The University of Utah’s First Family resides in a home that accommodates both their public and private lives.
In his previous position as the Fuyo Professor of Japanese Law and Legal Institutions at Columbia University, U of U President Michael K. Young and his wife, Suzan, lived in Japan for two years. During that time, they were guests in people’s homes “only a very few times,” says Suzan. “Only close friends would be invited into homes.”
However fond of Japanese culture, the Youngs, in Utah, practice a different tradition. They open their home to guests at least once or twice a week—for receptions, art exhibits, lectures, and sit-down dinners for as many as 70 guests at a time. Events at a University-owned president’s home have been part of the U’s tradition since 1986, when Joseph (JD’26) and Evelyn Rosenblatt (’29 diploma in elementary education) donated their Federal Heights home to the University to be used as a residence for its presidents and their families.
Before 1986, University presidents entertained in campus buildings, such as the Alumni House, or at their own residence. Grethe Peterson, whose husband, Chase Peterson, served as U of U president from 1983 to 1991, says that University events grew too big for their home even after they expanded it. So when the Rosenblatts offered their 9,452-square-foot, four-bedroom, five-bathroom residence on Military Drive to the University, it was gratefully received. The Petersons sold their home and moved into their new quarters, which sit majestically on 1.47 acres adjacent to the University, with perhaps the largest lawn in the neighborhood, one that cries out for Easter egg rolls and wintertime sledding.
Thus began the tradition of U of U presidents living in a home where their public and private lives are separated only by a single interior door.
The Rosenblatt House was built in 1930 for George Mueller, a German immigrant who relocated to Salt Lake City from Los Angeles in 1890, opened a bakery at 212 S. State Street, and married his first wife (the couple later divorced) in 1893. In 1905, Mueller established the Royal Baking Company with plants in Salt Lake City and Ogden. In 1927, he deeded 1,000 acres he owned near Bountiful to Salt Lake City for recreational use; it is now Mueller Park. The following year, Mueller married Florence Kohler Savage, and a year later, construction began on their new home on Military Drive. They would live there until 1944, raising their two daughters as well as two daughters from Mueller’s previous marriage.
Designed by H.C. Pope and H.W. Burton, practicing as Pope & Burton Architects, the Rosenblatt House is located in the Bonneville-on-the-Hill subdivision. University of Utah architectural historian and professor emeritus Peter Goss, co-author of Utah’s Historical Architecture, explains that the original homes in this subdivision are in the “period revival styles that were popular in the post World War I, pre-World War II period, some of which reflected styles that American service people saw during the First World War.” These include English Tudor, French Norman, Spanish Colonial, and, back home, American Colonial. These styles predominated until the end of WWII, when immigrating Europeans brought with them the Bauhaus and International Style, which gained popularity in the post-war years.
The Rosenblatt House, says Goss, “was designed in the Colonial Revival style that was popular from the 1920s through the 1950s and reflects the 18th-century architecture of New England.”
Many elements of this style can be seen at the formalized entrance to the home, notes Goss: The broken “swan’s neck” pediment over the paneled front door and the engaged (built in) columns on either side of the front door. Hand-riven shingles on the exterior of the house (sometimes called “shake shingles”) and the wood shingled roof reflect New England vernacular architectural influences. Inside, Colonial Revival style can also be seen in the home’s paneled doors, interior decorative moldings and chair rail, and small-paned glass doors to the exterior.
The blueprints for the house (the original architectural drawings were hand drawn, ink on linen) are worthy of framing. The indigo sheets served as both instructions for the builder and as shop drawings for the craftsmen who contributed extensive decorative plasterwork to the interior, draping garlands of fruit along the walls of the high, coved entryway ceiling and affixing ornate medallions onto the living room and dining room ceilings—“Eighteenth-century English architectural influences carried to the Colonies,” says Goss.
Pope & Burton, with offices in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, was a prominent architectural firm of the time. “Their earliest work showed the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School style [a uniquely American style characterized by low horizontal lines and open interior spaces] due to Pope’s apprenticing in Chicago architectural firms during the first decade of the 20th century,” notes Goss. “After designing a number of chapels and mission homes for the LDS Church, they won an architectural competition for the Cardston Temple in Cardston, Alberta, in 1913, and in 1915 they received the commission for the LDS Hawaiian Temple.” The architects also designed local LDS ward houses (none extant) as well as Utah artist LeConte Stewart’s home in Layton, Utah.
The Rosenblatt House stood out from among its neighbors when it was built, and it still does. “Set high on the large lot overlooking the neighborhood, with a serpentine driveway and an expansive lawn, it has a very palatial feeling,” says Goss. It was large even in comparison to other expansive homes in the original subdivision, many of which were around 3,300 square feet.
And according to Goss, it is unusual that the lot was not leveled to build the structure. Instead, the house itself follows the soft curve of the terrain, which means that there are several steps up into the dining room and kitchen from the main level.
Joseph Rosenblatt and his wife, Evelyn, purchased the house in 1946. They lived in it for the next 41 years, raising three sons and one daughter. In the 1950s they added a large library on the north side to accommodate the parties they enjoyed. In the 1960s, under the direction of landscape architect Karsten Hansen, the backyard was turned into an entertainment wonder with the addition of an oval swimming pool (including a diving board), a pool house/cabana, a stately rose garden, and a brick patio, as well as walls and gates for privacy. A kitchen was built in the pool house at some point—its perfectly preserved turquoise appliances and pendant lights place it mid-20th century. In 1969, architect Boyd Blackner converted the garage into a 288-square-foot family room and added to the master bedroom area dressing rooms, an exercise room, and a sauna, totaling 308 square feet.
