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Carter Williams,

Salt Lake City's Rio Grande sign to be replaced after 6 decades atop historic building

By Carter Williams, | Posted - Jul. 25, 2019 at 7:01 p.m.

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Editor's note:This article is part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for's Historic section.SALT LAKE CITY — It’s the end of the line for the current Rio Grande Depot sign, which has been a fixture in downtown Salt Lake City for six decades.

State officials announced Tuesday work to replace the sign atop the historic Rio Grande will begin next week and is expected to be completed by mid-October. The large sign wasn’t a part of the original building, but was installed in the late 1950s and has shined brightly in the city since.

However, there are some issues that have made it difficult for state officials to maintain, said Josh Loftin, spokesman for the Utah Department of Heritage & Arts. More specifically, he said replacement parts were “no longer reasonably available” and the frame holding the sign had become dingy enough that crews couldn’t even use the catwalk to make repairs without extra equipment. It made more sense to replace it.

A new two-sided sign was produced to replace the current sign after more than two years of reviews and analysis, according to Loftin. A mock-up of the new sign provided to by the Utah Department of Heritage & Arts shows it will feature the same font and design of the neon sign, but "Rio Grande" will be visible from both east and west of the building.

A view of the Rio Grande sign atop the Rio Grande Station on Thursday, July 25, 2019. Work to bring the sign down will begin on Aug. 1, 2019. The project for a new sign is expected to be completed by mid-October. (Photo: Carter Williams,
A mockup of the new Rio Grande Depot sign that's expected to be in place by mid-October. The sign is similar to the neon design it's replacing, but will be two-sided — facing east and west — unlike the old sign. (Drawings courtesy Utah Department of Heritage & Arts)

Loftin said the Salt Lake City Planning Division approved it in April. The project is slated to begin Aug. 1 and expected to be completed by Oct. 11.

The history of the Rio Grande Station building

While the sign may not be original to the building, it's been a visual portion of the building's history — and the Rio Grande building has a long history in the city.

The planning of Rio Grande Station dates back to 1908. According to Utah historian Kent Powell — who filed the paperwork to add the building to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 — the plan was for a building with a French Renaissance style. Chicago-based architect Henry Schlacks, who designed several churches across Chicago as well as buildings in Colorado and Idaho, was tapped to design the building.

A photo of the Rio Grande Station building taken on July 8, 1910, as construction was close to being finished. (Photo: Utah State History)

It was completed in 1910 and is actually a mixture of French Renaissance and Beaux-Arts styles, featuring three 28-foot by 30-foot windows on each side. Its official cost was about $750,000 in 1910, which equates to roughly $20 million today if you adjust for inflation.

Powell wrote the building is “a tangible monument of the conflict between George Gould, son of the famous financier Jay Gould, and Edward H. Harriman.” That is, George Gould put together a transcontinental railroad so the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad could compete with the Union Pacific, which Harriman headed until his death in 1909.

“At Salt Lake City, the Denver and Rio Grande railroad, constructed from Denver to Salt Lake City in 1883, connected with the Western Pacific to form the last link in Gould's transcontinental railroad system,” Powell wrote. “In order to provide facilities for the district offices of both the Denver and Rio Grande railroad and the Western Pacific, and to provide a modern, impressive station to lure travelers from the Union Pacific, the Rio Grande station was constructed.”

In its first few decades of existence, the building also served as an arrival and departure location for Utah soldiers deployed to fight during War War I and World War II, Powell added.

It wasn’t until 1940 that the first sign was placed atop it, Loftin said. In the 1950's, the neon sign, which only faces east, replaced a three-sided sign that previously existed.

By the time Powell put in the paperwork to add the building to the National Register of Historic Places, its use as a train station had declined. He wrote that it “serves as a symbol of a by-gone era when railroad transportation was the best form of overland travel available.”

It was officially added to the national list on Sept. 25, 1975, according to National Park Service records. Two years later, the state purchased the building for $1, according to Loftin. Today, it serves a different historical purpose. It’s the home of the Utah Department of Heritage & Arts and the state’s historic archives are kept in its basement. A cafe also exists where the original coffee shop was when the building opened in 1910.

As for the neon Rio Grande sign, Loftin said the plan is to use it to stencil the design for the new one. Once that's complete, its final stop remains in question. However, one option is that it could very well join a select few of Utah’s other old neon signs of yesteryear in the state's historic archives, but that's to be determined.


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