Neil Wilkinson has always had a special spot in his heart for the volunteer pianists in the lobby of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

Many years before Wilkinson became the director of marketing and tourism for the LDS Church’s Temple Square Hospitality with an office on the ninth floor, his family would travel from their home in British Columbia, Canada, to visit his mother, Lorraine Wilkinson, in Utah. She was a volunteer pianist at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

“Thursdays were her day. She would sit at that piano in the lobby and play. If there were little kids, she would invite them over and ask, ‘What’s your favorite song?’ She could play any song by ear. She was an accomplished pianist,” Wilkinson said. “You can see that memory daily down there. You can watch these volunteers play the piano and see how others react to that beautiful music.”

Whether it’s a volunteer playing the piano or a choir singing in the mezzanine, listening to the music in the elegant lobby is one way the Joseph Smith Memorial Building has become what Wilkinson calls a “welcome center.”

Main lobby at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

Main lobby at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

June marked 25 years since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints finished renovating the Hotel Utah and transformed it into the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, with space for a 500-seat theater, private event dining and ballrooms, administrative office space, a family history center, a chapel, restaurants with a view and even a special room for hosting foreign ambassadors, dignitaries, VIPs and other high-level visitors.

“The Joseph Smith Memorial Building has been an integral part of the Temple Square experience,” Wilkinson said. “For the last 25 years it has served as a welcome center. When people are coming to see the Christmas lights or other activities, they always say, ‘I’ll meet you in the lobby of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.’ It’s that kind of beautiful welcome center that helps people feel at ease and comfortable when they come to Temple Square.”

In 1987, the church closed the Hotel Utah, which had been in business since 1911. According to “Go Forward with Faith: The Biography of Gordon B. Hinckley,” by Sheri Dew, the building, a downtown landmark, was outdated and worn out. The church wanted out of the hotel business. When President Hinckley determined to renovate the structure for church purposes, the decision was met with harsh criticism, Dew wrote.

Views from the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

Views from the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

Brent Shingleton, who served as the president and CEO of Temple Square Hospitality for 20 years, agrees.

After the building opened in 1993, Shingleton remembers getting to work before 7 a.m. and finding lines of people around the block who had come to see the film “Legacy” in the Legacy Theater. People were also eager to take tours and eat in the restaurants.

“It was just booming,” Shingleton said. “It was an exciting time.”

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s visit with the First Presidency in 1996, Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young’s wedding reception in 2000, the wedding reception of John Willard “Bill” Marriott Jr.’s daughter, and the 100-year Gala celebrating the Hotel Utah and Joseph Smith Memorial Building are among Shingleton’s favorite memories over the years.

“It’s a unique building, unlike any other building owned by the church, because it’s really a social center for everybody,” Shingleton said. “You can come there and have a lunch or dinner, see the movie, look up your family history or have a business or wedding event. The building is for everybody.”

Shingleton continued: “You go there and there is a level of excitement all the time. You go there at Christmas time and it’s electric, just fun. President Hinckley promised the community it would be opened up and people would enjoy it. I think that’s true.”

Speaking of the 100-year Gala, Wilkinson almost becomes emotional when he recalls Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s performance that night.

“I’ve seen lots of school choirs and different things up there, but to have the Mormon Tabernacle Choir stand up there and circle the mezzanine and sing in the beautiful lobby is a memory I will never forget,” Wilkinson said. “When you come here there is a great feeling of history and a great feeling of elegance, but a welcome elegance. Here is a special place where you can come and sit, reflect, feel welcome and enjoy this beautiful edifice. It’s kind of like it’s just for you.”

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