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Born Again in Salt Lake City

Roy Zipstein The Salt Lake City Public Library, designed by Moshe Safdie.

Photo: Roy Zipstein

But the families aren't all white. The city now has a booming Hispanic community and substantial numbers of Tibetans, Bosnians, Croatians, and Somalians. It has become a major locale for the resettlement of displaced people—most recently several hundred from Hurricane Katrina. The liquor laws remain peculiar—receptions in the state capitol building are dry—but the brown-bag and mini-bottle regulations of the seventies have been revised, and now there are actually breweries in the state; the first opened in 1989. The Utah State Wine Store on 300 East has more than 30,000 bottles and 3,000 brands, including a bunch of first growth Bordeaux and grand cru Burgundies.

The new face of the city can be glimpsed in gay-pride parades. In articles about metrosexuals in Salt Lake Magazine. In a raft of new museums, including the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, the North American Museum of Ancient Life, and the Utah Museum of Art & History. In the Clark Planetarium. In a new public library designed by Moshe Safdie, which might be the country's most beautiful—a great crescent of light and glass with 500,000 books and hanging sculptures and spectacular rooftop views.

Beyond dramatic and obvious developments, there were little things that looked different or read differently to me because their contexts had been altered. For example, visitors used to ?nd the Mormon-based proscriptions against tobacco an irritating example of killjoy religiosity. Now antismoking ordinances have been adopted all over the country, even in anything-goes Manhattan.

I stopped in at a place called Cup of Joe on the ground floor of the old Fire­stone Tire & Rubber building, a two-story warehouse and service station that had been built in 1925 and was converted to commercial space and condominiums in 1998. The coffeehouse was founded by a New York City actor who migrated to Salt Lake when downtown district lofts could be had for a song. Farther west down Broadway is the old depot of the Denver & Rio Grande Railway, which houses the Utah State Historical Society. A mile or so north along the tracks is the old Union Pacific Depot, now a Virgin record store. In between is the Gateway, an elaborate development of condominiums, restaurants, movie theaters, and shops strung along pedestrian promenades and alleyways. Stock quotes rip by on the façade of a Morgan Stanley outpost.

It's possible the culture shock I was experiencing about Salt Lake began the moment I arrived under a porte cochère at the Grand America Hotel and was ushered into the lobby by a liveried eager-beaver doorman. "This is the right place," Brigham Young is said to have declaimed on July 24, 1847, when he looked over the scrubby sage and grassland of the Salt Lake Valley from a hilltop near the mouth of Emigration Canyon. God knows what he, his 27 wives, or his 57 children would have made of the Grand America had it been waiting for them. Maybe they would have continued on to California, or maybe they would have stayed, thinking they'd never find anything in Zion to match the hotel's marble portals and flower-scented air, not to mention the prizewinning brunch at its Garden Café restaurant. The whole party of Mormon pioneers—148 people with 72 wagons, 93 horses, 66 oxen, 52 mules, and assorted cows, dogs, and chickens—could have easily fit in the main ballrooms without disturbing the chandeliers.

The Grand America, which opened in March 2001, is probably the most spectacular, incongruous, over-the-top addition to the city skyline since the erection of the Salt Lake Temple. It was built by Earl Holding, who grew up in Salt Lake, and whose many interests include the Sinclair Oil Corporation, the Sun Valley ski resort, and the Little America hotel chain. Its 775 rooms and ballrooms and courtyards are spread across nearly all of a 10-acre city block formerly occupied by pawnshops and warehouses. It's the kind of place where after you finish admiring the giant vases of flowers in the lobby, and the English woolen carpets, and how carefully the grain of the Carrara marble has been matched from panel to panel, the elevator whisks you up to the 17th floor, where a plate of fruit that can actually be eaten is waiting in your outsized room. And where after you have unpacked, and taken the hand of the Italian silk comforter on the bed, and spent 10 minutes staring appreciatively at the perfectly mortised baseboard in the bathroom, you find yourself wondering: What the hell is a place like this doing here?The hotel is crème brûlée for people who grew up accustomed, as one cook con?ded, to having green Jell-O for dessert. Small wonder locals wandering in for the first time look as if they need to be retrofitted with base isolators.

One morning, downstairs, over breakfast in the self-conscious European ambience of the lobby lounge, where later in the day guests will be positioning themselves on overstuffed chairs to sip tea and nibble crustless watercress-and–bay shrimp sandwiches while a harpist plays, a family of skiers was clomping around in ski boots, Gore-Tex jumpsuits, and Pat­agonia hats. They were having a bite of banana bread and scones with their coffee before their short trip to the mountains. Galumphing about the chambers of the Grand America in ski boots seemed analogous to traversing the ridge to High Rustler at Alta in Manolo Blahniks. I was almost sorry to see the pretension of the room undermined so thoroughly, though I don't think the hotel was, given how few people were in residence that week—"a shoulder week," a concierge told me apologetically. Although during the Olympics the hotel was booked solid with IOC delegation members, NBC television crews, and sundry grandees, one wonders if the investment will ever pay off in less feverish times. Like the city whose aspirations it symbolizes, the Grand America seems to have been built on faith, the glorious quixotic faith of if-you-build-it-they-will-come—but it's a long trip in a covered wagon from Patagonia outerwear to Yves Saint Laurent ball gowns.

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