When it opened in 1909, the Commercial Club building was heralded as a sign of community progress and a harbinger of growth for what would become the Salt Lake Chamber.
Early Commercial Club secretary Fisher Harris had proposed a six-story building in 1904 for the growing organization. However, it wasn’t until 1908 that mining magnate Samuel Newhouse offered to donate land for a new Commercial Club building in his Exchange Place enclave. Along with donating land for the Commercial Club, he also donated the site for the Salt Lake Mining and Stock Exchange.
Newhouse envisioned Exchange Place as being an equivalent to Wall Street in New York City. The twin Boston and Newhouse buildings had previously risen on the corners of Exchange and Main streets, and work later began on the Newhouse Hotel a block to the south. Initially, this was an effort to construct a gentile commercial district at the south end of the central business district to counterbalance the concentration of Mormon establishments at the north end of the city.
Newhouse, dubbed the “Father of Copper Mining in Utah,” personified the self-made, non-Mormon aristocracy. His brisk business in Bingham Canyon properties turned over $10 million within a decade ($200 million in 2002 dollars). Beginning in 1899, huge quantities of both rich and low-grade ore poured from the Highland Boy Mine into Newhouse’s Murray smelter. Only two weeks after the smelter was completed, company control shifted to the Rockefeller syndicate for $12 million (or $240 million in 2002 dollars), making Newhouse a fortune.
Newhouse’s gift of land set planning for the Commercial Club building in motion. The club retained architects Walter E. Ware and Alberto O. Treganza, who wanted the building to be a smaller version of the New York City Athletic Club.
Proclaimed as “fireproof,” the six-story building used concrete and protected cast iron I-beam and crown structural systems. Architectural detailing and overall style was borrowed from the Second Renaissance Revival. It featured poly-chromed terra cotta, a raised first floor, fluted columns, ornamental faces and lions heads, inlaid panels of colorful mosaic tiles, a bracketed copper cornice, and a western motif of plaster cattle skulls and swags in the ceiling dome of the rotunda.
Officials set the cornerstone July 5, 1909, in a grand ceremony. It was dedicated November 23, 1910. The Commercial Club moved into the new building from its offices at the Dooly Building Annex on West Temple and Pierpont Avenue. Originally, the club contained a lounge, a banquet room, private dining rooms, a ladies parlor overlooking the main dining room, game rooms, and private hotel-like accommodations on the top floor. A swimming pool was later added.
The building became synonymous with Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club activities for nearly three decades. The actual Commercial Club and Chamber business functions were first housed in the building’s basement.
Commercial Club secretary of the time, Joseph E. Caine, predicted the “new club house” would stand for 100 years and help expand the club’s membership well beyond the 1910 mark of 1,150 members.
“With an interior arranged to perfectly conserve the beauty and utility of the club’s home, there is not a thing lacking from cellar to garrett,” he wrote.
Caine described the building’s decoration designed by W. & J. Sloane of New York: “The decorations on the walls are rich and cheerful in tone, the hangings are of the finest fabrics, and the rugs of the very best weaves, there will not be found a garish spot anywhere under the roof. The taste and skill of the best artists in New York were brought into play in the weaving of this beautiful scheme.”
While its opulence was much admired, the building soon became a financial drain on the club. For the next three decades, board of governor minutes are filled with financial remedies to keep the building and organization afloat. For example, the club formed a committee in 1913 to dig the club out of its financial straights. The committee recommended a refinancing plan and voluntary assessments to pay debts. In 1914, Commercial Club members were assessed an extra $80 each year for three years to pay down the mortgage interest. In 1920, officers approved a similar plan to shore up the club’s sagging financial condition.
Despite its roller-coaster finances, the Commercial Club building became a hub for some of the most significant events of Utah’s new century. United States President William Howard Taft spoke at the building when he visited in 1911. During the Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club’s silver anniversary sixteen years later, Taft, who had become chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, recalled his honorary membership to the Commercial Club in a telegram.
During the 1911 event Judge Orlando W. Powers, a non-Mormon who had once been one of statehood’s bitterest opponents, described how a “new Utah” had emerged. The Commercial Club building certainly symbolized such optimism.
“In the fierce conflicts that have at times shaken the state as by an earthquake, I have seen Utah emerge each time a little more like the rest of the union. And from the experience in which I have been schooled I declare and I believe that Utah can work out her own salvation…. What we need now more than all else is a spirit of toleration. Out of the flames of the conflict that has caused us such sorrow and filled our hearts with bitterness there is certain to rise a new Utah,” Powers said.
