O.C. Tanner: A gem of a building
Business turns old Hansen Planetarium into flagship store
By Carma WadleySep 6, 2009, 12:00am MDT
A man and a building. A passion for beauty and a commitment to giving back. A flagship store and a landmark preserved. That's the story you find at 15 S. State in downtown Salt Lake City.
It begins in 1904, when Obert C. Tanner was born in Farmington, the youngest of 10 children of Joseph and Annie Clark Tanner.
It continues in 1905, when Salt Lake City opened a public library near the corner of South Temple and State Street. One of the finest buildings of its day, the library was built of oolite sandstone quarried in Ephraim and financed by mining entrepreneur John Quackenbos Packard.
One wonders if young Tanner ever visited the library. Maybe he stopped by in the late 1920s when he was a student at the University of Utah. Probably he never guessed that at a far distant point in the future, that building and his name would become so impressively linked.
Tanner went on to make his living in the jewelry business, starting with class rings and graduation pins and finally extending into the finest of diamonds and gems. In 1976, he opened his first retail jewelry store in downtown Salt Lake City.
Throughout his career, he became known not only for love of beautiful things and his philanthropy (many a fountain was donated by his company), but also as former Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson once said, "his respect, tradition and integrity."
The Salt Lake City Library, meanwhile, was busy outgrowing the elegant building that housed it, and in the early 1960s, it moved to a new home across from the City-County Building. In 1965, the old library became the Hansen Planetarium, funded by Beatrice M. Hansen from the estate of her deceased husband, George.
But by 2003, that, too, had outgrown the facility, and the new Clark Planetarium was built at the Gateway.
Two referendums to provide funding for the empty building were voted down, perhaps in part because the city had no clear plan or purpose for it.
"That's where we came in," says Curtis Bennett, vice president of retail sales for the O.C. Tanner Co. "When we moved out of the Zion Bank Building, we began looking everywhere for a new downtown home." Temporarily housed in the Eagle Gate Plaza, they determined that the old library/planetarium building would be perfect for what they wanted.
"We approached the city and had to go through the bidding process," Bennett says, but the result is that after a $24 million renovation and restoration process, the building will become the flagship store of O.C. Tanner. The grand opening will be held Sept. 8 and 9, the first completed building of the massive Downtown Rising project.
Obert C. Tanner always wanted to create "the most beautiful jewelry store in America," says Bennett. "With this store, we think we have it."
When Carolyn Tanner Irish, chairman of the board since her father's death in 1993, first saw it, says Bennett, "she told me, 'If my father were here, he would say, with everything coming in downtown, this building is something that needs to be preserved. This is something we should do, and we should do it right.' "
With plans by MJSA Architects and Big D as the major contractor, the building was gutted, with only the side and front walls preserved. The back had already been altered by the addition of the planetarium dome, and one provision of the city's letting O.C. Tanner have the building "was that we couldn't just demolish that dome," says Bennett. Tearing it down would have been much cheaper, "but we had to dismantle it; it was being donated to a planetarium in Orderville."
The original ceiling, built of tongue-and-groove walnut, was uncovered. "We also discovered that the original library windows had been covered up by wallboard for the planetarium. We removed all the windows, sent them to a company called ReView in Missouri to have them restored and brought them back to be re-installed," says Bennett.
The original front staircase is still there, and original library light fixtures have been reproduced.
The interior of the building is graced by a spiral staircase made of limestone. "We were able to get some limestone from the original quarry," says Bennett, "but unfortunately, not enough for everything we needed."
The inside of the staircase is highlighted with a Flora Cascade chandelier, done by London's Sharon Marston and made up of 4,000 strands of end-emitting fiber optics with more than 14,000 hand-folded shapes in white polymer and steel interwoven in. Plus, there are some 3,000 hand-blown glass leaves in gold and amber tones. The 26.4-foot-high chandelier weighs 243 pounds, a definite showpiece.
"The whole staircase is a true labor of love," says Bennett. "It's very, very impressive."
The back of the building is another work of art. "There were no archival photos for the east side of the building, so we couldn't restore it to the original. We decided to take a few liberties."
Both the glass and the stone are etched. "On the bottom is an image of the library from 1905. On the top is the Milky Way, a tribute to the planetarium," says Bennett. "And in the middle is Obert Tanner, who brings it all together."
The glass is covered with a dot-matrix image, but the stone is done with a brand-new process. "It was developed for this building and has never, ever been done on limestone before. We hoped it would work, but we couldn't be more pleased with how it turned out."
There is a parking lot at the back of the building, outlined with Zimbabwe granite. It's the first time O.C. Tanner has had its own parking, "and we didn't want it to be ordinary," says Bennett.
The whole building has been seismically upgraded; there are miles of snow-melt tubing under the parking lot; offices and all the equipment have been placed in the basement, which extends back under the parking lot. "Most of the expense went into things that the public will never see," says Bennett.
"But we wanted to make sure that this building would still be around for another 105 years."
The original bid for the building was between $10 million and $12 million, he says. "The fact that we spent $24 million doesn't pencil out as a good business decision, but from the start this was not driven by business. It was driven by the desire to give a great gift back to the city."
A lot of people have a great emotional attachment to the building either from its days as a library or a planetarium, says Bennett. "We hope they will feel welcome to come here, whether they are customers or not, that they will walk through the three floors and appreciate this old building."
It is, he says, "simply another page in the legacy of O.C. Tanner."
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