First Unitarian Campus

By Lex Hemphill

At roughly the same time that Tom Goldsmith became the minister of First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City in September of 1987, the congregation appointed a long-range planning committee, effectively launching a six-year-long capital campaign to upgrade the church’s physical structures.

And in May of 2019, on the very day that Goldsmith announced to the congregation that he would be stepping away from his ministry in two years, the members were informed of the kickoff of another capital campaign, this one for a half-million dollars to address some critical maintenance needs.

It is fitting that Goldsmith’s ministry of three-plus decades at First Church should be bookended by the commencements of two capital campaigns. After all, the issue of maintaining and upgrading the physical plant on 13th East was a dominant one throughout his tenure.

During the Goldsmith years, the church embarked on two major capital campaigns: the Centennial Campaign (1987-93) and the Legacy Campaign (2005-13), which totaled about 14 of his first 26 years, if dated from the first planning meetings to final completion.

And that doesn’t include other smaller capital campaigns, such as the $200,000 drive to renovate the revered chapel in the late 1990s and the Torchbearers campaign, the name given to the aforementioned $500,000 effort hatched in 2019 to tend to much-needed maintenance and improvements.

Through it all, the church’s mighty steeple, its defining physical landmark, still stands as majestically as it did when the chapel was dedicated in September of 1927. The original chapel is still the central worship space for the First Church congregation, just as generations of its devotees seem to prefer it.

Indeed, the early plans in both the Centennial and the Legacy campaigns included a new chapel, to be built just north of the existing one. But when it became apparent during the course of both campaigns that sufficient funding for both a new chapel and the other wish-list items could not be raised, the congregants expressed a preference to put their money into more and better classroom and social-hall space. As for their beloved old chapel, they were fine spending their Sunday mornings there.

As Ed Dieringer, who spearheaded the Legacy Campaign project, said at the time, “ . . . we got so many comments regarding how we must preserve the front and steeple at all costs and that nothing should be higher than the steeple. This shows us how this institution, this building, is a symbol that gives us identity in our community. It is all about our sense of place.”

And what does that symbol say to the surrounding community? A Salt Lake Tribune story in the summer of 2003 put it aptly: “The orthodox Colonial Revival style bespeaks order, rationality and principle. First Unitarian presents a primer image of a church, the church of our collective cultural imagination, the church of American mythology. It is a postcard from New England to the middle of the Intermountain West.”

Yes, the iconic chapel, now well into its 10th decade, still stands at the heart of the Unitarian congregation, though not without many necessary touch-ups, major and minor, during the Goldsmith years. In the meantime, many significant improvements to the church’s support buildings were made in the same period, particularly through the two major capital campaigns.