Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes
This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.
SALT LAKE CITY — Until recently, the unique artifacts that tell Utah's story have been kept inside a warm basement, under an old train depot in downtown Salt Lake City.
That changed this fall when crews began to move the collection to a temporary facility. The collection is home to thousands of photos, maps, posters and all sorts of random items — from the original state flag, to pieces from the Topaz War Relocation Center, and even some of Philo Farnsworth's first television fusors — to name a few of the artifacts. This tedious process is still underway.
The Utah Legislature is working to fund a new five-story, 151,535-square-foot building just north of the Utah Capitol that would give the collection the permanent home that state historians have requested for years. In addition to the museum, the building plan calls for a new conference center, office space, 400 parking stalls and electric vehicle charging stations.
However, its most distinctive feature is the space set aside for a state history museum and history collection area, It's a building that will give Utahns a chance to see pieces of the state's past they may have never seen before. Jennifer Ortiz, the director of the Utah Division of State History, is excited about that prospect, calling Utah's history collection "truly incredible."
"It's such an incredible opportunity — a once-in-a-generation opportunity," she told KSL.com. "To get to participate in thinking about how we can highlight the state's history and the collections is really just a beautiful gift that we can give to the state and to Utahns."
The massive project will replace the aging and abandoned State Office Building that was constructed over 60 years ago. The old building is slated to be torn down in mid-August, according to Jim Russell, the director of the Utah Division of Facilities and Construction Management. Construction of the new building should begin in the fall.
The entire project is estimated to cost $219 million, with $110 million coming over from money saved from the construction of the new Utah State Prison, Russell said. Gov. Spencer Cox has requested that $85 million go toward the North Capitol project, with another $7 million in ongoing funds, according to his 2023 budget.
SB6, a legislative bill that covers all sorts of infrastructure and general government spending, provides $68 million toward the project. It cleared the Utah legislature last week. It's unclear whether the proposed funds in SB6 would complete the remaining cost of the project.
There are also economic variables that can change the total cost of the project.
"Of course, we are concerned with the continued escalation of the construction market due to labor and material shortages," Russell added, in an email to KSL.com.
Still, the new building is now projected to open in either late 2025 or early 2026 — about 12 to 18 months later than originally anticipated because of earthquake mitigation work that is expected to lengthen the project timeline, Ortiz said.
The delay, however, puts the building right on track to open just in time for a major nationwide celebration.
The need for the project
Utah historians have warned about the conditions of the state's vast history collection holding area for years. The basement rooms of the Rio Grande Depot are warm, which isn't good for preservation, while some of the boxes and shelves had been located beneath toilet pipes.
That's a problem for a collection that aims to preserve parts of Utah history, which are both sentimental and precious.
Many of the artifacts are priceless in that they're pieces of Utah's past worth keeping, like a pocket watch owned by a miner killed in the 1900 Scofield Mine Disaster that stopped at the exact time of the explosion. That said, the collection is also extremely valuable — valued at more than $100 million today.
The 5.7-magnitude earthquake that rattled the Wasatch Front in March 2020 significantly damaged the Rio Grande Depot. While it didn't harm much of the collection in the basement, it showed how quickly important pieces of state history could be destroyed.
The state approved a plan to renovate the historic building, and is still working to move the entire collection out to a few temporary locations before that project begins. The collection is likely going to remain in its temporary home until the North Capitol project is completed.
At the same time this was all happening, the state had growing issues with its office building north of the Utah Capitol. State officials made the decision to tear it down in 2019 because it didn't meet seismic standards, didn't have a fire suppression system and couldn't be reconfigured to address those issues because of how it was designed.
State officials instead acquired an office complex in Taylorsville three years ago and moved hundreds of employees that used to work in the building there.
That left open a potential new space for state history to move in. It's still not completely certain what the new building will look like, although Ortiz said it will likely look similar to the other buildings at the Capitol.
The division is one of a few state agencies working on the project. The Capitol Preservation Board is also a part of the discussion, as is the Utah Division of Facilities and Construction Management.
Okland Construction was picked last fall to be the project's contractor and VCBO Architecture was selected as the architectural design firm, according to Russell. VCBO's past work includes the massive Utah State Capitol Restoration project that was completed in 2007.
While it will include office and meeting space for state employees, the project centers around history — with all the state history collection needs. It will be climate controlled and there will be better security for it. And since the collection has been locked away from the public all these years, it also gives the public better access to view the history items.
"It's going to be built with the museum at the forefront of the project," Ortiz said. "Really, it's being thought of and conceived, at the beginning, as a museum."
She added that the division will set up public feedback discussions in the future to gather information regarding the types of exhibitions Utahns would like to see.
Meanwhile, the ongoing money that Cox recommended in his budget proposal partly relates to the hiring of new staff members to help with the collections. There are about 20 needed positions related to the new museum by 2026.
Not all of those positions will be filled in the next fiscal year but there's a growing need for a museum director and another high-level employee to help piece together the museum and help with the history collection logistics because both are time-consuming tasks, Ortiz said.
In addition to the funding for the project, the Utah Division of State History is also seeking $40,000 to help keep the collection insured. Past insurance policies have helped pay for the current transfer of the collection to a temporary facility.
Perfect timing for delayed construction
The seismic-related construction delays that move the projected museum's opening from 2024 to late 2025 or 2026 is actually pretty good timing in terms of history celebrations. History buffs might recognize that 2026 will mark 250 years since the Declaration of Independence was signed, effectively creating the United States.
There's a major national celebration planned with that semiquincentennial anniversary, and there's a statewide celebration also in the works. Utah is one of 18 states that has already created a commission to help plan out the party. Cox named Ron Fox as the co-chairman of the commission last year.
In a lot of ways, this is the gift that the state can provide for 2026 and America250.
–Jennifer Ortiz, director of the Utah Division of State History
The celebration is seemingly difficult for Utah because, obviously, it wasn't one of the original colonies — and its area wasn't considered a part of the United States until 1848. It became a U.S. territory in 1850 and then a state in 1896.
However, Utah's part in the celebration could venture more into how it has played a role in the country's history after it was established. In that way, the new museum might be something the state can offer as a way to showcase everything Utah has offered the country through time.
"(The delay) is serendipitous. In a lot of ways, this is the gift that the state can provide for 2026 and America250," Ortiz said. "I think it's such a beautiful way to celebrate it. … I love the connection between America250 and the opening of this museum. I think it's wonderful."
The division is asking for another $250,000 in one-time funding this session for staff members who will plan out the 250th anniversary celebration in 2026.