When a 5.7 magnitude earthquake struck the Wasatch Front in 2020, the Liberty Wells neighborhood in Salt Lake City was shaken hard. Many of the charming homes and historic buildings bore the brunt of the quake, resulting in cracked foundations, fallen bricks and expensive repairs. Among the damaged structures was the historic Wells Ward Latter-day Saint chapel built in 1926.
Stake President Nathaniel Carson, a regional church leader, couldn’t believe the destruction in front of his eyes when he saw the chapel after the earthquake.
“There were bricks and other rubble in the parking lot and on the sidewalk that had fallen off the building,” said Carson. ”When I went inside, there was plaster all over the floor from where it had cracked and fallen.”
The earthquake damage to the chapel’s architecture rendered it unsafe for Wells Ward members to congregate in, forcing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to close the doors and fence off the 1990 South and 500 East property to keep passersby safe from potential hazards like falling bricks.
“You could see there was extensive damage,” said Carson, “and it’s kind of heartbreaking.”
On Saturday afternoon, a few dozen people, Latter-day Saints and others, gathered to say their goodbyes to the Wells Ward building that community members helped finance and build nearly a century ago.
After 18 months of inspections, the Utah-based faith decided it was time to put the Wells Ward property up for sale. Emotions ran high as Stake President Carson and longtime Wells Ward member Tricia Tate fought back tears when speaking to the crowd about the memories made throughout the chapel’s 95-year history.
“It [Wells Ward] has a feeling that’s different than modern-built meetinghouses,” he said, “because the people of this neighborhood paid for it and built it. I think you can feel that when you’re in the building.”
A fight for survival
Community members and Latter-day Saints alike are concerned about the future of the historic structure. The idea of placing the property in the hands of a developer to demolish is the worst-case scenario for some.
“Not only is it unique architecturally and beautiful, but it’s helped a lot of people. It helped the community in general, not just the members of the church, through the Second World War, through the Great Depression and other times,” said Carson. “I think the last thing any of us would like to see is a developer tear it down and put condominiums here.”
To those who attended the farewell, the Wells Ward building is more than just a church meetinghouse. The property holds communal and spiritual significance.
“It’s a literal embodiment of generations of activity, of human life, of pride, of civic organization and of civic devotion and faith, said David Amott, executive director of Preservation Utah, a statewide nonprofit that advocates for historic preservation. “All of that is embodied in this building in a very real and tangible way.”
The Wells Ward was described as a community hub, where everyone could assemble to watch a film during World War II or learn how to square dance.
Amott doesn’t want the Wells Ward to leave the community. Instead, he would like to see Salt Lake City or a private investor committed to restoring the building back to its original glory.
Amott isn’t alone in his wish. Salt Lake City Council member Darin Mano wanted the city to buy the building and transform the space into a city library. However, after many talks with the Salt Lake City mayor’s office and library officials, it doesn’t seem like the idea will become a reality.
“I don’t think that there’s a currently viable city use for the building,” said Mano. “There are still some other things that I’m still in conversation with, but none of them are very hopeful at this point, unfortunately.”
The cost to restore and retrofit the Wells Ward to meet safety standards would require millions of dollars, Mano predicted. Taxpayers would have to help foot the bill if the city decided to buy the building from the church, or any historical building, for that matter.
“A discussion that we as the council need to have with the community is: What role does Salt Lake City want us as a government to have in preserving old buildings because it’s a tax burden and it would require, you know, a lot of tax money?” explained Mano. “But if that’s something that the community wants, maybe we start bonding to start to restore these old buildings and use them for community uses.”
‘Really breaks my heart’
Amott believes the church sale will mostly likely result in the demolition of the Wells Ward.
“My understanding is the LDS Church wants to set a clause that it will be demolished,” said Amott, trying to hold back tears, “which really breaks my heart.”
Church officials haven’t confirmed if that’s the case. According to Emily Utt, a historic sites curator for the Church History Department, church leadership is still deciding the best way to sell the property.
“Our real estate team is working really hard trying to figure out all of the complexities of trying to sell a building like this that has made great damage,” said Utt. “We don’t really know what will happen yet.”
While the future of the Wells Ward meetinghouse remains up in the air, Amott won’t stop fighting to keep the building upright for another 95 years.
“One thing that Preservation Utah does well is connect people to buildings or connect people to other people that help save buildings,” said Amott. “We’re going to work hard to find the private investor to hopefully convince the church that this building be sold to an investor who will repair it, and perhaps could use it as an event center or some sort of gathering space.”