The LDS Church’s historic Wells Ward Chapel is to be demolished

A nearly century-old landmark of the Latter-day Saint community in Salt Lake City lies in rubble more than three years after a massive earthquake shook its interior and knocked bricks from its facade to the ground.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is currently negotiating the sale of the Wells Ward Meetinghouse, 1990 p. 500 East, on the condition that the building be demolished by its new owners. News site Building Salt Lake first reported in March that the chapel was for sale.

The deal comes more than three years after the 2020 northern Utah earthquake sent shockwaves across the Wasatch Front and caused visible damage to the Wells Ward building.

Church spokeswoman Irene Caso said the decision to sell the historic property was made only after a thorough investigation of the damage.

“It was determined that the building was no longer structurally sound,” she said in a statement, “and to ensure the safety of all involved, as part of the sale the church will require the new owners to demolish the damaged meetinghouse.” .”

The building has been listed for $1.6 million, with bids due in January. It is currently under contract.

It’s unclear who is negotiating the purchase of the building and what the potential new owner wants to build in its place. The property is currently earmarked for single family homes.

Built on historic site

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Wells Ward in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 10, 2023.

In 1919, members of the Wells Ward—a Latter-day Saint congregation formed from members of the Forest Dale, Waterloo, and Burton Wards—announced plans to build the chapel on land once owned by Daniel H. Wells, a A Latter-day Saint Apostle, who was appointed Second Counselor in the reigning First Presidency by the second President of the Church, Brigham Young.

When the $45,000 chapel opened in 1926, it was considered one of the “finest and largest” meetinghouses in the Church, with a seating capacity of 1,000, the Salt Lake Tribune reported at the time.

The community pooled their resources to build the chapel — a common practice before the Utah-based global faith amassed its wealth, conservationist David Amott said. The building became a community center for Latter-day Saints and others, hosting events such as dances, lectures, and athletic competitions.

Amott, the former executive director of Preservation Utah, does not believe the church’s statement that the building could not be saved, calling the statement “fiction.”

“This building,” he said, “is absolutely salvageable.”

Faith has been inconsistent in deciding which buildings to conserve and which to destroy, he said.

In 2019, the University of Utah announced plans to purchase the historic University Ward Chapel near its campus to convert the building into an office, classroom, and concert space for the College of Fine Arts.

After the 2020 earthquake also damaged a 115-year-old West Chapel, the building’s new owner said the parish hall was beyond salvage. Plans to demolish the historic LDS 29th District met with strong opposition from residents, including Fairpark Community Council.

Late last year, the faith community agreed to donate the Liberty Wells Center, 707 S. 400 East, and the more than five acres it stands on to Ivory Innovations, the nonprofit subsidiary of Utah homebuilder Ivory Homes. The deal, which Building Salt Lake also reported on for the first time, does not include any obligation to demolish the existing building.

According to public records, if Ivory Innovations leaves the community house standing, the deal prohibits multiple uses, such as B. Hosting any business or activity that the Faith finds unreasonably loud or offensive; the production or distribution of any material that the Church considers “morally objectionable content that appeals to lustful interests in sex”; the manufacture, stocking, sale or consumption of drugs, alcohol or tobacco products; and any form of gambling or wagering.

A quest for efficiency?

Amott suspected that the church’s decision to ditch the Wells Ward meeting house is part of a search for efficiency in a neighborhood where Latter-day Saint membership has been declining for decades.

“You don’t need a single building,” he said, “for every church of 20 people that there might be.”

Amott said it was part of the corporate ethos the faith took on in the mid-20th century as it attempted to go more mainstream under then-President David O. McKay and other leaders.

“It kind of hit those values ​​of efficiency and shekel savings of the company hard,” he said. “What’s been lost is these very, very unique expressions of local piety, of the neighborhoods pooling their resources to create buildings like Wells Ward – something we’ll never see again.”

Amott said the Church’s modern mindset is more closely associated with the downtown meetinghouse the Church recently opened at the foot of its new 95 State office tower at City Creek than with the neighborhood chapels of yesteryear.

“That’s where the church stands now,” he said, “which is about as far as you can get from the truly local, locally focused, neighborhood-centric resource of these chapels being sold in such large numbers.”

The meetinghouse is an expression of 1920’s LDS faith

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Wells Ward in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 10, 2023.

It hurts, said Amott, to see the church disregard the value of the art, architecture and other physical expressions of the Wells Ward Meetinghouse, which were made by the members at the time of construction.

“It was these people who, through physical form and material, made visible their belief, their desire to connect and create a space for that connection, that transition from the world up to heaven,” Amott said. “Why do you want to get rid of that? Why would you just throw that away?”

However, the church indicates that it is taking steps to preserve some elements of the chapel.

A prominent sculpture was removed by architectural conservators, and a time capsule that was incorporated into the building during construction was given to the Church Historical Library.

The faith community also recently documented the meetinghouse with photos and a high-resolution 3D scan.

Justin Scaccy

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