SALT LAKE CITY -- Standing literally and figuratively in the shadow of the towering Mormon Temple at the heart of this city, an aging but still elegant pioneer of the Old West is going through her death throes in full view of an alarmed populace.
The Hotel Utah, a majestic white marble structure that is widely described as "the finest hotel in the large chunk of America between Denver and the West Coast," is scheduled to close its doors for good on Aug. 31.
The impending demise of the 76-year-old institution, an object of affection and pride for generations of Utahans, has been deplored by the governor, the mayor, the Chamber of Commerce and the Historic Landmarks Commission. Despite public appeals, petition drives and some small protest marches, however, the owner says economic difficulties spell doom for the five-star hotel.
That kind of battle, pitting commercial interests against the aesthetic and emotional claims of preservationists, has become a fairly common drama in American cities. But as often happens in this religious capital, the Salt Lake version of this familiar plot takes a special twist. Like almost every dispute of any importance here, the fate of the Hotel Utah is inextricably tied to the city's dominant moral and economic power, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
The ornate, luxurious hotel is owned by Deseret Management Co., the multibillion-dollar commercial arm of the Mormon Church. Kathryn MacKay, a leader of one of the groups fighting to keep the hotel open, invokes "the Mormon tradition to provide a respite for travelers." She notes that the church's founder and first prophet, Joseph Smith, opened a hotel in Nauvoo, Ill., one of the stops along the Mormons' long flight from persecution in the 19th century.
Church spokesman Richard Lindsay responds with a moral appeal of his own. The hotel is operating in the red, he says, and it would not be justifiable "to subsidize hotel operations from dedicated church funds contributed by faithful members worldwide for ecclesiastical purposes."
Lindsay's explanation raises a question, however. The beautiful hotel, managed by the prestigious Westin Hotel chain, enjoys a national reputation for comfort and elegance. It boasts the city's finest location and largest meeting rooms. How could such a place be losing money?
An answer can be found in a major economic transformation sweeping the Rocky Mountain West. As the traditional industries -- farming, energy and, particularly here in Utah, mining -- have declined, the region has moved toward an industry based on tourism. In the heart of Salt Lake City, that economic shift has sparked construction of a half-dozen major hotels in the past few years.
The hotel construction boom forced the venerable Hotel Utah to fight it out with a host of eager new competitors. In this heightened competition for the tourism and convention trade, the church's hotel evidently has been hampered badly by its owner's moral rectitude: The church refuses to serve beer, wine or whiskey in its hotel.
"If it had a liquor license," said Rick Davis of the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau, "the hotel would be going gangbusters."
There was a bar in the palatial marble lobby when the Hotel Utah opened for business in 1911. One of the major purposes of the new hostelry, after all, was to provide mainstream comforts for travelers at a time when many Americans still thought of Utah as a wild outback populated by a religious cult.
In the ensuing decades, while Salt Lake City was becoming a financial and political capital as well as a religious center, the hotel became a famous place to stay. Every U.S. president since William Howard Taft has been a guest, and the hotel traditionally has served as home for presidents of the Mormon Church.
The church imposed its no-liquor principle in the hotel after World War II, but the hotel continued to prosper until the recent boom brought intense competition. Few local residents were aware that it was having financial problems, and most were stunned when the church announced its plan to convert the building into church offices.
Some groups have tried to reverse that decision. And one organization has even offered the church a $30 million low-interest loan to keep the hotel open. Mormon officials have listened politely but say closure is unavoidable.
Although that decision has spawned univeral dismay here, protest leaders say they have had difficulty translating the general unhappiness into any widespread protest. "The problem in this city," said James MacPherson, head of the local historical society, "is that once the church authorities have made a decision, most people feel it has to be right."
"What the Hotel Utah tells you is something that's just basically true about life in Utah," said Wendy Mosely, a lawyer and leader of a pro-hotel citizens' group. "If you try to fight the Mormon Church in this state, you're going to lose."