The Petersons were thrilled with the gift of the Rosenblatt House. They moved in in late 1987 and soon began a tradition of using the home as a venue for gatherings where administrators, faculty, students, alumni, and others could mingle. Among those who have been guests at the home are Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner BA’30, former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and U.S. Constitutional scholar Lawrence Tribe. Receptions for The Tanner Lectures on Human Values are held at the residence, as are events for the Honors College and the Crimson Club. Currently, President and Mrs. Young host approximately 27 events each year attended by a total of about 2,500 guests.
President Arthur and June Smith lived in the home from 1991 to 1997, and President J. Bernard and Chris Machen from 1998 to 2004, when the Youngs took up residence. Since becoming University property, the house and grounds have undergone very little change besides general maintenance. In 1991, the original kitchen was remodeled to accommodate caterers serving sit-down dinners for 50-70 guests.
Subject to the same financial constraints as the University itself, the house does not have a fleet of subcontractors parked curbside on an ongoing basis as do many other homes in the neighborhood. “I am very careful about what I spend, because this is kids’ tuition money,” says Suzan Young. The Youngs have made the house more energy efficient by replacing drafty doors and windows and have done required maintenance, but they have not undertaken any major remodels. The Petersons, too, were thrifty. One day, the Deseret News reported that they had spent $400 on a faucet. “Thank goodness I’d already sent it back for being too expensive,” says Grethe Peterson.
The Youngs have added a hot tub to the backyard at their own expense. And, as her personal gift to the house, Suzan added a sturdy wine rack to replace one that looks as if it’s about to collapse. “Isn’t that funny?” she says, alluding to the fact that two of the Youngs’ children served on missions for the LDS Church, whose members famously shun alcohol. In fact, humor is not lacking in the Young home—one wall is filled with framed Salt Lake Tribune artist Pat Bagley cartoons, including one showing President Young communicating in local Utah-speak—“Shore preesheaycha” and “Oh my heck!”—when interviewing for his job.
Bagley is not the only Utah artist represented in the house. The walls of the large living room are reserved for works of art provided by faculty and local Utah artists selected by Suzan. One artist at a time exhibits work on loan for four months. Much of the rest of the house is filled with art and decorative objects the Youngs collected during their many visits to Japan, as well as possibly the largest assemblage of U memorabilia in existence.
Both the Petersons and the Youngs declare that they have not had any problem sharing their lives, as well as their living room, dining room, kitchen, and yard, with the public. (Around one-half of the house and 2,240 square feet of the yard is considered public space.) The Youngs’ lifestyle is casual, and when the huge library is not filled with visitors, it becomes a big, soft playroom for their grandchildren. On a fall day just before Thanksgiving, Suzan was drying apples in a countertop dehydrator and President Young was pushing one-year-old grandson Bryce around the library on a wooden fire engine. (Two-and-a-half-year-old Trevor had “helped” him in his office earlier that morning.)
The Rosenblatt House has long been a special place for the children and grandchildren of the University’s first couple. While the adults have enjoyed lawn parties on warm summer nights, the home’s most attractive feature for kids is the laundry chute. “We were terrified we were going to lose one,” says Grethe Peterson of their grandchildren.
The Rosenblatt House also serves the University well. Teah Caine, a pre-med senior who has attended formal, by-invitation buffet dinners held for the Honors College at the Rosenblatt House, says, “I know that President Young and his wife, Suzan, shake thousands of hands of students each year, but it is the small events held in their home that are the most special for students. President and Mrs. Young make sure they meet and converse with all the students. You really get to know that they care.”
The Rosenblatts’ donation of their home to the University of Utah was inspired by the Jewish tradition of being part of the community and giving back to it. The gift honored the couple’s father/father-in-law, Nathan Rosenblatt, who immigrated to Utah from Russia in 1880 knowing only that it was a place where people who tended to be religiously tolerant lived. Nathan began selling goods to miners from a pushcart and eventually founded the Eastern Iron Metals Company (EIMCO), which developed and manufactured mining equipment. His three sons later joined him in the business. Son Joseph attended the University of Utah and eventually became head of EIMCO. Joseph Rosenblatt often noted his gratitude for the education he received at the U and how the U adds a vibrant element to life in the community.
The Rosenblatt tradition of philanthropy lives on, and not only on Military Way. In honor of Nathan Rosenblatt and his wife, Tillie, the Rosenblatt family currently endows the $40,000 Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence, given annually to a member of the University of Utah faculty who has made an outstanding contribution to teaching, administration, or research.
A lesser-known legacy lies deep in the heart of the Rosenblatt House and is accessible only to its youngest and smallest visitors. In a secret room with a doorway only three feet high is evidence of a childhood drama in the lives of two young Rosenblatts. Pencil writing on the wall reads: “Mindy R and Robby R were stuck in here for 27 min. Tues, 8/22/61.”
—Susan Vogel is a freelance writer and publisher based in Salt Lake City.
Note: The number of Joseph and Evelyn Rosenblatt’s sons and the name of June Smith have been corrected from the print version.