This Utah chapel saved souls — now souls are working to save this chapel

Officials vote to preserve the prison’s 61-year-old Chapel by the Wayside after hearing heartfelt remarks from a former inmate whose life was changed by ministers who visited there.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Inmates perform in the chapel at the Utah State Prison in Draper in 2017. The state plans to preserve this worship space when the prison relocates.

A prison sanctuary in Draper long devoted to rescuing lives will see some salvation of its own.

The state land authority governing what’s to replace Utah State Prison and adjoining land at Point of the Mountain voted Thursday to preserve the penitentiary’s Chapel by the Wayside, a small 61-year-old spiritual refuge tucked inside the gray concrete walls of the Wasatch cellblock.

Utah is readying plans for a high-tech, green space-filled city, comparable in size to Bluffdale, where the old lockup now stands on 605 acres between southern Salt Lake County and northern Utah County. The public development will be known as The Point.

As a new prison is being completed on the western edge of Salt Lake City — and the Utah Department of Corrections prepares to transfer the inmate population north later this summer — members of the land authority had resisted moves to salvage historic elements in demolishing the old site, citing a desire to move past its notorious reputation.

But the 11-member panel changed course Thursday — after hearing from a leading preservationist and the moving stories of prison ministers and a former inmate who spoke about redemption and healing drawn from decades of social programs offered beneath the chapel’s vaulted ceiling.

Board members voted unanimously to study ways of saving it and funding a renovation and adaptive reuse with public and private money, even if it means moving the chapel to a new location on The Point’s footprint.

“We got a decision today that the chapel will be preserved,” Alan Matheson, the land authority’s executive director, said after the meeting. “We need to explore ways to pay for it. Understand that we’ve got very limited dollars for this project and we’re trying to be as efficient as possible.”

Also to be preserved are the prison’s central locking system, known as the Johnson bar, and a set of art deco metal restroom signs that caught the interest of Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, who co-leads the land authority.

“They’re really cool,” Henderson said Thursday. “They’re original and they would be really interesting.”

In the beginning: How the chapel came to be

(Salt Lake Tribune photo, from the University of Utah) Utah Gov. George Clyde, at the construction of the Utah State Prison's Chapel by the Wayside, June 18, 1958. The Point of the Mountain State Land Authority voted Thursday to save the chapel when it demolishes the rest of the prison.

Planning for the old prison started in 1937, with recognition that the Utah Territorial Penitentiary, located where Sugar House Park is today, was increasingly overcrowded and needed to be moved as Salt Lake City continued to grow. The first 575 inmates traveled by bus to the newly completed prison, located on Draper’s Bitterbrush Lane, in 1951.

Chapel by the Wayside was born out of a 1957 prison riot. Dissatisfied with their living conditions, inmates took several hostages and sent a list of grievances directly to then-Gov. George Clyde. Among their demands before the Utah National Guard quashed the uprising, according to David Amott, executive director of Preservation Utah, was the request for “a real chapel.”

“At that point,” Amott said, “the prisoners take matters into their own hands and design the prison chapel themselves.”

Clyde led a statewide campaign to raise funds, which led to “an outpouring of support from all of Utah, people from all walks of life,” Amott said, as well as social groups and the region’s leading faiths, including the Catholic Church, various Protestant denominations and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

From its opening in 1961, Amott said, the chapel “became a great point of service, dedication and transformation.”

William Lawson, a former prisoner who now lives in Ogden, told the land authority he served as a clerk in the chapel, a break that came “when I was probably at the lowest point in my life that anyone could possibly experience.”

Working with volunteers, many of whom ministered inmates on matters of faith “absolutely changed my life,” Lawson said, “and most probably saved it.”

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune ) Inmates at the Utah State Prison in Draper knit in the quiet setting of the prison chapel in this file photo. The plans to preserve this worship space when the prison relocates.

Along with finding solace in spirituality, he said, “just as important was the opportunity to be able to walk out of the main corridor of that incredibly cold and isolating place and finding, for just a moment, a piece of our day to again touch base with dignity, self-respect and self-worth.”

Saving the chapel, Lawson said, “offers a way to accurately document the decades of complicated history that have occurred behind the Utah State penitentiary walls.”

“I am a living piece,” he added, “of that complicated history.”

The Rev. Bill Germundson, director of a prison ministry for Murray’s St. Francis of Assisi Christian Church, said preserving the chapel “would be a lasting and loving remembrance of all the tears shed, the transformations of prisoners and the people of Utah who reached out their hands in love to their neighbors.”

His colleague, the Rev. Charles Hines, called the chapel “holy ground” and urged that it “continue to be a place of prayer and meditation for the people in Draper.”

Prison’s infamous inmates

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Inmates perform in the chapel at the Utah State Prison in Draper in 2017. The state plans to preserve the chapel.

Until recently, Draper Mayor Troy Walker had opposed any large-scale efforts to preserve portions of the prison, noting that many longtime residents have negative and painful associations with its past.

The sprawling penal campus housed high-profile criminals such as forger-bomber Mark Hofmann and death row inmate Ron Lafferty, whose murderous deeds have been recently resurrected in the TV miniseries “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Killer Gary Gilmore grabbed worldwide headlines in 1977, when he became the first U.S. inmate to be executed after a decadelong moratorium on capital punishment.

But on Thursday, Walker said the chapel “is the one building that makes sense to preserve.” Panel co-leader, Rep. Lowry Snow, R-St. George, added that the idea resonates for Utah, with its “deep roots in religious and spiritual convictions.”

“We believe in redemption,” Snow said. “Regardless of our religions affiliation, we as Utahns believe that we are capable of making changes in our lives, with the help of powers on high. Our churches and chapels help us in that effort.”

Amott, who has lobbied for more than a year on behalf of saving portions of the prison, said later his group was “thrilled that this building with such an inspirational story will live on to serve the new Point community.”

He told the land authority that architectural experts had posited reusing the chapel as office space or a coworking site, perhaps connected to new towers and research facilities the state plans to construct at The Point as part of a new innovation district.

“It would introduce this texture and critical narrative to The Point development,” he said. “It would stand in contrast to all the new buildings around it and indicate that this site has a past. It has a story to tell, and the chapel itself tells a compelling story.”

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(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Inmates perform in the chapel at the Utah State Prison in Draper in 2017. A state panel has voted to preserve this worship space when the prison is moved to Salt Lake City.