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The Mansion Fire

Utah Governor's Mansion Fire

The days leading up to our first Christmas in office were merry and busy. In December 1993, the state capitol and the Utah Governor’s Mansion were bedecked in holiday finery, and both were abuzz with events, festivities, and the regular order of business heading into a legislative session just a few weeks away.

I was slated to give my first budget address to the Legislature at midday on Wednesday, December 15. Later that evening, Jackie and I were hosting the Governor’s Mansion Artist Series, which would be attended by some of the state’s most prominent citizens. 

The morning of the fifteenth started like most other days. I awoke around 6 a.m. in the master bedroom of the Mansion, where windows along the eastern wall framed the snow-covered branches of a large cottonwood tree outside. 

I went over the day’s events in my mind before heading to the shower in the white-and-black-tiled master bath. The bathroom fixtures were more modern than the room felt; years earlier, Governor J. Bracken Lee had reportedly moved out of the Mansion in frustration over a showerhead that water-bombed him from every direction. 

The opulence of an earlier time and an air of history permeated the place. The Mansion had risen lavishly at 603 East South Temple soon after the turn of the nineteenth century and became an entertainment showpiece as well as a residence. President Teddy Roosevelt had slept there, and President Dwight Eisenhower had dropped in for a visit. 


Firefighters working on fire

French Renaissance Splendor

The building is a mansion by every conceivable measure. It was built in 1902 by Thomas Kearns, the son of a farming family from the Midwest, who traveled to Utah in 1883 to seek his fortune. He found it in mining. Kearns struck it rich by buying up a handful of mines in Park City where silver was found in abundance, including the Silver King Mine—one of the greatest silver mines in the world. Kearns became a prominent citizen, a co-owner of The Salt Lake Tribune newspaper, and a U.S. senator for one term. When he and his business partners became wealthy, each built their mansion along South Temple near downtown Salt Lake City.(1)

The Kearns mansion, designed in the French Renaissance architectural style by Utah architect Carl M. Neuhausen, was a twenty-eight-room marvel with six baths, ten fireplaces, an all-marble kitchen, electric lights, steam-heated radiators, a call board, dumb waiters, a billiard room, a third-floor ballroom, a bowling alley in the basement, and ornate trims and fixtures throughout. Kearns’s wife, Jennie Judge Kearns, traveled to Europe to hand-select the finest art, furniture, and decor. The Mansion had turrets on three of its four corners, carvings around the windows and doors, and a carriage house on the grounds—initially for Thomas Kearns’s eight carriages, and later for cars. Kearns also had three vaults in the home, according to the Deseret News, to store his “copious wealth and wine stocks.”(2)

Following Kearns’s passing, Jennie donated the building to the state in 1937 with the condition that it serve as the official residence of the governor. A succession of governors resided there until 1957, when the property was turned over to the Utah Historical Society for two decades until the administration of Governor Scott Matheson, who launched a renovation of the Mansion in 1977 and restored it to its role as the governor’s residence by 1980.

“And a Merry Christmas to You All”

In line with that renewed tradition, our family had moved in upon my inauguration. I was observing another tradition on December 15 as well; my first event that morning was a breakfast meeting at 7:30 a.m. with the editorial boards, publishers, and owners of the major news organizations in the state to preview the budget message I would be delivering to legislators later that day. The budget-review breakfast with the media was an annual event started by one of my predecessors.

There had been a festive gathering of cabinet and governor’s office staff and families the night before in the ballroom, one of several held that year with music, cheer, and lots of food. People loved to come to the Governor’s Mansion anytime, but especially at Christmas. 

Volunteers had begun decorating the Mansion inside and out right after Thanksgiving. Holly berry draped every wreath. Tiny lights made the woodwork and marble floors twinkle. Christmas trees animated nearly every room, including a twenty-two-foot fresh pine that reached from the main floor though an open ceiling all the way to the third floor. This was a masterpiece of tree decoration, complete with yule logs at the base and cotton on the branches to connote snow, along with hundreds of carefully placed ornaments and two thousand lights. 

