Nonprofit aims to transform a historic church on Salt Lake City’s west side into an ‘art castle’

Plans for the $4M project include creating an immersive art exhibit, sculpture garden and performance stage at the “hidden gem” in Poplar Grove.

Renovations are in the works to transform a 120-year-old west-side church into an art hall and concert center.

With white brick walls and stained-glass windows, the 15th Ward church at 915 W. 100 South in Salt Lake City’s Poplar Grove neighborhood looks like it would fit into a French or German countryside. One of its distinctive features is a round window with a large star in the center that faces east.

The Victorian Gothic building has seen many uses during its life. One of the original 19 wards of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that made up pioneer-era Salt Lake City, the church hasn’t been a worship space since the 1960s. Rather, over the years, it has been a movie studio as well as a recording studio where Emmy-winning soundtracks were created.

“It’s a hidden gem in Salt Lake City that a lot of locals don’t know about,” said Derek Dyer, executive director of the Utah Arts Alliance.

Now, the nonprofit is eager to save the historic building from potential demolition, with plans to turn it into an “art castle.”

The vision

If things go as planned, the 15th Ward church will be the Utah Arts Alliance’s seventh cultural facility. Other locations include Alliance Theater, a performing-arts space in Trolley Square, and the Urban Arts Gallery, a visual arts venue on Rio Grande Street in The Gateway mall.

But the art and music that will take place inside the west-side church aren’t the only focus for this venue. Preserving the building itself is one of the project’s main goals.

David Amott, executive director of Preservation Utah, which works to protect historic buildings and is helping the Utah Arts Alliance with the project, said the building is in fairly good shape since it has been in continuous use — unlike the 29th Ward in the Fairpark neighborhood. But the wooden roof needs to be redone, and the building needs new wiring, he said. The March 2020 earthquake also jarred some bricks out of place.

In addition to protecting the structure, the nonprofit aims to preserve the recording studio inside, a room without any square edges designed by famed studio designer Tom Hidley. Dyer said the studio will be opened for use by the Utah Arts Alliance’s community partners. He noted the group has experience with recording studios because it already runs Counterpoint Studios at 2335 S. West Temple.

Other rooms will be used as workspaces for local business owners and artists. An immersive art exhibit with multisensory pieces — similar to “Dreamscapes” at The Gateway — will also be installed in the building. A free sculpture garden will be created outside and an outdoor stage with seating will be set up for live performances.

The Utah Arts Alliance is still scraping together the $2.8 million needed to buy the building, but it has a lease and plans to move forward with the renovations. The project is estimated to cost about $4 million and will take about two years to finish.

The nonprofit is asking the city, state and county for financial help. Dyer said the group has $500,000 that had been set aside for a permanent cultural facility in Salt Lake City. He expects it will take about a year to raise all the necessary money.

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, also is sponsoring the alliance’s request for $500,000 from the Legislature. Hollins said Dyer approached her a few months ago with the plan since the location is in her district, and she was “totally on board.”

“I am a lover of the arts,” she said. “I love museums. I love art galleries. I love the theater. They are bringing all of that to the west side.”

Besides the art the project would bring to the community, Hollins points to economic development potential — from businesses run in the church and from arts patrons eating and shopping in west-side establishments.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The 15th Ward chapel at 915 West 100 South in Salt Lake CityÕs Poplar Grove neighborhood, Feb. 10, 2021.

The history

The 15th Ward dates back to pioneer days. The Latter-day Saint congregation met first in a schoolhouse, Amott said, and then on the upper floor of a granary before the church was built around 1900.

Amott said various wards competed with one another when it came to erecting churches. “You get a sense of intense competition between wards to build the biggest and best chapel.”

Because of this, local craftspersons would volunteer money and labor. The final products were not just representations of faith, they also showed off skill and financial prowess, said Amott. In addition to worship, churches like the 15th Ward were used as gathering places where political events took place and films were screened.

The LDS Church sold the 15th Ward chapel in the late 1960s. It was owned by Sunn Classic Pictures before being converted into a recording studio under the name CDI Media, according to current owner Bryan Hofheins. Artists including Eminem and the Backstreet Boys have recorded there.

Hofheins and business partner Randy Thornton established their own recording studio, LA East Studios, in the church in 1988. They made music for movie trailers for films including “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” They also won two Emmys for television music. The studio was bought by Warner Chappell Music just over a decade ago, but Hofheins kept ownership of the building and stayed on board with the company. When the lease expired this year, Warner Chappell moved operations elsewhere, and Hofheins decided to sell the church to the Utah Arts Alliance.

The chapel has familial significance to Hofheins. His parents and grandparents attended church there. He says he welcomes this new vision for the building’s future.

The changing city

Not every historic building has such a hopeful future in an ever-changing Salt Lake City.

The city is expanding as office high-rises and housing towers go up. At the same time, old buildings are being torn down. The 29th Ward faces possible demolition against the wishes of community members and preservationists.

Dyer said the Arts Alliance has wanted to save other buildings, but many didn’t work out. Some, like the historic Murray Temple, were razed. Others, like the stately former Hansen Planetarium, which is now a jewelry store, were converted to other uses. Dyer said he was glad that the Hansen building at least remained standing.

“The money always beats us out,” he said. “There is always a developer who wants to put up an apartment building that has more money than us.”

Still, he is thrilled to preserve the 15th Ward and reshape it into a cultural and economic asset.

“We love these old buildings, and arts fit well in these old churches,” he said. “Art connects well with history.”