Historic LDS chapel — cracked and battered by 2020 earthquake — faces a future of rubble

The meetinghouse was described as one of the faith’s “finest and largest” when it debuted in 1926.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Wells Ward meetinghouse in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 10, 2023.

A nearly century-old staple of Salt Lake City’s Latter-day Saint community is fated for rubble more than three years after a major earthquake rattled its interior and sent bricks from its facade tumbling to the ground.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in negotiations to sell the Wells Ward meetinghouse, 1990 S. 500 East, with the stipulation that the building be torn down by its new owners. News website Building Salt Lake first reported in March that the chapel was up for sale.

The deal comes more than three years after northern Utah’s 2020 earthquake sent shockwaves across the Wasatch Front, causing visible damage to the Wells Ward building.

Church spokesperson Irene Caso said the decision to sell the historic property was made only after a thorough review of the damage.

“It was determined that the building was no longer structurally sound,” she said in a statement, “and to help ensure the safety of all involved, the church will require, as part of the sale, that the new owners demolish the damaged meetinghouse.”

The building was listed for $1.6 million with offers due in January. It is currently under contract.

It’s unclear who is in negotiations to buy the structure or what the potential new owner intends to build in its place. The land is currently zoned for single family homes.

Built on historic land

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Wells Ward meetinghouse in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 10, 2023.

In 1919, members of the Wells Ward — a Latter-day Saint congregation organized by members of the Forest Dale, Waterloo and Burton wards — announced plans to build the chapel on land once owned by Daniel H. Wells, a Latter-day Saint apostle who was appointed second counselor in the governing First Presidency by the church’s second president, Brigham Young.

When the $45,000 chapel opened in 1926, it was said to be one of the church’s “finest and largest” meetinghouses with a seating capacity of 1,000, The Salt Lake Tribune reported at the time.

The community compiled its resources to erect the chapel — a common practice before the Utah-based global faith amassed its wealth, preservationist David Amott said. The building became a community hub for Latter-day Saints and others, hosting events such as dances, lectures and athletic competitions.

Amott, the former executive director of Preservation Utah, isn’t buying the church’s explanation that the building couldn’t be saved, characterizing that explanation as “fiction.”

“This building,” he said, “is absolutely salvageable.”

The faith has been inconsistent, he said, in deciding which buildings it preserves and which ones it destroys.

In 2019, the University of Utah announced plans to purchase the historic University Ward chapel near its campus with the intention of converting the building into a space for offices, classrooms and concerts for the College of Fine Arts.

After a 115-year-old west-side chapel was also damaged by the 2020 earthquake, the building’s new owner said the meetinghouse couldn’t be saved. Plans to demolish the historic 29th LDS Ward were met with intense opposition from residents, including the Fairpark Community Council.

Late last year, the faith agreed to donate the Liberty Wells Center, 707 S. 400 East, and the more than two acres it sits on to Ivory Innovations, the nonprofit affiliate of Utah homebuilder Ivory Homes. The deal, also first reported by Building Salt Lake, includes no requirement to demolish the existing building.

If Ivory Innovations leaves the meetinghouse standing, according to public records, the deal prohibits several uses, such as hosting any business or activity the faith finds unreasonably noisy or offensive; the production or distribution of any material the church deems “morally offensive content appealing to prurient interest in sex”; the manufacture, storage, sale or consumption of drugs, alcohol or tobacco products; and any form of gambling or betting.

A quest for efficiency?

Amott theorized that the church’s decision to abandon the Wells Ward meetinghouse is part of a search for efficiency in a neighborhood with a decadeslong history of declining Latter-day Saint membership.

“You don’t need a single building,” he said, “for every congregation of 20 that might exist.”

Amott said it is part of the corporate ethos the faith adopted in the mid-20th century as it was trying to become more mainstream under then-President David O. McKay and other leaders.

“It sort of hit hard on these values of efficiency and corporate saving of shekels,” he said. “In the process, what has been lost are these very, very unique expressions of local piety, of neighborhoods pooling resources together to create buildings like the Wells Ward — the sort we’ll never see again.”

Amott said the church’s modern mindset is more closely tied to the downtown meetinghouse the faith recently opened at the base of its new high-rise office building, 95 State at City Creek, than it is to the neighborhood chapels of yesteryear.

“That’s where the church is now,” he said, “which is about as far as you can get from the really local, locally focused, sort of neighborhood-centered resource that these chapels, which are being sold in such a large number, represent.”

Meetinghouse an expression of 1920s LDS faith

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Wells Ward meetinghouse in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 10, 2023.

It hurts, Amott said, to see the church disregard the value of the Wells Ward meetinghouse’s art, architecture and other physical expressions that came from members at the time it was built.

“It was these people making visible, through physical form and material, their faith, their desire to connect and to create a space for that connection, that transition to happen, from the world up to heaven,” Amott said. “Why would you want to get rid of that? Why would you just throw that away?”

The church, however, notes it is taking steps to preserve some of the chapel’s elements.

A prominent sculpture was removed by architectural conservators and a time capsule integrated into the building during its construction was turned over to the Church History Library.

The faith also recently documented the meetinghouse with photographs and a high-resolution 3D scan.