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The Legacy of the Moss Pineapple

by Rich Stebbins

This image shows a bronze sculpture with a multifaceted design. The tops is a torch
The "Moss Pineapple" was found throughout the exterior of the Frank E. Moss U.S. Courthouse and has a special meaning for the building. Photograph by HOK

A seismic upgrade project at the Frank E. Moss U.S. Courthouse in Salt Lake City, UT has uncovered a piece of art that holds the key to the building’s legacy.

Called the Moss Pineapple, the design can be found on the facade throughout the exterior of the building. Designed in 1931 by an artist known only as Peele from historic documents, the Moss Pineapple has significant meaning for what the building was intended to represent to the region.

“One of the soulful elements of this project was found in this quirky little symbol we lovingly call the Moss Pineapple,” said Tim Gaidis, Senior Project Designer, HOK, the design firm contracted to work on this project. “This symbol has helped guide and inspire our strategies for this project.”

The composition of the design within the piece has special meaning to show the hope and prosperity the building would bring to the region. 

The base of the design has curled plant-like forms that represent growth. At that time, there was considerable social growth for the city and state around 1932. That also meant an increase in the need for the judiciary and more courtrooms.

The next symbol is the sunrise just above the stems, which represent new beginnings. This represents the expansion of the courts in the region, adding a District Court to the Bankruptcy Court that was in existence from when the building was first built.

The third symbol are the feather-like elements on both sides meant to represent transcendence or rising above the challenges they faced in that era. It also can be interpreted to mean that people could transcend long distances by connecting with people across the country and across the world through the post office.

The last symbol at the top middle is the torch to represent truth, such as shining a light into the darkness to seek justice and fairness from the courts. At that time in our country, few things provided hope but the courts were there to provide that beacon in an unjust, unfair society.

“Originally meant to represent what people were going through during that time, around the time of the Great Depression, all of these allegories still ring true today,” said Gaidis.

At nearly the turn of the century, local bankers known as the Walker brothers (Sharp, Rob, Fred and Matt) sold the government the land to build a federal building in an effort to shift political power to the southern part of the city from Mormon control of the territory in the north. The federal government bought that piece of land for one silver dollar on November 21, 1899.

“The Walker Brothers started to create another version of Utah’s future than the one Brigham Young imagined,” said David Amott, Director of Preservation Utah. “They had a vision of Utah that would engage with the federal government, mercantilism and connect the state to the rest of the growing nation.”

A depiction of the various elements that make up the Moss Pineapple. The yellow dashed outline helps to show each of the Moss
This photo breaks down each element of the Moss Pineapple. Photograph by Courtesy of HOK

The federal building, originally known only as the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, was finally built in 1905. The building was expanded in 1912 and again in 1932, when the Moss Pineapple made its debut. 

The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 as part of the Exchange Place Historic District. The name was changed to Frank E. Moss U.S. Courthouse in 1990 to honor the three-term U.S. senator from Utah.

The legacy of the Moss Pineapple continues to inspire generations who look to the courts in Utah to help light the way of truth as we face future challenges and look for opportunities to do things in new and better ways.

“This building helps connect the people, through the history written right here in Utah, with the decisions made here, large and small, mundane and magnificent,” said Amott. “The little bits of life that have taken place here, in their aggregate, say so much about who we are as a people.”