This historic Latter-day Saint meetinghouse may not be torn down after all

After community outpouring in support of 29th Ward in Fairpark, owner halts his demolition bid — for now — in advance of a potential sale.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The 29th LDS Ward House, at 1102 W. 400 North in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021.

Moves to demolish the dilapidated 29th LDS Ward on Salt Lake City’s west side are temporarily on hold after an outpouring of public support for saving the old chapel, its owner now says.

David Wright confirmed he has indefinitely postponed hearings on an emergency application before the city’s Historic Landmark Commission he had filed late last year, seeking a declaration of economic hardship in the wake of last March’s earthquake and permission to tear down the meetinghouse at 1102 W. 400 North.

The historic building’s reprieve, Wright said, is through July for now.

That’s when he and an unnamed prospective buyer with ties to the Fairpark neighborhood will assess the building’s full financial picture, including the option of creating a sustainable meeting space out of the 115-year-old church, all with a view to a potential sale.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) David Wright, owner of the 29th LDS Ward meetinghouse in Salt Lake City on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021.

Wright, proprietor of Wright Mind LLC, bought the building from Salt Lake City last March at a heavy discount just as the coronavirus pandemic was hitting and days before last year’s magnitude 5.7 temblor, which he said damaged it beyond repair.

“I’m serious about demolishing it,” Wright said last week, citing continued financial losses and major structural challenges the church still faces, despite the reprieve. “I mean, at some point I have to tuck tail and run.”

But, with some hopes remaining of creating a viable community hub and resource center at the location, he has proceeded with improvements between now and Aug. 1, Wright said.

“I’m going all-out, all-in, as much as I can on time, labor and money,” he said, “to get it to its best state by July.”

Since halting his request for demolition, Wright has negotiated with city officials and the National Park Service for a series of repairs and renovations, navigating costly and exacting preservation and documentation standards on several exterior and interior features.

City officials recently granted certificates to allow for a series of minor window, door and brick repairs and for landscaping of the corner property’s grounds.

Wright said he was also wrangling for approval on larger interior alterations he has proposed as part of securing federal tax breaks of up to 20% on renovation costs, under the building’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Wright stated late last year in his emergency application that the quake damaged key features of the L-shaped meetinghouse and that the building couldn’t be salvaged for under $1.4 million, compared to Wright’s purchase price of $153,000. But, as a public hearing on his request approached this month, he also drew a wave of community criticism over his plans, including assertions he intended to raze the icon to build high-density housing.

Wright said the surge of public interest, including voluminous comments and suggestions submitted to the Historic Landmark Commission by residents to the Fairpark Community Council, led him to change course, as did guidance from the prospective buyer.

While the chapel isn’t financially viable, repair costs keep mounting and the building can be occupied only under certain conditions, Wright said last week he’d also heeded calls from church neighbors and community leaders urging him to treat the meetinghouse more as a shared asset.

Tom King, chairman of the Fairpark Community Council, said he’d been in touch with Wright. We let him know that part of his obstacles with some donors had been holding it in private ownership,” said King, who added that he welcomed news that Wright’s bid to raze the chapel had been delayed.

Wright said he had created a holding account and is urging those hoping to restore and retain the old church to donate to it as an initial step toward migrating a restored version to public ownership, tentatively under the name Fairpark Meetinghouse.

“I’m kind of asking everyone to just work with me,” Wright said as he directed construction crews pulling old pipes from a portion of the building. “Donors, members of the community, now is kind of the time to pony up.”

First opened in 1905 as a worship space for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the 29th Ward was constructed in a Victorian gothic style, with a sand-color exterior, stepped gables and arched windows. The assembly hall, added to the chapel two decades later, has housed numerous community events and activities for generations.

The two buildings were used in their early years for social gatherings, parties, dances, plays and movie nights. Now surrounded mostly by single-family homes, the meetinghouse also has served as a medical clinic, office space and living quarters, according to city documents and the building’s 2015 listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Despite several remodels and “a fair amount of deterioration,” that federal listing deemed five years ago the building’s essential character remained intact and that it is a historic resource for the city’s northwest neighborhood.

With available land selling at a premium across Utah’s capital, the church and its 0.8-acre lot had been listed for sale before Wright’s emergency demolition request for more than $900,000 — nearly six times his purchase price from the city.