The old 19th Ward meetinghouse in Salt Lake City has always been a bit of an architectural oddity. A landmark in the Marmalade District since it was completed in 1892, it’s believed to be the only Latter-day Saint meetinghouse with an onion dome.
After decades as a house of worship, the building at 168 W. 500 North has been home to Salt Lake Acting Company since 1982, housing two theaters, rehearsal space, dressing rooms, a box office and more. And now, a remodel is adding more perhaps unexpected features — like animal-print carpeting and over-the-top restrooms.
When the meetinghouse and the old Relief Society Hall next door reopen, which is scheduled for late summer, patrons will notice a lot of changes. Including:
1.) Leopard-print carpeting on the stairs and in the green room • Well, it’s something you wouldn’t have seen when the building was a church. “We really, really want it to be fun,” and a little bit “naughty … and playful,” said Lauren Bald, design director at cityhomeCollective.
2.) A roof that won’t cave in and a floor that doesn’t bounce • In the main building, multiple support beams have been added because parts of the roof were “being supported by we’re not quite sure what,” said architect Jason Wheeler. “We feel like this building is going to be much more secure in the future, particularly with earthquakes.”
In the Relief Society Hall, which houses dressing rooms, the floor in the southwest corner used to bounce. Because, as it turns out, floor joists were resting on … nothing. “It’s a miracle the floor hadn’t collapsed,” said architect Jason Wheeler.
A new beam runs the length of the building, and it rests on new footings and posts.
(The small Relief Society Hall, 14 feet by 26 feet, was actually built two blocks away in 1908 and later moved to its present site.)
3.) Theatrical restrooms • The two lower level restrooms will be “almost like a theater set,” Bald said.
One will feature a green tile pattern, the other will be filled with mauve. And both will be “playful and fun.”
4. Named toilets • Donors can become part of the “lasting legacy” of the remodel by paying to have their names attached to all sorts of things. “We’ve got wall tiles, we’ve got a fireplace in the green room, we’ve got some urinals in the bathroom — lots of possibilities,” said SLAC’s director of development, Erika Ahlin.
Including those urinals in the men’s room and stalls in both the men’s and women’s rooms — which you can sponsor for $5,000 each.
The available sponsorships range from $500 for an indoor wall tile to $100,000 for the lobby. A donor has already coughed up $500,000 for the main event in the remodel — the elevator.
5. The elevator • The old 19th Ward building has always been problematic for patrons and performers with mobility issues — you have to climb or descend stairs to get to the theater, the restrooms, the concessions, pretty much everything. There was a chair lift on a track on one side of the main staircase, but it was slow and slippery. (It’s been removed.) And some patrons and their wheelchairs had to be carried up and down the stairs.
That’s about to change, because SLAC is installing a new elevator for those who need some help to get from the lobby to the theater, as well as to the concessions and restrooms.
It’s part of the $1 million Amberlee Fund: Accessibility Elevated, which the theater company has launched to complete work on the elevator, ramps and other improvements to make the old 19th Ward building accessible to everyone.
Named in honor of the late Amberlee Hatton-Ward, who was carried — along with her wheelchair — into the SLAC performances she loved.
“It took a tremendous effort to bring her here,” said her mother, Shauna Rasmussen Hatton-Ward, co-chair of the fundraising effort — which has raised $745,000 of its $1 million goal. “But she loved it. I think Amberlee would be so honored today.”
Donations to The Amberlee Fund can be made at SaltLakeActingCompany.org/Donate or by calling 801-363-7522.
The facility has belonged to the city since the early 1970s. SLAC pays $2,152 a month to lease the buildings, which funds utilities and upkeep. Anything beyond that — including the ongoing renovation — comes out of SLAC’s pocket. The current lease runs through 2025, with two five-year options that extend that to 2035.
The brick structure has undergone more renovations than anyone can count. A large addition housing a recreation hall and offices built on the back of the church — begun in 1928 and completed in 1936 — brought the total square footage to about 14,000.
(The onion dome is galvanized tin, by the way.)
Designed by architect Robert Bowman, it’s been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1976. The application for that status noted that the 19th Ward meetinghouse was “totally out of character” with LDS meetinghouse “architecture in general.” Its onion dome and pinnacles, the application said, “are of foreign origin and have no direct theological relationship to Mormon ideology.”