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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 — As renovations to the Governor's Mansion, originally the Kearns Mansion, have wrapped up, the building's current residents wanted to recognize the family who built the historic home over a century ago.
That's why Gov. Spencer Cox and Utah first lady Abby Cox chose to make "A Kearns Family Christmas" the theme of this year's Christmas decorations at the mansion.
"We wanted to throw (it) back to them, to pay homage to them and the generous gift that they gave," Abby Cox said, standing in front of a large Christmas tree inside the house. "We thought it would be a beautiful tribute to celebrate Christmas the way they would."
Utah's First Family debuted the holiday design Monday with a group of students from Wallace Stegner Academy in attendance. The students helped the Cox family decorate a tree in the mansion and performed songs for the family.
The building will be available for public tours on Dec. 9, although reservations are needed to secure a tour of the building that's normally closed off.
History of the mansion
The governor helped lead a tour of the Kearns Mansion as part of Monday's festivities. The Kearns Mansion is certainly full of history.
The building dates back to 1902 and is one of a few historic mansions that can be found along South Temple east of Main Street.
The home was designed by Carl Neuhausen under the direction of Thomas Kearns, who made a fortune in the late 19th century as a silver miner who was also serving as a U.S. senator at the time. Kearns became a millionaire at 28 and was just 40 years old when his mansion was built. He also became the publisher of the Salt Lake Tribune and owned a railroad company, too, before his death in 1918.
By the point Kearns' mansion was finished, Neuhausen had already designed a few of Utah's more distinguishable buildings, such as the Kearns-St. Ann's Orphanage. He would go on to design the Congregation Montefiore and the Cathedral of the Madeleine shortly after he completed the Kearns Mansion.
But the mansion is one of the lasting legacies both share. It's a structure that encapsulates wealth at the time. It's estimated that it cost about $250,000 to construct at the time; for context, that's a little more than $8 million in today's money, when adjusting for inflation.
"The building itself is a work of art, made of oolite marble and richly furnished interiors of wood, tile and marble. It reflects the quality that affluence could demand in the new 20th century," the Utah Division of State History, wrote in a history of the building, back in 1970.
The mansions had 28 rooms, six bathrooms, two parlors, two dining rooms and 10 fireplaces at the time of its completion. The house also featured a bowling alley, a ballroom and a billiard room, as well as three vaults for silver, jewelry and wine. If that wasn't enough, it also had had electric lights, steam-heated radiators, a call board, dumbwaiters and one of the first indoor showers in all of Utah, as noted by Utah History Markers.
Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were among the many prominent guests to the home. Roosevelt even watched a parade come down South Temple from the mansion's second-floor marble loggia, according to Utah state history.
Kearns died in 1918 but the building remained with his widow, Jennie Kearns, and the Kearns family for a few more decades afterward. In 1937, a few years before her death, Jennie Kearns donated the mansion to the state for it to become the governor's mansion. It was used as such up until it became the home of the Utah State Historical Society in 1957.
The society, now a part of the Utah Division of State History, got the mansion added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. A decade later, the state again made it a residence for the governor of the state.
This belongs to the state and we want to make sure they have access to it.
–Utah first lady Abby Cox
It has mostly remained the same for over a decade, aside from some interior changes. But the holiday season has resulted in the largest changes between now and then. There was a fire caused by Christmas decorations in 1986, according to the Deseret News. Then, on Dec. 15, 1993, a faulty wire in a strand of Christmas lights sparked another fire, resulting in a multimillion-dollar renovation that took a few years to complete.
Earlier this year, the Utah Governor's Office announced it would restore over 100 windows. Crews also replaced the building's roof with a sparkling copper finish similar to the one that originally topped the building over a century ago.
How to tour the mansion
The Kearns Mansion, 603 E. South Temple, will only be open to the general public on Dec. 9 this holiday season. Touring the house is free to the public but reservations must be made at least one day in advance through Preservation Utah's website.
There are currently four tour slots available that begin between noon and 3 p.m. that day; however, Preservation Utah says it may add more times if the tours fill up. Every group will be limited to 20 people and all attendees must wear a mask, according to the agency.
Those who sign up for a tour are told to arrive at the building's east gate by at least five minutes before their tour is scheduled to begin. Every tour is about 45 minutes in length.
Abby Cox said she enjoyed hosting students Monday and pledged to have more student groups tour the building in the future. She added that more public tours are expected in the springtime.
"We love to share this history with the children of this state," she said. "This belongs to the state, and we want to make sure they have access to it."
Contributing: Aubrey Shafer