The Peculiar Historical and Archaeological Journey of Utah’s First House: The Devereaux Mansion

Written by Christopher W. Merritt, Ph.D. State Historic Preservation Officer

How many times have you traveled South Temple in downtown Salt Lake City and noticed the lone red sandstone House sandwiched between Trax lines, the Triad Center, and the Union Pacific Depot? Today, this Mansion and its well-kept grounds is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and seems an odd island of tranquil history in a sea of hurried urban life. Many other travelers hurry by this spot on their way to a Utah Jazz game or to eat at the Gateway Mall, without ever noticing the last jewel of “Brigham Street” (the old name for South Temple St.) west of Temple Square. The history of the Devereaux House reflects all the changes occurring in Salt Lake City from the 1850s to the 1980s, from agrarian opulence to grimy industrialism and urban blight. 

Forty years ago, a team of archaeologists from the Utah Division of State History conducted what became the first large-scale historic-period archaeological excavation in Salt Lake City between September and October of 1980.  Most Utahns picture archaeology as pueblos in San Juan County or rock imagery in Nine Mile Canyon, but not often the more recent past. Archaeology at its core is the study of past peoples’ lives through the things they left behind regardless of when or where those individuals or communities lived. Historical archaeology, or the study of humans after the arrival of Europeans in the New World, has not been widely accepted or practiced in Utah given the rich prehistoric and Native American heritage of the state. But, the excavations at Devereaux House helped to shed light on the changes of the property over the previous 120 years. 

Before hopping into the archaeology of the Devereaux House, let’s start with a little broad history of the house and its occupants. 

A Brief History of the Devereaux House 1857-1979

A native of England, William C. Staines constructed the first version of the House in 1857 (right side of photo) after acquiring a good portion of that block. By 1867, Staines sold the property to WIlliam Jennings, a future Mayor of Salt Lake City and wealthy capitalist that invested in freighting and railroads. During the time of Jennings’ ownership (1867 and 1888), he radically altered Staines’ original property and slowly replaced the original portions of the house with the sandstone and brick structure you see today. It is also Jennings who gave the mansion its official name “Devereaux” in honor of his family’s estate at Yardley, Birmingham, in England.

After William Jennings died in 1886, and sale of the property by 1890, the Devereaux House slowly descended in prominence in Salt Lake City, but the entire city had also changed too. When Staines first built the House in 1857, this side of Salt Lake City still was agricultural and residential property. But by the 1870s, the arrival of railroads into Utah radically changed the nature of life on the west side, with massive rail yards, depots, warehouses, and factories. Slowly all the old Houses west of the Temple were abandoned, demolished, and wealthy homeowners shifted their movement east to the Avenues or Capitol HIll. By 1900, the Devereaux House had already become an oddity of time and definitely out of place.

Under the ownership of Aaron Keyser and Thomas Weir, who had purchased the property in 1900, the Devereux House went under lease to the Keeley Institute from 1904 to 1912. The Keeley Cure, purported to solve “Drunkeness, Neurasthenia or Nervousness, Opium, Cocaine, and all Drug Using, Cigarette and Tobacco Habits,” was not unique for this time period of ‘quack’ cures for all things that ailed you. Unlike most other cures, the Keeley Institutes across the country treated these ailments as a disease, and placed patients in opulent Houses for a four-week treatment course mixed with therapy and injections. Another famous Utah House, the Gardo House, also served as a location for the Keeley Institute in Salt Lake City.

For about seven years, 1912-1919, the jewel of west South Temple sat empty. In that latter year, Keyser and Weir leased the House to the Coan and Fuller Construction Company. Sanborn maps show that Coan and Fuller quickly removed several of the historic additions (kitchen, laundry, conservatory and barn) to accommodate their business.  In 1943, J.J. Coan Company outright purchased the property from Keyser and Weir, and maintained ownership until 1979. At one point, Coan used heavy equipment to remove the exterior wall to allow heavy vehicles to be driven into the Devereaux House’s ballroom, but this was not the last insult suffered by this historic gem.The House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, during the Coan ownership.

The Devereaux House in 1957, illustrating how its landscape had changed, from opulent House to offices and storage for a mining and supply company.