I was joined at the kitchen table by my older sons, Mike and Taylor, who were hurriedly eating bowls of cereal before rushing off to East High School. As the first guest arrived, I could hear Jackie getting Anne Marie and Chase ready for the drive to Bonneville Elementary in our old neighborhood. 

Our guests assembled in the formal dining room on the main floor. As they ate, I laid out the details of the budget, taking care to pause on my priorities in hopes they would provide editorial support in their publications. 

As I talked, I noticed a staff member walk through the grand hallway and plug in the big Christmas tree. An immediate brilliance filled the room, and we all paused to enjoy the moment. “And a Merry Christmas to you all,” I said, before moving on with my remarks. The editors and publishers asked questions and expressed their opinions. When we finished, I bid them goodbye, walked upstairs to make sure Jackie knew the details of when she needed to arrive at my office for the budget address, and off I went to the Capitol.

It was interim day for the Legislature, which meant committee meetings for lawmakers in preparation for the general session in January. Beyond the buzz of legislators, staff, and lobbyists circulating around the Capitol, the spirit of Christmas livened the scene. A large Christmas tree sparkled in the rotunda, and a high school choir sang carols on the east steps, their harmonies cascading along the granite walls and up toward the domed ceiling.

I still had preparation to do for the budget address, which was the main event of the day. I had already decided not to read a prepared speech, but rather to speak from talking points, using large charts as supporting materials. I wanted to take questions from legislators and engage them in a dialogue. It was the first budget my administration had developed entirely on our own, and I wanted the legislature to know I understood it and was prepared to defend it. 

A Small Fire on the Second Floor

About 11:15 a.m., I was working with budget director Lynne Ward and chief of staff Charlie Johnson at the oval table in the formal office when Lee Perry, one of my security detail, appeared suddenly at the door of the office. 

“Governor, there has been a small tree fire on the second floor of the Mansion. Apparently, they have it all put out and things will be okay,” he said.

My mind flashed back to when I was fourteen years old and our family home had caught fire. It was a traumatic experience for my family and me, and I knew that any such event would be unsettling to Jackie. Lee Perry’s brief report also was troubling; the second-floor tree he referred to was an artificial tree—not likely to be involved in a fire.

“I need to get down there,” I told Charlie and Lynne. “If I am delayed, ask the legislative leadership to delay the starting time of my appearance.” 

“Governor, there has been a small tree fire on the second floor of the Mansion.“

It takes roughly seven minutes to drive from the Capitol to the Mansion. When in a hurry, security would turn on 2nd Avenue and drive toward G Street. As we got closer, I could see smoke. “That doesn’t look like a small tree fire on the second floor,” I said out loud.


Press conference with family in front of the mansion

As we passed G Street, I could see fire trucks and emergency equipment, with men operating in full emergency mode. We turned the corner and pulled into the parking lot of the adjacent Utah Arts Council building, where I could see Jackie standing with Westin. My anxiety level dropped immediately after seeing them safe. However, just as I stepped from the car, there was an explosion, with a shattering of glass and a roar of flames jumping skyward. A light snow began to fall as Jackie began to tell me what happened.

Jackie’s Firsthand Account 

As she described it in a personal written account of the event:

I planned to drive to the Capitol and join Mike at noon as he made his budget address to the legislature. Westin had settled in to watch a favorite video in the family room on the second floor, and I took a few moments to walk through the parlor and dining room on the first floor, checking on details for our next event. 

Truly, the Mansion was in its finest with the colorful Christmas decorations—poinsettias lining the carved wooden staircase up to the third floor; garlands on the fireplace mantles; a large nativity scene; and the large, fresh, blue spruce Christmas tree that had been cut and brought into the Grand Hall. The residence was spectacular.  

Special tours had been going on, as the Mansion was open to the public every day of the week before to share its holiday grandeur. The glorious sights and sounds of Christmas music filled this impressive structure as musical groups performed carols during these tours and at the other public gatherings.

“There’s a fire! Run!“

Judith George and Carol Bench, the Mansion office staff, informed me that two men had arrived for the purpose of checking the fire alarm system. Two other maintenance men had also come to do some work on the furnace in the basement. Lauralee Hill, Mansion assistant, was in the second-floor kitchen as I went to the master bedroom to change from my casual clothes into my suit before traveling up Capitol Hill. 