During World War I, the Commercial Club building “throbbed with a variety of life it had never know before,” The Salt Lake Tribune reported. It was home to practically all of the war effort of Salt Lake City and of Utah. It became the headquarters for the Red Cross, Liberty bonds, and war-saving stamp campaign as well as various forms of welfare work. Commercial Club committees were organized around different war-support efforts. In the first Red Cross campaign, $500,000 ($5.9 million in today’s funds) was raised in Utah, which meant more than a dollar for every man, woman, and child in the state. The Tribune recounted how Utahns went “over the top” in many appeals to help during the war.
In 1923, the building hosted President Warren G. Harding at a luncheon after a parade was held through the city in his honor. In 1926, the Crown Prince and Princess of Sweden dined within the building’s walls, as did noted New York financier Otto H. Kahn. Along with Chamber business and official hosting, the Commercial Club had an active social calendar including art exhibits, “musicales,” and concerts.
In 1930, when Salt Lake Chamber Secretary Gus Backman moved into the building he recalled how it was as ornate as a circus elephant. It fact it was one–a white one. The Chamber was struggling along with the rest of the business community in depressed times. Members dropped out; many of those who stayed in didn’t pay their dues. Interest on the bonds on the $250,000 building was not being met. By 1936, a committee came to the conclusion that the Chamber could no longer afford the Commercial Club building. Dues to maintain occupancy there would be more than double most other chambers in the United States.
“Every effort should be made by the board to dispose of the present quarters as it is very evident the present activities engaged in by the Chamber of Commerce in no way justifies the occupancy of the building. The board of governors should endeavor at as early a date as possible to obtain a purchaser for the building. It is our belief that the prestige of the Chamber of Commerce could be materially curtailed through one fact only, that is the amount of dues necessary to be charged to cover the cost of operating under the present setup,” a finance committee report of the time read.
Eventually, a decision was made to move and the building was sold.
The Chamber relocated from the Commercial Club building in September 1938 to headquarters at 207 South Main, a spot previously occupied by an early Schramm-Johnson Drug Store and the old Kenyon Hotel. In January 1943, “Commercial Club” was dropped entirely from the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce’s name and the building’s memory was left to the pages of Chamber history. After World War II, the building housed U.S. Bureau of Reclamation offices and then stood vacant for a decade from 1961 to 1971.
Salt Lake businessman Bob Donihue bought the building from the LDS Church’s Zion’s Securities in 1967 for only $150,000 ($810,810 in 2002 funds), but he couldn’t attract tenants. Howard Hughes wasn’t interested. Donihue contacted Hugh Hefner, who said the building was perfect as a Playboy club, but Salt Lake “wasn’t ready for them yet.” Later it became a disco.
Today, the partially restored building is registered as part of the Exchange Place National Historic District.
Sources: “Silver Anniversary Edition of The Chamber of Commerce and Commercial Club,” Salt Lake Tribune, 11 February 1927. “Gay Business Men Frolic at ÔPigiron’ Fest,” Salt Lake Tribune, 12 February 1927. Linda Sillitoe. A History of Salt Lake County, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah State Historical Society, 1996) John S. McCormick, The Historic Buildings of Downtown Salt Lake City (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1982). John S. McCormick, “Silver in the Beehive State,” Beehive History 16 (1990). Judge Orlando W. Powers in an after-dinner speech at a banquet for President William Howard Taft at the Commercial Club in Salt Lake City, 5 October 1911, quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune, January 5, 1914. Joseph E. Caine, “Commercial Club of Salt Lake and Its Object,” clipping from unknown newspaper in H.L.A. Culmer scrapbook at Utah State Historical Society collection. “Plans Laid For Entertainment of President,” Deseret News, 17 April 1923. “Chamber of Commerce Holds Site Long Hub of Down-Town Salt Lake,” Deseret News, 19 July 1947. “Diplomatic Backman Is Synonym For S.L. Chamber of Commerce,” Deseret News, 21 February 1952. Salt Lake Chamber Board of Governors minutes from 24 June 1914 and Salt Lake Chamber Finance Committee Report for 1 July 1936 through 31 December 1936 in Salt Lake Chamber collection, Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah. Exchange Place Historic District, Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City, National Register of Historic Places, Inventory Nomination Form, Item No. 8, Page 2, at Utah State Historical Society. State of Utah, Division of State History, Historic Sites Survey. Interview with Bob Donihue, June 6, 2002.