*Editor’s note: This is a condensed version of the original article. To read the full version, look for it in the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of LDS Living.
Every corner in the Lion House, from the custom-woven carpet to the many gable windows, recalls the house’s past, when it was full of women and children and was, as it still is, a gathering place.
Brigham Young was an impressive man with an impressive family when he commissioned the Lion House in 1855. His vision was to create a home of communal living that could house most of his wives and children, an idea that had occupied his mind since soon after arriving in the valley.
The completed house struck a distinctive figure against the pioneer town of Salt Lake City. It was made of native sandstone and covered in adobe, white woodwork, and green shutters. The upper story displayed 20 gables, one for each small bedroom. Each wife is said to have kept a key to her own apartment, including a parlor and bedroom. Each wife also had her own chair, fashioned by Brigham himself, a carpenter by trade. Legend says he would have his wives sit in the snow so he could conform the chair perfectly to the woman.
While the exact numbers of the first residents aren’t known, the Deseret News stated that on January 6, 1859, 40 children under age 13 lived in the house, for a total of 75 people. Children called wives who were not their mothers “aunt” to avoid confusion. The home was full of enterprise, with each woman fulfilling daily responsibilities in places like the laundry room or kitchen and children staying active the schoolroom, on the small stage constructed for them, or in the yard (Brigham was a revolutionary when it came to the importance of physical activity).
Christmastime brought a special kind of bustle to the house. Susa Young Gates, daughter of Brigham and Lucy Bigelow and the first child to be born in the Lion House, once recalled, “Christmas celebrated by a household as big and as jolly as ours was an indescribable experience.”
Christmas morning started at 4:00 a.m. with shouts of “Merry Christmas!” or “Christmas Gift!” Each child received some clothing and a toy—swords, drums, guns, or skates for the boys and wooden-headed dolls for the girls.
Dinner was an important part of Christmas Day, complete with turkey, mashed potatoes, baked beans, and Brigham’s favorite, cranberry pie. On the first Christmas spent in the Lion House, this dinner was made large by Brigham’s famous hospitality—he had invited recently returned missionaries and some of the Church brethren and their wives. At that time, according to Laura Willes’s Christmas with the Prophets, Brigham was remembered thus: “Brigham remembered, as he often does, that in inviting guests to a party, the only limitations to numbers, in his feelings, was the extent of room for their accommodation, hence had he suitable room, he would never wish to stop until he had invited every Latter-day Saint in all the world.”
In fact, guests were a frequent part of life at the Lion House. Brigham, who called the house a “gathering place,” was as liberal a homeowner as could be found, and in addition to the many members of his own family that lived there, frequently orphans or needy individuals would find shelter, work, and hospitality in the Lion House. In fact, Sarah Ann Barker, who could not hear or speak, was employed as the very first pastry cook, and she became famous for her dried apple pie.