‘I’m so excited’: $116 million renovation of historic Utah federal courthouse begins

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series reviewing the history of Utah and the United States for the history section of KSL.com.

SALT LAKE CITY – The Frank E. Moss U.S. Courthouse, nestled between chic restaurants and historic buildings converted into offices, is secluded on Main Street.

However, historians say that’s kind of the point. Its location alone tells the story of a bitter dispute over the growth of Salt Lake City and Utah.

The historic building is about a block north of where the famous Walker Brothers lived from the 19th century, a part of town where bankers began with a different view of the city and territory to following a falling out with Brigham Young, said David Amott, executive director of Preservation Utah.

“It was a vision of Utah engaging with the federal government, engaging in commercialism, connecting Utah to the rest of the nation and to the American West at that time,” said Amott. “They tried to pull the center of power in the city from the northern part of the city built in a swept-back direction to the southern end – and all the buildings around it really reflect different people to achieve that.”

And in the midst of this battle of ideas, the brothers sold a large block of land to the federal government for just $1 in an effort to create a new political center closer to the Walker brothers. This agreement paved the way for the building at the turn of the 20th century.

The century-old building is currently undergoing its first major renovation in nearly 90 years in order to remain at the center of the city’s judicial sphere. Federal administrators and developers symbolically tore down a wall inside the structure Friday morning to celebrate the start of a massive $116 million renovation and seismic upgrade to the facility.

When the project is complete, the courthouse will again house 12 federal tenants, such as the United States Bankruptcy Court and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. This will eventually save approximately $4.3 million in rental cost avoidance per year for these tenants.

“We’re taking a nearly vacant, underperforming building and making smart investments to improve the working environment for these 12 agencies while maintaining the historic aspects that make this building special for Salt Lake City residents,” Tanisha said. Harrison of the General Services Administration. Regional Commissioner of the Public Buildings Service.

The Moss Courthouse was the first building in Utah to feature the rival Classical Revival style when it was built in the early 1900s.

James Knox Taylor, who designed many other federal government structures across the country, designed the building. His life’s work included both the Denver and Philadelphia Mint buildings, the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, and countless U.S. Post Office buildings from New York to Alaska. And the courthouse was originally one of many post offices when it was completed in 1905.

A 1905 US Post Office postcard of the current Frank E. Moss US Courthouse in Salt Lake City.  The building received additions in 1912 and 1932 and will be renovated over the next two years.
A 1905 US Post Office postcard of the current Frank E. Moss US Courthouse in Salt Lake City. The building received additions in 1912 and 1932 and will be renovated over the next two years. (Photo: General Services Administration)

It also served as a courthouse during this time, and its role as such has expanded over time, as has the building. There were two major additions to the building in 1912 and 1932, which transformed its original U-shape into a box and then into a figure eight. It landed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 along with other components of the Exchange Place Historic District and was eventually named for three-term Utah Senator Frank E. Moss in 1990.

It served as the courthouse for the U.S. District of Utah until a new building opened west of Main Street and across Courthouse Square in 2014. Irony fate, he now bears the name of Orrin Hatch, who overthrew Moss in the 1970s.

The renovation project was first announced two years ago when the federal government approved nearly $168 million in infrastructure spending for two projects in Utah, the Moss Courthouse and the Internal Revenue Service Center in Ogden.

Tim Gaidis, the project’s lead designer for architectural firm HOK, said the design process took about 18 months. Part of the reason it took so long to plan is that the Moss Courthouse has become the “most at risk” General Services Administration building because it is so vulnerable to earthquakes. The seismic retrofit — something that happened at the Utah State Capitol and is currently underway at the Salt Lake Temple — is the main component of the project.

“We’re basically building a building inside a building with concrete shear walls and steel bracing that will make it safe to live in,” Gaidis said.

The design also includes a new accessibility ramp at its entrance and modern upgrades, including a new gallery space on the first floor. But it is also looking to restore the building’s historic rooms that date back to the start in 1905. A pair of original courtrooms are also to be restored, as are new skylights similar to the old post office more of a century.

The hallways of the Frank E. Moss in 1905 and 2020 compared to what is planned for the building's renovation in 2024.
The hallways of the Frank E. Moss in 1905 and 2020 compared to what is planned for the building’s modernization in 2024. (Photo: General Services Administration)

Despite concerns over labor and supply chain shortages, as well as record inflation, the project is still on track to be completed by March 2024. Rob Moore, Executive Chairman of Big-D Construction, joked that it might come down to the wire but he expects “life” to really come back to the building in its final weeks, especially when construction wraps up and interior polishing begins.

“I am so excited about this project,” added GW Emge, Deputy Regional Commissioner of the Public Buildings Service. “I can’t wait to come back in two years to do the actual dedication.”

Pictures

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

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