Skip to main content

The City Journals

Weekday tours offer insight into Utah’s Capitol building

May 09, 2018 04:05PM ● By Jana Klopsch

Baylee Montgomery, Visitors Services Manager at the Capitol (left) and Elizabeth Weight, Capitol Volunteer Docent and Utah Representative, points to her desk, fifth from the wall. (Lawrence Linford/City Journals)

By Lawrence Linford | [email protected]

“She was the first woman in the United States to cast a vote in 1870 on Valentine’s Day,” said Baylee Montgomery, the Utah Capitol’s Visitors Services manager, during a new “Pioneering Women” tour at Utah’s State Capitol building. In the House Chamber, a painting shows Seraph Young, Brigham Young’s grandniece, casting her groundbreaking vote with a disapproving male official. 

When Young cast her first vote in 1870 Utah legislators had no permanent capitol building. For decades lawmakers wrestled with constructing the capitol they aspired to build versus an affordable one. Then in 1911, after the railroad baron E.H. Harriman died, his widow Mary wrote a $798,546 check to the state to pay his estate’s inheritance tax. She could have easily contested the tax, since Utah rarely enforced it, but she paid without protest.

While other women voted in the colonial era and early in the republic’s history, Seraph Young was the first woman to vote with full voting rights in the United States and its territories. While Wyoming first granted women full voting rights in 1869, Utah shortly followed and no Wyoming woman voted before Young.

Hoang Ha, Capitol Volunteer Docent, stands in the Rotunda with the Capitol's east end behind him. (Lawrence Linford/City Journals)

 Harriman’s financial infusion spurred the Utah legislature to finally build the capitol they wanted. They issued a $1 million bond and Richard Kletting, a respected Salt Lake City architect, won a national design competition for the capitol.

While Kletting’s neoclassical design, incorporating Greek and Roman elements, was a traditional choice, he also used light and openness to emphasize the democratic ideal of transparency in government. The Rotunda on the second floor is an immense open space. The entrances of all three government branches open into the Rotunda: the House and Governor’s Office are at the west end, the Supreme Court is at the east end, and the Senate is to the north. Standing in the Rotunda you could theoretically see all the members of each branch coming and going.

“He liked the use of natural light,” said Hoang Ha, a Capitol volunteer docent, about Kletting during a separate general tour of the Capitol. The roofs on either side of the Rotunda, in the House, Senate and Supreme Court Chambers are nearly all skylights, filling the Capitol with soft natural light.

The Rotunda is made mainly of luminous Georgia white marble including 24 columns “each 25,000 pounds or three hippos,” Montgomery said.

The interior of the Rotunda is graced with several murals, including an azure sky with seagulls flying upward on the ceiling. Other murals depict 19th-century Utah life and early explorations of Utah.

At the west end, “Voice of the people,” is engraved in Latin above the Speaker’s Chair in the House Chamber. The room is decorated with paintings, elaborate gold trim and symbols like beehives, lion heads and angels. As in the Senate, the public can sit in a gallery overlooking the large House Chamber where the legislators work.

 The legislative session starts on the fourth Monday of January and continues for 45 days. “Anyone can come and go as they please during the legislative session,” said Ha.

Elizabeth Weight, a Capitol volunteer docent and Utah Representative, shared that during the legislative session if representatives have treats on their desks they’re free for everyone to enjoy.

“So that everyone treats everyone,” she said.

“The paintings in the house are of people and historical events while in the Senate the paintings are of Utah’s natural beauty,” said Montgomery. The Senate Chamber still retains its 29 original desks and has honey onyx columns, unique to Utah and no longer available.

“When you hold the marble in your hand, it almost looks like honeycomb,” said Montgomery.

In 1896, Utah elected Martha Hughes Cannon over her husband Angus, making her the nation’s first female state senator. Her statue stands in the courtyard north of the Capitol. Doctor, pharmacist and mother, she helped establish the state’s first Board of Health. Her statue will soon stand with Brigham Young’s in the U.S. Capitol representing Utah.

At the east end, The Supreme Court Chamber is the most conservatively decorated. Laurel branches tied with ribbons weave throughout the room symbolizing strength through unity. The chamber is used just once a year because of limited seating.

The State Reception Room, on the second floor, nicknamed “the gold room” is ornately decorated in the Victorian-style and “it was designed to impress foreign dignitaries,” Montgomery  said. The governor uses the room for ceremonial signings and for formal announcements. The wavy glass in the windows is bulletproof.

The first floor has a visitor center, the Hall of Governors (oil paintings of past governors are displayed) and several eclectic exhibitions including: some 900 movies and TV shows filmed in Utah (including a short video reel with movies as diverse as John Wayne’s “The Searchers” to “Austin Powers in Goldmember”), mining in Utah, Utah’s famous Art Bill and more. National unity symbols like a Liberty Bell replica, a Gettysburg Address plaque and a copy of The Declaration of Independence are also on this floor.

If you’d like to go inside the House, Senate and Supreme Court Chambers you’ll need to join a tour, unless you go during a legislative session. The Capitol is open every day to the public, including holidays. Tours, however, are only Monday through Friday. For more information visit

If you’d like to volunteer at the Capitol please email [email protected]