and Desmond Barker manuscript at Salt Lake Chamber offices, 175 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City. Salt Lake Business Communique, April, 1966 publication of the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. Salt Lake Tribune, undated 1966 clipping at Utah State Historical Society, 29 May 1985. Deseret News 1 April 1986.