-A A +A

Mainly celebrated for its glorious topography, Utah is sometimes thought of as a place devoid of history before the 1847 Mormon colonization. But it has been inhabited on and off by Native people for at least 12,000 years. Its first inhabitants did not build much. They lived in caves in the winter and in open-air camps in the summer. Architectural settlements emerged with the introduction of agriculture and some level of sedentary lifestyle around 400 CE. Native communities handled harsh weather by developing granaries for food storage. Cliff dwellings and pueblos accompanied longer periods of occupation, but dry environmental conditions forced occupants to leave the area periodically.

Utah’s sheer-walled canyons, tall cliffs, low plateaus, mesas, buttes, and badlands tell us much about the landscape intelligence of the Indigenous population. Early tools and textiles found all over the Great Basin testify to Native technologies of subsistence and defense. The kivas and great houses of Ancestral Puebloans speak of the value placed on elders as transmitters of knowledge and wisdom. Ceremonial roads denote a network of sacred geographies. From natural observatories, Native Americans transmitted their insights about the heavens and the earth to their children. Hundreds of thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs remain, from the Ute mobile home builders near the Great Salt Lake to Anasazi village builders in the Four Corners. The Native American tribes today possess four-and-a-half percent of state land in the form of reservations-turned-sovereign nations. They live predominantly in HUD housing and trailers.

The first white settlers into the state came in 1776 as a party of Spanish explorers. Led by Franciscan friars Dominguez and Escalante, their mission was to promote Christianity among the Indians. Fifty years later a second batch of white settlers came to the Utah territory in search of beaver fur. Such colorful characters as Jim Bridger, Etienne Provost, Miles Goodyear, and Jedediah Smith trapped in the area and interacted with the Native peoples. While they gave dozens of place names to the area’s distinctive geographical features, they did not leave any architectural legacy.

Then came 3,000 Mormons in 500 wagons from Illinois. If seventeenth-century Massachusetts had attracted Puritans lacking religious freedom in England, the isolation of nineteenth-century Utah did the same for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). This is the place where soaring towers and elegant spires were to realize the utopia of a new Zion. Unlike many westward migrants, these were not individuals acting on their own, but a centrally directed group working to establish a community. They worked under the leadership of the church president and first governor of the territory, Brigham Young, to lay out towns, build houses and churches, and establish farms supported by an irrigation system. Utah achieved territorial status in 1850.

In the 1860s, three developments put Utah on the economic map: railways, mining, and the telegraph. Railway lines brought prosperity to certain towns like Ogden (favored by the LDS Church) and drained it from others like the Gentile (i.e., non-Mormon) city of Corinne. Grand depots celebrated the coming of industrial capitalism, prosperity, and the subsequent exploitation of natural resources. The discovery of precious metals, followed by iron, copper, and coal led to massive non-Mormon population growth a decade later. Today, non-Mormons make up thirty-eight percent of the population. The social and religious experiments of the Mormon community, and the lifestyle of Gentiles, were bankrolled by the transformation of Utah into the great American mine. Transcontinental telegraph lines boosted industrialization, trade, communication, and security. To be self-sufficient, the Mormons produced leather and wood treatment plants in Salt Lake City and Manta, textile and paper mills in Bingham City and St. George, and food and beverage manufacturing in Ogden and Provo. The wagon freight haulers between towns slowly disappeared; the quicker and easier transportation of material, labor, and ideas made possible first by coal and then electric engine (1910) transformed architectural possibilities. Larger and bolder designs were built, with Tiffany glass from New York and architects from California.

Utah’s geographic and cultural specificities bring distinct attributes to American architecture. The unique symbolism of Mormon temples and the technological feats of the tabernacles aside, the most important of contribution of Mormonism is the invention of the polygamous house. This housing type was created by a small number of polygamous Mormons in the nineteenth century. The most refined and complex example, the Beehive and Lion houses, dressed this short-lived familial arrangement in the same Greek Revival style as found elsewhere in the mid-nineteenth-century United States. With the mining economy came grand Victorian houses near the fields and luxurious apartments in Salt Lake City from which devout tycoons could conduct their business. At the turn of the twentieth century, Frank Lloyd Wright’s students brought the Prairie Style to Salt Lake City. The continuous abandonment of mines in the past six decades has created numerous ghost towns, posing tough challenges to preservationists and planners.

Over sixty percent of Utah land is federal property. But federal presence was first felt in the form of army camps like Forts Duchesne, Cameron, and Douglas—all in different states of preservation today. The federal government also invested in building a road system that catapulted the state into a new era of modernization. In 1920, Utah had 1,200 miles of roads connecting existing and new settlements. By the beginning of World War II, they had extended another 3,800 miles and half the cost was paid with federal dollars. When the interstate highway system was authorized in 1956, the federal share rose to ninety-five percent for those expensive stretches of double- and triple-lane roads in public lands. The result was rapid suburbanization along Wasatch Front, I-15, and I-89. It was the automobile that informed the planning and architecture of suburbs like Draper, Sandy, Murray, and Jordan.

More than seventy-five percent of Utah’s land is designated for public parks. The architectural consequences of this are evident everywhere in the state. From Zion to Canyonlands, Antelope Island to Utah Lake, a century of national and state park architecture has framed the Utah wilderness. Whether rustic, modern, postmodern, or sustainable, this architecture has sometimes presented nature in Utah as static and historical and sometimes as dynamic and living. Whether focused on landscapes or artifacts, architects working in Utah have been forced to confront changing ideas about spectacle and display, not only in park structures but also in the design of museums, music halls, and ecological centers. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, there has been increased investment in these building types. Utah’s contemporary economy relies on tourism. For this reason, climate change has become a concern for ski resorts and river excursion companies.

When looking at the built environment of Utah today, its successive patterns of development are clear. Its landscape was dominated by infrastructural projects and religious architecture in the nineteenth century—Neoclassical and neo-Gothic Mormon architecture stand side by side with equally Eurocentric cathedrals, parishes, and synagogues. By the beginning of the twentieth century, grand civic and educational institutions like courthouses, clubs, libraries, schools, and the capitol were built. Together they turned urban space into a battleground for rival civic and religious principles. After World War II, the great American conundrum of reconciling faith with scientific thinking, and religion with capitalism, fell to modern architecture.

In built form, utopianism, revivalism, regionalism, modernism, brutalism, deconstructivism and so on, Utah’s architecture has followed the same trends found elsewhere in the country, and is bound up in the same narratives of progress and historic preservation. The Mormon commitment to building a pristine Zion secluded from the rest of America has been encroached upon since the nineteenth century, as successive technologies of communication and transportation brought changing ideas about architecture and design. This continues today as Utah, like most places in the United States, is gripped by the fever of star architects, media saturation, and the desire to be taken seriously on national and international stages.


Carter, Thomas. Building Zion: The Material World of Mormon Settlement. Architecture, Landscape and American Culture Series. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. 

Carter, Thomas, and Peter Goss. Utah's Historic Architecture, 1847-1940. Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1988. 




Writing Credits

Shundana Yusaf

If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.

SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.