 The National Trust for HIstoric Preservation completed a thorough analysis of the buildings’ potential as a meeting and reception hall as part of the nation’s Bicentennial Commission events in 1976, and it is this document and local interest that coalesced a group to save the property, and for the State to purchase. By the time of the State of Utah purchasing the Devereaux House (1979) in hopes of restoring it to be a showpiece of historic preservation, many windows were missing or broken, woodwork had been removed or damaged, and perhaps the most egregious, the gaping hole into the ballroom and resulting damaged floor trusses.  It was at this point that the use of historical archaeology to help in the restoration efforts was planned, and the Antiquities Section of the Utah Division of State History stepped in to assist with Dr. David Madsen and Bruce Hawkins acting as lead archaeologists. 

Devereaux House in 1978.

Soon after the purchase of the property by the State of Utah, a fire ripped through the house in August 1979, destroying much of what was left of the impressive original woodwork. Over the next four years, the State worked with Paulsen Engineering & Construction under direction of Craig Paulsen, and Architect Burch W. Beal to complete a massive rehabilitation project that even included some seismic retrofitting (which helped the House weather the March 18, 2020 earthquake with only one broken window, some cracked plaster, and piece of fallen crystal). 

A Brief Archaeology of the Devereaux House

In discussions with project planners, the intended purpose of the archaeological investigations were to identify those pieces of the Devereaux House that had been removed during the time of the J.J. Coan ownership, particularly the laundry, kitchen addition, conservatory, porches, and the original ballroom entrance. Further, recovered artifacts helped to inform architectural historians on original finishings, and flesh out a furnishings plan. The last goal was to investigate questions of socioeconomics between the Staines, Jennings, and later Coan ownership periods through the recovered material culture. 

By the end of nearly a month of fieldwork, archaeologists recovered several thousand artifacts that date to the entire range of the house’s occupation, though most date to the Jennings Period (1868-1890). Crews identified the foundations of the conservatory and kitchen, and small footers for all the porches. These details assisted in better understanding the full extent of the house during this period. It was hoped that these missing features would be reconstructed during the overall project, but due to funding issues created by the fire, it was decided not to pursue restoring these original components. 

While the entire report is a fascinating read with archaeologists identifying the 1874 debris from the Staines House demolition, to the interesting amount of animal bones buried in the backyard during the wealthy Jennings occupation; it is the moonlighting of the Devereaux House as the home for the Keeley Institute between 1904-1912 that is exciting to the author. It is rare for archaeologists to confidently connect specific artifacts to a single eight-year occupation of a site. But the presence of numerous pharmaceutical bottles, including the one pictured above embossed with the advertisements for the “Keeley Cure” speaks to that singular moment in this houses’ life and the trappings of quackery cures of the early 20th century. Injections of gold, coupled with patent drinks (that also included alcohol) were the cornerstone to the “Keeley Cure” and came in these types of bottles. We know little about the lives of those residents in treatment, so further analysis of the archaeology could help us understand if there were also controlled diets to aid in patient’s recovery.

Pressed glass candy/berry dish, metal teaspoon, and glass tumbler found in the Jennings Layer of the Devereaux House excavations, 1981. In the case of the Devereaux House, archaeology offered not only a useful tool to interpret the past building and its many additions and subtractions, but also to highlight the amount of potential archaeology under urban lots. Many modern Utahns think that modern buildings or development have removed the past, but in this case, archaeologists were able to add more pages of history to the storied life of the Devereaux House. Perhaps almost more importantly, the artifacts are still held at the Rio Grande Depot, ready for an eager graduate student to take the analysis to the next level using modern technology and knowledge. For instance, archaeologists recovered several dozen pieces of earthenware from the excavations but that is where the analysis ended. Now, the author who spent a good piece of his career studying locally produced ceramics in historic Salt Lake CIty, we could test these fragments and see what pottery shop made the simple flower pots that adorned WIlliam Jennings’ estate. And this is but one artifact class that warrants fresh reexamination, what other stories might be uncovered?

What happened after 1980?

After many months of substantial construction and rehabilitation efforts, the Devereaux House opened by 1984 to guests, and was even used for dignitaries in Utah’s 2002 Olympic Games. In 2005, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints purchased the House for $900,000, just a bit more than the State of Utah’s $1 investment in 1979. Today, the Devereaux House is used as a meeting space for business groups in the Triad Center and for departments within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This use has kept the House alive, and helped to maintain the utmost appearance of mid-19th century wealth and opulence. Unfortunately, the artifacts, while safe with the Utah Division of State History, do not have a permanent home in a museum because Utah is the only state that lacks a repository (museum) for this period of archaeology. It is hoped that this will be solved soon and these important artifacts can find a permanent home and help share the past with future generations.