Has this ragged brick chapel on Salt Lake City’s west side run out of useful lives?
Its new owner says he’s deeply conflicted about it, but yes.
Since the March 18 earthquake, the 115-year-old 29th LDS Ward in the Fairpark neighborhood is damaged to the point of being unusable, says David Wright, who bought the property at 1102 W. 400 North from the city at a discount early in 2020.
As proprietor of Wright Mind LLC and would-be operator of a progressive community center in the former Latter-day Saint chapel, Wright has now sought emergency permission at City Hall to tear down the historic structure.
“At some point, I had to weigh out emotion with what makes logical sense,” Wright said last week, standing in the chapel’s cluttered and weed-lined parking lot.
He faces mounting criticism from neighbors, community leaders and historic preservationists as officials ready for a March public hearing by the city’s historic landmark experts to review his request.
The Fairpark Community Council and dozens of residents adamantly oppose granting him the wrecking ball, and some neighbors fear Wright will take advantage of his discounted purchase price of $153,000 and make at least four times that selling the 0.8-acre lot to a housing developer.
“An unusual and highly unfortunate set of circumstances,” said community council Chairman Tom King. “I think of it personally as a process of putting on a facade of doing something good for the community.”
Wright knows he isn’t popular with many of the neighbors right now. He also knows the city is skeptical of some of his assertions. The former Californian said in an interview last week — despite his demolition application and claims of economic hardship — he doesn’t really relish the idea of razing the landmark L-shaped chapel and meeting hall either, nor his prior dreams along with them.
But as the pain of 2020 wore on, he said his plans for New Hope Center — shared gardens, community services, homeless aid, a business incubator — gave way unfulfilled to dangerously crumbling walls and growing debts.
“I still hope and pray and wish that there’s a million-dollar philanthropist out there,” Wright said, “but as of right now, that’s where we stand.”
That afternoon, Wright struggled to make sense of a new city edict, in the form of “red tag” attached to the property days before that appeared to condemn it altogether. It marked the latest hurdle, he said, in a four-year saga of trying to make something out of the aged church.
“To make it economically sustainable, you need to be able to do stuff here,” Wright said, “and I can’t do anything here.”
The building’s beginnings
The brick chapel first opened in 1905, built in a Victorian gothic style with stepped gables and arched windows. Worshippers added an assembly hall two decades later that shaped the site into a community hub for generations.
While serving as a meetinghouse for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the building also hosted parties, dances, plays and weekly movie nights through its early years. Now, surrounded by mostly single-family homes, it has also been used for classrooms, a medical clinic, office spaces, living quarters and social gatherings, according to city documents and its 2015 listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Despite many remodels and “a fair amount of deterioration,” that federal listing determined five years ago the building’s essential character remained intact and that it was a historic resource to its northwest Salt Lake City neighborhood.
The city acquired it from the church in 2007 and declared the property surplus three years later. After then-Mayor Jackie Biskupski ordered the lot sold in 2017, according to information filed in Wright’s case, the city got three bids.
Wright made a pitch to convert the site and adjoining open lots into a community garden, documents indicate, and Biskupski directed the city’s real estate division to sell it to him.
Records show he leased the building instead as he tried to run New Hope Center and signed papers to clinch the sale in early 2020 —— just as pandemic lockdowns took hold. Wright has since drawn several civil citations for issues related to the building’s plumbing, mechanical and electrical systems, including its solar panels — which he has to clear up to occupy it.
Wright said he knew all along of the site’s challenges and chronic disrepair, but conditions grew worse with March’s 5.7 magnitude temblor, according to his plea to the city.
Gables are now detached from the chapel, its chimney is shaky, and the building’s unreinforced masonry “is a threat to harm and bodily injury,” his city application reads. “When the next seismic activity hits, these gables will come crashing down onto the sidewalks and public rights of way.”
A city expert questions some of his assertions. Her initial report to the city’s Historic Landmark Commission, filed Dec. 16, says structural studies on the building show repairs are needed; “however, they don’t support that the physical integrity of the building is gone.”
Wright says he needs $1.4 million to cover a full renovation, plus what he and a silent partner have already invested in fixing up the building or racked up in debts. His own estimates are the property is worth at least $900,000, with the chapel scrapped away.
Salt Lake City does not approve demolishing historic buildings lightly and deems such landmarks “of exceptional importance” when reviewing such emergency applications.
A historic registry listing doesn’t forbid tearing it down, but it does set a higher bar for review. The Historic Landmark Commission, under city rules, will have to either agree the building is a public hazard or grant Wright’s claim of economic hardship to let him proceed.
The commission decides such cases in a quasi-judicial role that usually prevents its members from public comment outside their hearings. But a member of that panel has voiced opposition as a Fairpark resident, saying the idea “is making me truly angry.”
Other residents in submitted comments call the chapel’s owner “overly idealistic” and accuse him of “misappropriation of trust” for changing course on the idea of making it a viable community hub, with some urging him to seek support from area nonprofits to make it happen.
“I hope the community will have a chance to be a part of the conversation,” another homeowner said. “I am invested in the outcome of the property and know there are creative Salt Lake City minds that can build something beautiful.”
Wright’s request is also touching a nerve on housing, with a few residents saying it’s much needed but many more arguing they are tired of rapid and expensive apartment development and warning of “gentrification.” Many said they are wary the demolition will bring a new housing project to that corner with more homes that aren’t affordable, while wiping away a historic presence neighbors treasure.
“This would be amazing as a community center,” one resident told the commission. “The more unique history we tear down, the more of our history we lose forever. The valley is losing these gems in favor of carbon-copy apartments and homes. It’s heritage.”
Correction • 4:43 p.m., Jan. 17, 2021: An earlier version misstated how Salt Lake City acquired the property from the LDS Church in 2007.