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Why the Utah Governor's Mansion is decked out in a Roaring '20s theme this Christmas

Midvale Elementary fourth grader Lily Hostetter helps decorate a Christmas tree at the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. This year's holiday theme is the Roaring '20s.

Midvale Elementary fourth grader Lily Hostetter helps decorate a Christmas tree at the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. This year's holiday theme is the Roaring '20s. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)


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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 — Gov. Spencer Cox and first lady Abby Cox each beamed brightly Tuesday as fourth-grade students from Midvale Elementary School hovered around a Christmas tree decked out in the governor's office inside their residence, the Kearns Mansion.

The overly enthused children hung ornaments with their pictures on them, dressed in attire from the Roaring '20s. They added gold pipe cleaners, shiny silver disco balls, as well as black feathers that one may have seen on a 1920s headband.

The children understood the assignment.

"Their decorations were amazing. They are amazing," Abby Cox said. "The kids were so thrilled to be here, they had the best questions (and) they make us laugh. They're really special."

The Kearns Mansion is decked out every holiday season with some sort of theme, which Utah's first lady and mansion staff plan out months in advance. They settled on the Roaring '20s this year not just because it's a fun decoration reflecting on a century ago, but they also liked how some of the themes of the era relate to life today.

Specifically, Utah is slowly returning to normal from the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic. It's perhaps the start of a new era much like life after World War I and the 1918-19 influenza pandemic ushered in the Roaring '20s, a revolutionary decade in American history.

"It just seems like a fun party atmosphere, and we're ready to party. It feels like — I don't know, maybe there will never be the end of COVID — but it felt like, at the time that we were choosing it, we're coming out of COVID, we're getting back together," she said. "It's a time to celebrate each other, be together and connect with one another. That just felt appropriate."

It also seems to fit the 120-year-old Kearns Mansion, an extravagant building designed by Utah architect Carl Neuhausen for Thomas Kearns and his family. Kearns was a business magnate during his time and one of Utah's senators at the time the home was built.

Gov. Spencer Cox reacts to a crooked star he put on a Christmas tree decorated by Middle Elementary students at the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. The students called it a shooting star.
Gov. Spencer Cox reacts to a crooked star he put on a Christmas tree decorated by Middle Elementary students at the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. The students called it a shooting star. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Tuesday marked the finishing touches, as the children from Midvale Elementary designed the last tree. Spencer Cox capped off the tree that the students decorated with a star, which humorously drooped to a 90-degree angle almost immediately. After a few failed attempts to fix the decoration, one student quipped that it was a shooting star, which the governor agreed with.

Abby Cox read the children a book before the Coxes led the students on a brief history tour of their residence. They sent the students off with gold-wrapped candy.

Gov. Spencer Cox tells Midvale Elementary fourth graders Jameson Albiston, Eden Bennett and Aliyah Magna Tovar about the history of the Governor’s Mansion as first lady Abby Cox listens at the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.
Gov. Spencer Cox tells Midvale Elementary fourth graders Jameson Albiston, Eden Bennett and Aliyah Magna Tovar about the history of the Governor’s Mansion as first lady Abby Cox listens at the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City on Tuesday. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

The school's tree is one of a few Christmas trees and other decorations inside the mansion, all of which were designed by Utahns. Across the hall from the governor's desk stands a larger but equally lavish tree inside the home's quaintly designed parlor. It's adorned with gold and silver, as well, along with "The Great Gatsby" book-shaped ornaments.

Cara Fox, the co-founder of the Fox Group, designed this tree. It's the second year her design firm was selected to design one of the trees. She said her firm learned of the theme in July and installed their tree a few weeks ago.

"We loved the first lady's theme this year," she said. "We just thought, 'What can we do to really pay homage to the past and the present and put them together?' So, we wanted to take design elements that are relevant now and then. It came together after a few months of planning."

All of the decorations are matched with paintings from local artists in history, which Abby Cox selected from the state's vast art history collection to hang in the home. The idea is to have a Utah-centric design all around.

The public will have a few opportunities to view the decorations and tour the historic home next month. Preservation Utah will hold a few 45-minute tours on Dec. 6, 7 and 13. The tours are free but people must register for a tour time online in advance. More details can be found on the organization's website.

"We would love as many people as possible to be able to see it," Abby Cox said. "This isn't our home, it's the people's home. We get to be here for a short time and we want to share it with as many people as possible. We really want to use it to uplift people, to connect people (and) to make sure that everyone has a sense of heritage here in Utah."

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.

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