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

The exterior of the Frank E. Moss US Courthouse in Salt Lake City on Friday morning. The century-old building is currently being renovated. (Carter Williams, KSL.com)

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series covering Utah and US history for the historical section of KSL.com.

SALT LAKE CITY – The Frank E. Moss US Courthouse stands alone on Main Street, nestled among chic restaurants and historic buildings converted to office space.

However, historians say that is 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 neighborhood where, after a falling out with Brigham Young, bankers began a different vision of the city and territory said David Amott. Managing Director at Preservation Utah.

“That was a vision of Utah that was dealing with the federal government that was going to deal with mercantilism that was going to tie Utah to the rest of the nation and the American West at that time,” Amott said. “They tried to pull the center of power in the city from the northern, spired part of the city to the southern end – and all the buildings surrounding that really reflect different people pulling that through.”

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

The centuries-old building is now receiving its first major refurbishment in almost 90 years so that it can remain at the center of the city’s judiciary. Federal administrators and developers symbolically tore down a wall inside the building Friday morning to celebrate the start of a massive $116 million renovation and seismic upgrade of the facility.

Once the project is complete, the courthouse will again be occupied by 12 federal tenants, including the US Bankruptcy Court and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. This will ultimately save these tenants approximately $4.3 million annually in avoided rental costs.

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

The Moss Courthouse was Utah’s first Rival Neoclassical style building when it was constructed in the early 20th century.

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

A 1905 US Post Office postcard of what is now the US Courthouse by Frank E. Moss in Salt Lake City.  The building was expanded in 1912 and 1932 and will be renovated over the next two years.
A 1905 US Post Office postcard of what is now the US Courthouse by Frank E. Moss in Salt Lake City. The building was expanded 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 period, and its role as such expanded over time as did the building. In 1912 and 1932 there were two major additions to the building, transforming its original U shape into a box and then a figure eight. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places along with other components of the Exchange Place Historic District in 1978 and was eventually named in honor of three-time Utah Senator Frank E. Moss in 1990.

It served as the U.S. District of Utah courthouse until 2014 when a new building was opened west of Main Street and across from the courthouse. Ironically, it’s now named after Orrin Hatch, who deposed 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, lead project designer at architecture 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 became the General Services Administration’s “most vulnerable” building because it’s so prone to earthquakes. The seismic retrofit – something that happened at the Utah State Capitol and is currently underway at the Salt Lake Temple – is the major component of the project.

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

The design also sees a new accessibility ramp at the entrance and modern improvements including a new gallery space on the first floor. But attempts are also being made to restore historical halls within the building, dating back to the beginning in 1905. A pair of the original courtrooms are also to be restored, as well as new skylights to resemble the old post office over a century ago.

The hallways of the Frank E. Moss in 1905 and 2020 compared to what is planned for the building's modernization 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 about labor and supply chain shortages, as well as record inflation, the project is still scheduled for completion by March 2024. Big-D Construction chief executive Rob Moore joked that it might be getting to the point after all. He expects “life” to return to the building in the last few weeks, especially once construction is complete and interior plastering begins .

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

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Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter covering general news, nature, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant next to Rochester, New York.

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