July 28, 2011
I’ve thought about staying in Salt Lake City on past trips up and down Interstate 15. But I always seem to be on the fast track to WY or CA, depending on which direction I’m headed. In addition, my tendency is to jog off to the backroads and skip cities, looking for historic log cabins or off-the-beaten-path country inns, so I usually bypass cities altogether. This time I was determined to force myself off the freeway and find some sort of unique lodging in Salt Lake City itself. I found exactly that at the Armstrong Mansion.
Built in 1893 by Francis Armstrong, the Queen Anne mansion was a gift to his wife, Isabel (or Isabelle, or Isabella, depending on various historic references,) as he had promised her when they married in 1864. The magnificent home served as a popular gathering place for guests, as the Armstrongs hosted many social events. Impressive in itself for its grandeur, it was also one of only three houses in Salt Lake City at that time to be able to boast a luxurious new amenity for its day – indoor plumbing.
Francis Armstrong was born in Northumberland, England, moving later to Canada and eventually to Salt Lake City after converting to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He worked his way up from employee at several lumber and flour mills to mill manager at Little’s Lumber Mill. Eventually he purchased the mill, as well as numerous other properties and companies, developing them with tremendous success. He also became a prominant political figure in the community, holding positions on the school board and city council and eventually serving two terms as Mayor of Salt Lake City. By the time he passed away in 1899, his wealth was second only to that of Brigham Young. Isabel continued to live in the Armstrong Mansion until her own death in 1930.
The massive size of the mansion would have come in handy, as Francis and Isabel had twelve children. Conflicting historical reports also state that he took—or didn’t take, depending on the account—a second wife, Sarah Carruth, with whom he had six additional children. Only two of the six survived beyond childhood, with Isabel raising those two after Sarah passed away in 1883. Additional, contradictory research states that he did not practice polygamy, but hid polygamists in his attic when they were being pursued by U.S. marshalls.
And that’s exactly where I found myself, tucked away in the attic, in the “Cherished Years” room, a cozy nook under the eaves. The smallest of the B&B’s rooms, it had everything I needed as a solo traveler – a queen bed, private bath and a small sitting area with a window that looked out over the front garden. Much like the rest of the mansion, it was decorated in dark, Victorian colors. I found the room comforting, even for a gal not running from the law.
I’d checked in on the ground floor, helping myself to a treat from a plate of homemade cookies offered to guests upon arrival. After climbing several meandering staircases to reach the top floor—I would take a elevator the next few times—I dropped off my overnight bag, camera equipment and laptop before heading out in search of food. Walking distance from the inn I found Sawadee, a Thai restaurant. I ordered a Pad Thai Tofu dish that was excellent. Saving half for lunch the following day, I headed back to the mansion to enjoy the ambiance of the inn for the evening.
As with many historic structures, there were many years of disrepair between Isabel’s death in 1930 and a complete restoration in the 1990s. But every inch of the mansion now was exquisite. It was worth a visit just to view the extravagant woodwork throughout the structure. Intricate carvings highlighted many walls, ceilings, and stairway bannisters. It wasn’t hard to imagine the gala events held in the late 1800s.
The current “Mayor’s Parlor” on the main floors now offers guests a casual place to rest, read, visit or enjoy Internet access. The same room undoubtedly served the same purpose for the original inhabitants and visitors. Minus the free wi-fi, of course. Isabel’s Dining Room, opposite the parlor, is the morning location of a delicious breakfast offered by the inn. Under a high ceiling and amidst elegant decor – lush, burgundy brocade curtains, matching tableclothes and floral decorations – I helped myself to sundried-tomato quiche, fresh fruit, apple cobbler, cinnamon rolls, fresh juice and coffee. OK, I confess, I had a few bites of berry cobbler, too. Just to be able to report on it, naturally. And it was heavenly, as was everything else.
There are rumblings about the Armstrong Mansion being haunted, as Google searches will show. It will disappoint readers to learn that I didn’t hear mysterious footsteps in the middle of the night. Nor did I witness lights dimming or voices whispering as I walked the halls. I drifted off to sleep with ease. Yet, I will say there was… a feeling…something that cannot quite be described. Maybe it was the dark, authentic Victorian interior or the knowledge of the grand home’s rich history. Whatever it was, there was something undefinable that evoked a subconscious dip into the past.
Stepping out into the sunshine after checking out, I was immediately reminded that it was now the 21st century. There were no horse-drawn carriages to be seen, only shiny blurs of metal passing by. I threw my overnight bag into one of the latter, cranked it up, found the Interstate and headed north, Wyoming bound.