Utah's massive history collection to temporarily move as Rio Grande building gets retrofitted

Michele Elnicky, collection specialist for Utah Division of State History, looks at a shelf holding Civilian Conservation Corps equipment, small television tubes donated by television pioneer Philo Farnsworth’s wife and other historic items in 2018. The collection will be moved out of the Rio Grande Depot later this year before the building is retrofitted.

Michele Elnicky, collection specialist for Utah Division of State History, looks at a shelf holding Civilian Conservation Corps equipment, small television tubes donated by television pioneer Philo Farnsworth’s wife and other historic items in 2018. The collection will be moved out of the Rio Grande Depot later this year before the building is retrofitted. (Carter Williams, KSL.com)



Editor's note:This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's most prized possessions are getting a new home later this year — at least temporarily — before they are slated to move into their new permanent home in the not-so-distant future.

Crews are slated to move the contents of Utah's history collection, housed at the Rio Grande Depot in downtown Salt Lake City, to the Utah Division of State History's new temporary location in the Millcreek area by the end of the year, according to Jennifer Ortiz, director of the Utah Division of State History.

That's because the building, which was heavily damaged by last year's earthquake, is scheduled to get retrofitted to help it absorb any future seismic activity.

"It's a historic building. It's been around some time. It needs some love," Ortiz said of the Rio Grande Depot in an interview with KSL.com Thursday.

The building itself opened in 1910 as a railroad depot before it was purchased by the State of Utah for $1 in 1977. It's been the state's home for history for most of the time since and a new sign was placed atop it in 2019.

It's also home to the state's history collection, which was valued at about $125 million in 2020. The collection includes Utah's first state flag, documents from those held at Topaz Internment Camp, and even a box holding a few small television tubes donated to the state by television pioneer Philo Farnsworth's wife.

But the depot, like dozens of other historic buildings in the Salt Lake County area, received damage in the 5.7 magnitude earthquake that rattled the Wasatch Front in March 2020. Within a week of the earthquake, it was already determined that the building would be closed for at least a few months.

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During that time, crews from the Utah Division of Facilities Management reviewed the damage. They, along with state representatives, agreed that the building could be repaired and could use a seismic retrofit to prevent severe damage from any future earthquake, Ortiz said.

Employees of the Utah State History and Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement, which also is typically based at the Rio Grande Depot, have already started to set up in the temporary location: a former state health department building located at 3760 S. Highland Drive. Between COVID-19 and poor air quality day regulations, employees have bounced between in-office and remote work this summer, she added.

Meanwhile, the historic collection is expected to arrive later this year. Ortiz said some items, such as pamphlets and other mostly paper items were already moved out. The majority of the heavier items are expected to be moved to the temporary location in November and December. The ultimate goal is to clear out the depot by January.

"Our big artifacts, 3-D objects and most of our objects are still housed at the Rio Grande. We are going to be working with a team of professional museum collection movers to help us pack up our collections and move them safely to our temporary location where they'll live until the new Museum of Utah is built," Ortiz said.

The archives are slated to have a new permanent home with a brand new museum that will put them on display. The new history museum is still expected to open in summer 2024. The Rio Grande Depot itself isn't expected to reopen until 2024, either.

Ortiz said crews have already started some pre-work on the project but the bulk of the retrofitting construction isn't expected to begin until January 2022. The project is scheduled to take two years to complete. Employees for Utah State History and the Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement are expected to return to the building once the project is complete.

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