I heard a strange sort of popping noise just outside my open bedroom door. The sound came from just below the large oval opening, which overlooked the first floor Grand Hall. I stepped out and looked over the wood railing to see a shocking sight—a fire racing up the twenty-two-foot Christmas tree approaching the second level hallway. I instantly yelled, “Fire!” and started to run toward Westin. My mind raced, “What have those crazy fire alarm men done!” 

I heard Carol Bench calling out from the first floor, “Get out, get out, get out!” As I ran toward the family room, I yelled, “Westin, Westin!” He came directly into the hall and I swooped him up. Hearing the commotion, Lauralee Hill ran into the hallway. “There’s a fire! Run!” I said to her. 

The three of us hurried down the back stairway within seconds. At the bottom of the stairs, I handed Westin to Lauralee to quickly grab two coats from the closet. I threw one around Lauralee, wrapping it around them both. Then, we ran past the office reaching the back door of the Mansion, Judith, Carol, and the two men who had been on the first floor checking the alarm system, quickly fell in behind us, and I yanked on the door.

I pulled forcefully on the back door, but it would not budge. Intense suction of the air, affected by the flames—which had now burst upward from the tree past the first floor to the large, open, third-floor ceiling dome—caused a powerful backdraft. The two fire alarm technicians at the rear of our group quickly came forward and together were able to pull the door open. A loud whoosh of air blew by us as we ran out, and the door slammed shut with a bang.  

We stood together in the parking lot looking in shock at the home when someone asked, “Is everyone out?” In just a moment, the two furnace repairmen who had been in the basement came out. Luckily, they had been near the back stairway of the Mansion, saw the smoke, and ran up the stairs and out the door.

We exchanged anxious words as smoke poured from the windows. Carol’s yells for us to get out quickly had alerted Judith, who in turn had placed a call to 911 before she joined us at the back door. Carol had been walking through the Grand Hall at the moment the fire actually started. She heard the popping noise and saw the sparks that ignited the tree. The speed with which the fire leapt up the tree made it impossible for her to get an extinguisher or do anything to stop the burst of flames exploding up the tall tree.

I asked Lauralee to take little Westin to her apartment. The frightening sight was distressing to adults and certainly much more so to a three-year-old.

Finally, the fire engines arrived, and the men began their task. 

Mike arrived at the scene and the group of us moved to the larger parking lot east of the Mansion to give the firefighters more space and for us to be at a safer distance. It was clear the fire was spreading throughout the home.

The Kids

Watching his Disney video in a room on the north side of the building, Westin had heard his mother’s urgent calls. Running out to her, he saw the south side of the family quarters, where he shared a bedroom with Chase, erupt in flames.

“I remember loud pops and booms and pieces of wood just being shot up,” he recalled. “Where my room was, that was gone. If I had been in my room, I would’ve been trapped. But I happened to be in the farthest possible room.”

He remembers the scramble down the stairs with Jackie and Lauralee, the difficulty getting out the back door, and then congregating in the parking lot next door.

That is where I met up with Westin and Jackie and, gratefully, found them safe.

It was clear that news of this would spread quickly. Large crowds had amassed on the periphery, and news media were broadcasting the scene live. We were concerned our four older children, all at school, would hear the news, possibly in second or thirdhand distorted ways, and would have undue concerns about our safety. They needed to be with us, so I sent two members of the security detail to retrieve them, one to East High and the other to Bonneville Elementary. We had previously established emergency protocols with the schools in case the kids needed to be quickly picked up, so within thirty minutes, all four joined us at the Arts Council building. 

“If I had been in my room, I would’ve been trapped.”

Taylor, then a sophomore at East High, was walking down a hallway at school when a friend of his brother slammed him in the arm and told him, “Your house is on fire.” Taylor then heard an announcement over the school public address system to come to the office and had “a premonition of what was about to happen.”

When Mike S. got to the office, school officials told them, “Everybody is safe. There has been an incident.” The office had a small television where the boys could see live news coverage showing smoke and flames billowing out of the Mansion.

