Crews tear down part of historic LDS meetinghouse on Easter — without permission

Salt Lake City rushes in, halts the demolition of vacant Fifth Ward building.

A renegade demolition crew ripped into a historic Latter-day Saint meetinghouse on Easter Sunday, destroying the front portion of the vacant building before attentive Salt Lake City employees noticed the onslaught and officials shut it down.

Wreckers reportedly working for the owner of the Fifth Ward site at 740 S. 300 West rolled ahead early Easter afternoon without any city permits to bulldoze several mature trees and raze the 114-year-old building’s entryway and concrete stairs before building authorities secured a stop order.

A dormant, tilted crane remained parked Monday atop a huge pile of red bricks and concrete rubble rendered from destroying the front and stairway entrance to the edifice, built in 1910 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Officials confirmed Monday afternoon there were no applications for a demolition permit nor development plans filed for the 0.48-acre property, which records show is owned by a company called 300 W Holdings LLC, registered in December in Salt Lake City.

The LLC registration was made through a service that lets its principals remain anonymous. Other records show the meetinghouse property changed hands that same month, bought by 300 W Holdings from a West Valley City company called Gunlock Capital.

[Update: Salt Lake City says owner must restore damaged Fifth Ward building.]

Sunday’s aborted razing, first reported by Building Salt Lake, may have been due to a “dramatic miscommunication,” according to prospective buyers, who told the development news site they had hoped to convert it into a “queer community space.”

The Salt Lake Tribune’s attempts Monday to reach the property’s current owner were not immediately successful.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The remains of the Fifth Ward meetinghouse on 300 West in Salt Lake City, Monday, April 1, 2024. On Sunday, March 31, the historic building underwent an unauthorized demolition, which was halted by Salt Lake City officials.

What action the city might take

The wreckage left a mountain of debris cascading toward 300 West and gaping holes opening into the former chapel’s main chamber, exposing it to the elements as well as potential trespassers while also jeopardizing the building’s stability.

Several stone markers once laid by local leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints into the structure’s foundation could be found strewn in the rubble, along with huge twisted tree trunks and crumbled portions of a set of side stairs on the exterior.

The unauthorized demolition violated at least three city zoning ordinances, city officials said, including working without a permit, failing to obtain approval to tear down a historic structure and demolishing without securing an air quality plan — all of which carry $100 fines per day.

Higher fines could be levied, they said, in proportion to the value of future development at the property. The city also could require the owner to repair any damage.

And in a change to its prior agenda, the City Council now plans to discuss a new ordinance on Tuesday that would toughen some penalties for unlawful construction and demolition in historic zones.

City Planning Director Nick Norris said Building Services authorities were in contact with the owner, who, he said, “was still trying to figure out what happened.”

“This is 100% unacceptable,” he said of the demolition at a news conference Monday on the steps of City Hall, as Orion Goff, the city’s deputy director of development services, looked on.

“It’s a violation of our historic preservation regulations,” Norris added. “The only way they can remedy this is to essentially restore the damage that they’ve done.”

(The Salt Lake Tribune via Utah State Historical Society) The Fifth Ward meetinghouse in Salt Lake City in 1944.

Preservationists sound off

The early Easter wrecking also spawned outrage among historic preservationists, with some calling for hefty sanctions and a city mandate to bring the building back to its original form.

“They knew full well they were breaking the law,” advocate Casey McDonough wrote in an open letter Monday to city officials, including Mayor Erin Mendenhall. “They didn’t care, because they expect a slap on the wrist. Please don’t oblige them.”

A city employee noticed the unauthorized work early on the Sunday holiday, according to Norris, and two of the city’s historic preservationists confronted the crew. The workers initially claimed they had a demolition permit, then fled in a truck, leaving behind their equipment.

Police were notified and the city’s Building Services officials slapped a halt order on the front of the building that afternoon.

Blake Thomas, director for the city’s Community and Neighborhoods Department, thanked several city staffers who “caught this shameful and illegal demolition before it was too late.”

In addition to a permit, the demolition also required a review and an approval from the city’s Historic Landmark Commission, given that the structure is listed on local and national registers as contributing to the historic character of that portion of the Granary District.

Norris said city employees previously had discussed the site’s historic designation and conditions on any alterations with potential developers.

He said hiring an unauthorized crew to tear down a historic building on a holiday weekend “certainly destroys whatever trust” city officials had in those responsible and would likely hamper issuance of permits for any future work at the site.

“The perception isn’t good,” Norris said. “We’re working with them on next steps.”

Norris said the owner was now responsible for securing the badly damaged property. If the owner doesn’t, he said, the city had the authority to surround the building with fencing to protect the public and reduce potential trespassing or theft.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The remains of the Fifth Ward meetinghouse on 300 West in Salt Lake City, Monday, April 1, 2024. On Sunday, March 31, the historic building underwent an unauthorized demolition, which was halted by Salt Lake City officials.

Despite historic protections, the owner can seek to prove to city officials that economic hardship is forcing the site to be demolished, though that still requires a permit. Norris said that argument was unlikely to succeed for the meetinghouse property, given that the land is currently zoned for a variety of viable uses and is located in a rapidly developing neighborhood.

Designed by Cannon & Fetzer, a noted architectural firm in the early 20th century, the historic building is also designated as a city landmark and had an official marker on the front.

Its spacious and high-ceiling interior was a place of worship for Latter-day Saints until 1975, when the site was sold. It served over the years as a popular music venue, nightclub and office space. More recently, the former meetinghouse was home to the Urgyen Samten Ling Tibetan Buddhist temple and a martial arts school known as the Red Lotus School of Movement before being sold to Gunlock Capital.

The building is widely remembered as one of the city’s primary venues for punk rock in the early 1990s, with bands such as Nirvana, the Melvins and Smashing Pumpkins all playing there.

The structure had sat empty since 2019, with colorful Asian-themed murals still left in its parking lot, commissioned by its former Buddhist owners. The building’s upper windows were boarded and its distinct red brick exterior walls became pocked with graffiti, while the lower floors were occasionally targeted by squatters.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Iceburn performs at The Pompadour in 1993. The music venue occupied the Fifth Ward meetinghouse in Salt Lake City.