The architectural firm of Monheim, Bird, and Proudfoot designed the Richardsonian Romanesque building. Henry Monheim, a local architect since the 1870s, and George W. Bird and Willis T. Proudfoot of Wichita, Kansas established the firm in 1891 specifically to design the building. Their firm won a building design contest against fourteen other submissions. However, The Salt Lake Herald—another LDS-backed paper—claimed that the competition was a pretentious fraud. Monheim, a Prusian immigrant, died one year into construction. Bird and Proudfoot moved to Philadelphia and Chicago respectively by 1896, so the City-County Building was their firm's only output.
The building was monstrously over budget. Estimated by the firm at $350,000, the winning contractor bid $377,978, but by the building's dedication on December 28, 1894, it had cost nearly $900,000. Complicating matters was the Panic of 1893 which cut Salt Lake City and County revenues nearly in half. As a result of this, plans for large stained glass windows for the building were discarded.
Although now used exclusively by Salt Lake City government, the building originally served many functions. Salt Lake County offices called the structure home until the 1980s when the County elected to build a new complex at 21st South and State Street.
The building served as Utah's Capitol from when statehood was granted in 1896 until the present Utah State Capitol was completed in 1915. The Salt Lake City and County building also housed Salt Lake's first public library and contained courtrooms, including one that condemned organizer Joe Hill to death amid international attention in 1914.
From 1973 to 1989 the building was exhaustively renovated and repaired with an eye toward historical accuracy. This was done in concert with a seismic upgrade called base isolation that placed the weak sandstone structure on a foundation of steel and rubber to better protect it from earthquake damage.
The City-County Building sits between State Street, Second East, Fourth South, and Fifth South in Salt Lake City, a block called Washington Square. Named for President George Washington, the block is the site of the original 1847 Mormon Pioneer camp in Salt Lake City.
Like other blocks in Salt Lake City's original grid, Washington Square is 10 acres. The Salt Lake City and County Building, alone in the center of the block, takes up relatively little space. Trees, walkways, and statues surround the building making Washington Square like a small park. Indeed, the block is often the site of fairs, concerts and other activities.
One notable gathering happened on June 16, 1995 when 50,000 people congregated on the west side of the City-County Building to watch the International Olympics Committee pick the host city for the 2002 Winter Olympics live on large projection screens. When IOC chairman Juan Antonio Samaranch read the winning city—Salt Lake City—the crowd at Washington Square cheered loudly for minutes, drowning out the rest of Samaranch's words.
Many of Salt Lake City's cultural events take place at Washington Square, and often 200 East Street between it and Library Square is blocked off to create one large event plaza. Events that take place in this space include Utah Pride Festival, the Utah Arts Festival, and Salt Lake City Jazz Festival and the Living Traditions Festival that celebrates all the different cultures that reside within the state. These occur once per year and usually run over the weekends.