“Oh boy,” Mike thought, as he and Taylor checked out of school and headed over. “I wouldn’t say it was traumatic. I think when you’re seventeen or however old I was, your brain just hasn’t fully developed. You don’t understand what could have happened to my mom and my little brother.”

Taylor recalled listening to an Eric Clapton song play on the radio as Mike drove and wondering to himself, “Is the house totaled?” Once at the scene, he remembers a fire department official tearing up as he informed the group how badly the building was charred.

Lee Perry, the UHP officer who first told me about the fire, picked up Chase and Anne Marie from Bonneville Elementary and brought them to join the family. Chase was struck by the number of emergency vehicles and the sea of flashing lights as they arrived. He saw Taylor, red-eyed in the parking lot. “I always looked to him,” Chase said, “so I knew, ‘Oh no, this is bad.’”

Perspective and Gratitude

Jackie and I drew them close. It was a moment when perspective benefitted all of us. “I said to them, “Everyone is safe. No one was hurt. Things can be replaced.” We all hugged each other.  

When the fire was out, an official—I believe from the state fire marshal’s office—came over and gave a dreary report to the group. Though the building’s interior and contents were a total loss, we were heartened that the exterior walls still stood firm. The officer explained that the fire department had preplanned how to fight fires in certain buildings. In the Mansion’s case, part of the effort had been to build dams or berms inside the structure to direct the massive amounts of water needed to fight the fire outside, thereby protecting the integrity of the building from additional damage. 

The fire official then invited me to go inside and view the extent of the damage with him. I asked each member of the family if they wanted me to bring anything out. Jackie needed her purse. Chase wanted a pair of shoes that Utah Jazz star Karl Malone had given him after he wore them in a game. The shoes were damaged, but not totally unsalvageable. Jackie’s purse and wallet were destroyed. 

The house was still smoldering. The Christmas tree now looked like a twenty-two-foot stick man, scorched and devoid of any sign of life. The woodwork and floors were blackened; the gears and workings of the eight-foot grandfather clock in the Grand Hall had melted together; a wood-carved statue of Neptune was completely charred. Gratefully, the framework of the home was intact. But what was not burned was melted, saturated with smoke, or both. 

The chief explained how a fire like this works. In a dry tree, as the once-fresh pine in the Grand Hall had become, fire burns so quickly and so hot that once ignited, there is no way to stop a conflagration. Within forty-five seconds the fire was burning at four thousand degrees. I asked about the explosion I observed as I drove up. He said that fire needs oxygen to survive and goes in pursuit of it, and the fire had found a weakness—the windows—and blew them out looking for life-giving air. 

Likewise, the chief said, that was why the door was sealed shut when Jackie tried to exit. It was a vacuum caused by the fire suctioning air from the interior rooms. The chief used a screwdriver to take the cover off a light switch. He showed me signs of smoke and heat under the screws, explaining that the fire was looking for oxygen even under the screws of the light socket. 

I left the Mansion that day eternally grateful that no one was hurt, and tried to avoid thoughts of the tragedy that could have happened if the fire had occurred at a time when a hundred people were in the house. We were truly blessed.

The Aftermath

I still had work to do. Jackie and I had to meet with the media and answer their questions. At that moment, there were more questions than answers, but people needed to know that we were all right and feeling resilient. There was a universal concern, of course, for our young family. We felt the love and prayers of people who had extended both on our behalf. And once we knew the family was safe, there was a palpable calm. 

There were three things that needed my immediate attention. I called the security team together and said, “I’m going to need your help.” I gave one the assignment to find a place for us to stay. Second, we needed clothes and basic supplies. I took credit cards out of my wallet and gave one to Jackie, since hers were melted by the fire; the remaining cards went to highway patrolmen. Jackie then divided the children up into teams, saying, “Let’s each think what we would need if we were packing a bag for a trip.” One trooper took off with the older kids to shop for necessities; another went with Jackie and the younger children. Two days earlier I had dropped off two suits and a few shirts at the dry cleaners, so I asked one of the security detail to stop and pick them up. Lastly, I had a budget address to give at the State Capitol. We agreed we would all meet back up at a hotel to be determined later, and we started the task of putting our lives back together. 


