The captivating and controversial past of Salt Lake City’s old Ambassador Club.
An imposing structure sporting spires and turrets on Salt Lake City’s 5th East is long gone, but its ghosts include those of polygamist wives and a controversial police raid.
Built in 1885, the federal government opened the imposing building as the Women’s Industrial Christian Home in order to house the so-called “victims” of Mormon polygamy. Although there was room for 46 women, only six ever moved in. Folklore has it that when the Home closed its doors in 1893, the only woman in residence was Brigham Young’s 27th wife.
With its sloping roofs, open porches and a grand stairway entrance, the Home was repurposed as a hotel for many years before its re-christening in 1945 as the Ambassador Athletic Club. At a time when Utah prohibited liquor by the drink, members of this exclusive men’s club could stash their fifths of gin and rum in the Club’s lockers. The Club was a critical place for informal business and a bond for the non-Mormon set, including Salt Lake City Mayor J. Bracken Lee. It was also home to a gambling operation of the fifty-cent-ticket variety. When police chief Cleon Skousen raided the place in 1960, Mayor Lee was on site. As a long-time opponent of Skousen’s strict enforcement of the blue laws, Mayor Lee fired his police chief amid a blaze of public criticism.
Even so, the Club remained unfettered in its operation. Live bands and traveling shows appeared there, including Woody Herman, The Ink Spots, and Nelson Eddy. Two slot machines sat downstairs near the ten-lane bowling alley with old-style automatic pin setters.
By the mid-1980s, however, there was an air of decay and neglect in the building. New liquor laws—including the arrival of the mini bottle—and the dilution of social classes quickened the demise of this Grand Old Lady with the controversial past. Today, a glass office building sits on the site.
Image: Women's Industrial Christian Home. Once located at 145 South 500 East. Later became the Fifth East Hotel and the Ambassador Club. Courtesy of J. Willard Marriott Library.
See David Pace, “Cosmetic Surgery or Surrender? A Grand Lady’s Mid-Life Crisis,” The Front Page, Utah Holiday, July 1985, pp. 9-10; Dennis Lythgoe, “Political Feud in Salt Lake City: J. Bracken Lee and the Firing of W. Cleon Skousen,” Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 4, Fall 1974, pp. 316-343; see photos of the building at 145 South 500 East, Salt Lake City, known variously as the Women’s Industrial Christian Home, the Fifth East Hotel, and the Ambassador Club.