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  • Building AutonomyA History of the Fifteenth Ward Hall of the Mormon Women’s Relief Society
  • Carolyn Butler-Palmer (bio)

The Fifteenth Ward Society Hall once stood on land that is now occupied by the EnergySolutions Arena, a professional basketball venue just a few long blocks from the Salt Lake Temple at the center of Salt Lake City (Figures 1, 2). Built in 1868, some twenty-five years before the completion of the Temple, the Fifteenth Ward Society Hall was the first project in what became an impressive building campaign orchestrated by members of the Relief Society, a women’s organization affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an organization known informally as the Mormon Church both within and outside the community. For more than half a century, the Relief Society supported the construction of hospitals, libraries, almshouses, granaries, and more than 120 Society halls.1

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Figure 1.

Fifteenth Ward Relief Society Hall (circa 1868–84) as published in Emmeline B. Wells, Charities and Philanthropies: Women’s Work in Utah (1893). Courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Library and Archives, Americana Collection.

This article focuses on the Fifteenth Ward Society Hall, the first among a collection of structures that, I argue, grounded the unique spatial practices of Mormon women on the American frontier. Following in the Fifteenth Ward’s footsteps, Relief Society chapters elsewhere built meeting spaces to support a range of women’s activities, and years later the Fifteenth Ward constructed its own new hall to replace the first. In [End Page 69] addition to religious worship and scientific education, women cultivated silkworms and produced silk fabric, they created rag rugs and pieced together quilts, they sold household goods, and they aided the needy. Relief Society leaders also used the Fifteenth Ward Society Hall to organize a challenging and successful suffrage movement that they intertwined with the Saints’ distinctive culture of polygamy. They made their hall the cornerstone of a vibrant, public culture that shaped the urban landscape and daily life in their Latter-day Saints’ community.

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Figure 2.

Map of contemporary Salt Lake City, indicating the approximate location of the Fifteenth Ward Society Hall. Drawn by Amy Harris, 2012, not to scale.

From Cardston, in what is now Alberta, Canada, to Juárez, in Chihuahua, Mexico, Relief Society chapters built their halls of adobe, brick, stone, and wood. Some resembled residential buildings, others schools, and still others, retail stores. Despite these differences, Relief Society chapters referred to them as halls. Surprisingly little attention has been given to these varied structures, despite a building campaign that spanned a half-century. The official History of Relief Society, 1842–1966, includes one photograph of the Fifteenth Ward Hall and minimal discussion in the text.2 Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, and Maureen Ursenbach Beecher devote several pages to the Society’s hall-building trend in Women of Covenant: The Story of Relief Society, the only comprehensive history of the organization.3 The architectural historian Mark Hamilton offers up the only other treatment of the hall phenomenon; he briefly touches on the topic in Nineteenth-Century Mormon Architecture and City Planning. Apart from these sources, the history is sparse indeed.

The focus in Women of Covenant is on the Fifteenth Ward Society Hall and the recently widowed Sarah M. Kimball (1818–98), chapter president of the Fifteenth Ward Relief Society. She is credited with proposing a dual-purpose structure that would incorporate discrete meeting and retail rooms. Kimball’s innovation came in 1868, in response to a request by Joseph Smith’s effective successor, the president of the Latter-day Saints’ Church, Brigham Young. He called upon community members to develop an autonomous, self-sustaining Mormon economy, specifically independent of the imported goods that he anticipated would arrive in the intermountain region with the completion of the transcontinental railway in 1869. Kimball was quick to respond to Young’s request, and by leading the members of the Fifteenth Ward Relief Society through the process of designing a hall that housed a retail shop and meeting room, Kimball exceeded...


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