Firefighters and inspectors looking over the tree and source of fire.

A couple hours later, at two p.m., I walked into the House of Representatives chamber for the budget address. Legislative leaders had offered to cancel it, but keeping the commitment seemed like the right way to convey that everything was okay. It also was a chance to express my gratitude in a public way and lift the mood with a bit of humor. I said, “Thank you for deferring our meeting. About 11:30 this morning I learned about a need to amend the state budget.” 

People immediately understood my light reference to a serious situation. I reported that we were all safe, and that I had been assured that the structure was insured properly, in a way that would cover repairing the house and maintaining the historical integrity of the building. I finished the budget address and went immediately to find the family.

I was notified that we would be staying at the Marriott University Park Hotel in Research Park at the University of Utah. Then, within a few days, we moved into a very nice condominium in American Towers in downtown Salt Lake City. 

We stayed there for about three months, including the Christmas of 1993. Many of the children have remembered that as one of their favorite Christmas memories. My aunt and uncle—Jane and John Piercey—brought us a Christmas tree. We had Christmas Eve dinner at Lamb’s Grill across the street from American Towers. And it became a poignant and cheery time, uncomplicated by many of the more commercial aspects of the holiday, because all we had were each other.


But we did need a more permanent home. Jackie and I had leased our family home on Laird Avenue to a couple upon moving into the Mansion nearly a year earlier, and we decided to approach them about buying the lease out. As it turned out, they were mulling a return to Las Vegas, where they had lived previously. The payment from us made that possible, and we were able to move home. At the time, we didn’t know how long the Mansion would take to restore, or how we would feel about things when the restoration was completed. However, we knew for now that moving back to the house on Laird Avenue was the right thing to do. 

So, we moved back. The security team built a small office in the basement of the house and put up a large communications tower so that our home could be monitored day and night from the Capitol building. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I imagined the protective team there watching early in the morning as I dodged onto the front porch in my underwear to get the newspaper. But we were back living an extraordinary experience while surrounded by the feel of ordinary life. 

Restoration and Reconstruction

The Mansion’s return to life from the fire, which was determined to have been caused by an improperly spliced electrical wire in the base of the tree in the Grand Hall, would take two-and-a-half years and nearly eight million dollars to complete. 

“My thoughts were how in the world were we going to put it back together.”

The Salt Lake Fire Department had taken the first immediate steps toward mitigation when they placed dams in the building while fighting the fire to prevent water from further damaging floors and woodwork.

Further damage was averted by nightfall that evening by state employees from the Division of Facilities Construction and Management (DFCM) and mitigation contractor Utah Disaster Kleenup, who moved quickly to restore heat to the building and begin vacuuming up water, drying out the Mansion, and topically cleaning windows, woodwork, and other surfaces of smoke and soot.

Officials next had to assess the extent of damage and determine a plan going forward. The assessment team included DFCM, the State Fire Marshal’s Office, and the Division of State History. Their consensus was that the structural integrity of the building was good, with enough original materials retained, to warrant reconstruction. 

Going forward, the basic philosophy was to preserve the building’s original craftsmanship to the extent possible; replace original features lost in the fire; and clean, repair, and restore items that were salvageable. Additionally, the effort expanded to make the Mansion more user-friendly as an actual residence to governors and their families, and to modernize the building with seismic upgrades and a comprehensive updating of heating, ventilating, cooling, electrical, lighting, computer/communications, and fire suppression systems. Other changes were made to allow better exiting in the event of a future fire, which was done with hallway and corridor reconfigurations rather than the addition of a new stairway. Also, the family quarters were made more private and secure.

Max J. Smith and Associates was selected as the project’s architect and Culp Construction as the general contractor. A number of specialist firms were brought in as the work continued, week after week, month after month.

“My thoughts were how in the world were we going to put it back together,” Fred Fuller, an architect with DFCM, told the Provo Daily Herald newspaper about the day he first surveyed the destruction at the Mansion.(3) Beyond the charred interior, smoke and soot had permeated spaces within interior walls and had to be cleaned. More than eighty percent of all plaster had to be removed from the Mansion’s interior walls to expose all the framing materials of the building.

