Deseret Gym

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The Old Deseret Gymnasium

The Deseret Gym is the name given to two facilities in downtown Salt Lake owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that served the Church and the Salt Lake Community for many years. The first building was completed in 1910 and located where the current Church Office Building now stands. Not only was it the wellspring of recreational instruction and activities, it hosted sports exhibitions and brought in world-famous teams and athletes. In a celebration marking the 85th anniversary of the Deseret Gym, Elder Marion D. Hanks explained that “the Church had the ambition for its people as individuals that they could grow and develop in body and spirit in an appropriate atmosphere.”[1] The gym was sometimes known as the “temple of health.”

Apostle Hyrum M. Smith served as the first chairman of the gymnasium, and the gym secretary was Bryant S. Hinckley.

Ninety feet wide, 150 feet long, and three stories high, the gym cast an imposing shadow on the block just east of Temple Square. An immense ground floor housed offices for the director and instruction staff, a barber shop, six standard bowling alleys, a handball room, a private exercise room, two rooms for visiting teams, twenty-three private dressing rooms, a locker room complete with thirteen hundred steel lockers, and a private locker room. Special accommodations were made for a “ladies’ hair-drying room.” The swimming pool was flanked by twelve showers and a washroom with toilets. Shower baths were required of all swimmers. . . . Bowing to the demands of modesty, a unique floor plan isolated the pool and the two female locker rooms from the rest of the building. The pool was reserved for women at regular intervals, which allowed for private swimming while activities continued in the rest of the building.

The main gymnasium in the building hosted a variety of weights, gymnastic devices and machines. The floor of polished maple, allowed for the room to be transformed into a dance hall—and dance lessons were part of the instruction available at the Deseret Gym. The third floor hosted a large spectator gallery. Above the gallery was a suspended cork running track wide enough for two runners. In 1913, three handball courts and a spectator’s gallery were added. In 1918, a women’s gymnasium opened, complete with a separate locker room, showers, a steam room, and hair dryers. In 1926, additions included seven handball courts, a visitors’ gallery, wrestling room, shop, and an additional entrance for boys. Erland Druselius, a graduate of the school of Massage and Medical Gymnastics at Uppsala Medico-Mechanical Institute in Sweden, was the masseur and medical gymnast for years. Later a masseuse was added for women.

The administration of the gym felt a calling to aid the community young men—especially during the summer—and expanded its offerings to include band and orchestra instruction, woodworking courses, and outdoor summer excursions to Camp Saratoga near Utah Lake. Girls could enroll in classes teaching first aid, dressmaking, millinery, tennis, swimming, and dancing. In the summer of 1935, the gym and the Lion House cooperatively taught practical homemaking arts.

By the 1950s, the building began to show its age and the needs of the community were expanding. In 1965, the Church razed the building and completed a new facility one block north of Temple Square.

Under the leadership of Church president Gordon B. Hinckley, the second Deseret Gym was torn down in 1997 and the new Conference Center filled its footprint. Deseret News sports writer Doug Robinson wrote:

For 87 years, the Deseret Gym has endured. Like some of its clients, it had a face lift and transplant at 50 years of age, moving to the bigger and better current building. Think of all it has seen come and go in that time. The running boom, aerobics, triathlons, circuit training, lycra, crop tops, walleyball, weight "machines," waffle trainers, stair climbers, wellness seminars, masters competition, cross training, air soles, bikinis, Speedos, short shorts, baggy shorts.[2]

The original gymnasium had a clientele of predominantly men, as Robinson wrote, “back in a time when ladies didn't sweat, they glistened. Back when the only thing women did for exercise, if anything, was float in the pool.”[3] Businessmen came before work, on their lunch hour, and after work, as did leaders of the LDS Church. However, the clientele expanded to include women who were interested in their health and fitness. Children came for swimming lessons, a haircut, and a treat at the snack bar. It was a community gymnasium for young and old; it was a family facility.

At one point, swimming suits were not allowed; it was feared that the cotton or wool fibers would clog the pool filters. Boys and girls took lessons on separate days; men and women used the pool at separate times.

The old Deseret Gym was also the home for the University of Utah and LDS High School basketball games. State championship games and all-church tournaments were played, and boxing and wrestling matches were fought; national championship swim meets and synchronized swimming competitions were held; it was the place for tennis, racquetball, handball, and squash tournaments. As the times changed, so did the gym. Weight and exercise rooms were expanded; an indoor driving range was added for golfers; rooms were transformed to accommodate aerobic classes. The elderly in the old established downtown Salt Lake neighborhoods kept coming, as they had since their youth.

The new Deseret Gym was more than twice the size of the old gymnasium. It included an Olympic-sized pool, a second full-sized swimming pool, and a women’s gym. Swimming gradually gave way for circuit training, and the gym provided a fleet of computerized exercise bikes and treadmills.

The Deseret Gym has been mentioned by a few general authorities in General Conference talks, including President Thomas S. Monson.[4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9]

External Links

Sports in Zion: Mormon Recreation, 1890-1940