Soot and smoke remediation alone took ten months and one million dollars, according to Culp Construction. An innovative new process called sponge blasting—which shoots small particles of highly absorbent sponge at high velocity onto contaminated surfaces—was employed, along with grit blasting, to remove soot. Ozone generators also were used for deodorization before walls were replastered.

The restoration team took the building interior apart and documented all surfaces and elements for restoration or replication. Then, over time, the interior was put back together. Throughout the process, photographs and historical records guided the work.

Among the specialists called in for highly skilled artisanal restoration was Agrell and Thorpe, Ltd., a California wood-carving company.


Woodcarving and plasterwork were unique architectural features of the Mansion. The original French white oak carvings were of extraordinary quality, crafted in Europe at the turn of the century by German or Austrian artisans. The fire destroyed most of the carvings, with the worst damage occurring in the Grand Hall where the Christmas tree stood.

The burned carvings sent to Agrell and Thorpe to replicate included a large volume of intricately carved balustrades, newel posts, figures, capitals, columns, and egg-and-dart molding. The company’s master carver, Ian Agrell, described the Mansion carvings replication as the largest wood carving project undertaken anywhere in the world in the previous ten years. The company’s twelve craftsmen spent nearly twenty-thousand hours over two years recreating the mansion’s original carvings—by hand, just as it was originally done.(4)  

Another unique restoration involved the golden dome centered over the balcony of the second and third floors above the staircase. Remaining sections of it were removed and carefully rebound, and the Baltimore firm of Hayles and Howe used historic photos and drawings of the charred pieces to cast a replica of the original dome. After the new dome was assembled, craftsmen from EverGreene Painting Studios in New York City gave it a brilliant golden hue. 

Back to Life

It had cost Thomas Kearns $350,000 to build his mansion at the turn of the twentieth century. The $7.8 million-dollar restoration brought the home back to its original 1902 style, with twenty-first century upgrades. 

Work concluded in mid-1996, and the magnificent building officially reopened to tours on July 29, 1996, as Utah was celebrating its centennial-year anniversary of statehood. 

“This is one of the most outstanding historic restorations in the country,” the Park Record newspaper quoted me as saying on July 6, 1996. “The painstaking work of the many artisans and craftsmen to restore this architectural treasure is remarkable. This is one of the great treasures of the state of Utah. Its reopening is a grand moment in our Centennial celebration.”(5) Our family had been settled back in our Laird home for two years, but there was great happiness to have the Mansion restored to glory—and back in our lives. 

We used it regularly for meetings, ceremonies, and grand events. Guests, both of the family and the state, stayed there, and the building was filled with light and life again for holidays and special occasions, such as the Winter Olympics in 2002.

“This is one of the most outstanding historic restorations in the country.”

And ten years after the fire, a First Family moved back in. I had accepted an appointment from President George W. Bush to head the Environmental Protection Agency and was succeeded as governor by Lt. Governor Olene Walker, who was sworn in as Utah’s first woman governor on November 5, 2003. She and her husband, Myron, moved in that fall. 

A few weeks later, she invited KSL-TV over to see the building decked out for Christmas and told them of her plans to celebrate the holiday there with six of her seven children, and twenty-five grandchildren. Christmas trees sparkled throughout the building, lit up in all its finery. 

“It is beautiful,” Olene said. “And I didn’t even have to put a string of lights up.”

 

Footnotes:

1.  Brooklyn Lancaster, “Thomas Kearns Mansion and Carriage House.” Utah Historical Markers, University of Utah. https://utahhistoricalmarkers.org/c/slc/thomas-kearns-mansion-and-carriage-house/ 

2.  Jerry Spangler. “Loss is a blow to ex-First Lady,” Deseret News, 16 December 1993.https://www.deseret.com/1993/12/16/19082077/loss-is-a-blow-to-ex-first-lady/

3. Donald Meyers. “Governor’s mansion remodeled, restored to Victorian splendor,” Provo Daily Herald, Utah State Archives (No date is mentioned, but context indicates this was August 1996.) 

5.  “Public invited to tour newly restored governor’s mansion.” Park Record, Utah State Archives, 6 July 1996.

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