From LDS chapel to LGBTQ hub? Duo sees a new future for Fifth Ward building in wake of partial demolition.

They hope to take over the partly wrecked meetinghouse from its owner, who faces fines and a repair order after Easter’s unauthorized razing.

(Courtesy of Craig Sorensen) Craig Sorensen, left, and Jacob Buck say they had well-developed plans to buy the historic Fifth Ward meetinghouse in Salt Lake City and turn it into a queer community space — before a portion of the building was destroyed on Easter Sunday in an unauthorized demolition.

Add this fresh layer of mystery — and maybe some hope — to the Easter wrecking of Salt Lake City’s Fifth Ward meetinghouse.

Residents Craig Sorensen and Jacob Buck say they were months along in negotiations to buy the historic building at 740 S. 300 West from owner and developer Jordan Atkin, with plans for a new gathering spot friendly to the city’s LGBTQ community, Black and Indigenous residents along with other people of color.

They had lined up investors and conducted market research to support their vision for bringing a new queer space in the Granary District. They hired a building inspector, a structural engineer and a preservation architect to assess its feasibility inside the red-bricked former chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

(Courtesy of Craig Sorensen) Craig Sorensen, left, and Jacob Buck say they had well-developed plans to buy the historic Fifth Ward meetinghouse in Salt Lake City and turn it into a queer community space — before a portion of the building was destroyed on Easter Sunday in an unauthorized demolition.

They drew enthusiastic responses, they say, with several other public pitches on the idea — including a meeting just over a week ago with the Granary District Alliance, where Atkin himself voiced his support and encouragement.

“He loved it,” Buck told The Salt Lake Tribune. “He told us to keep him informed on the steps we were taking.” Atkin appeared eager to initiate the sale starting this month, Sorensen added, and was well aware of constraints on the structure, given its historic value.

So shock doesn’t quite describe their reaction early Easter Sunday when one of them drove by and saw the 114-year-old meetinghouse being ripped apart by an excavator.

“No, this isn’t true. No way,” Sorensen said on how he reacted to Buck’s urgent call that morning. “I thought it was an April Fools’ joke at first. We were really like, flabbergasted. It was really confusion.”

“Then relief,” he added, as they learned they hadn’t somehow caused the demolition. “We didn’t do anything wrong.”

City officials confirm the partial demolition went ahead without any permits or required public review.

Now wielding the prospect of steep fines against the owner and a development moratorium on the property, the city says it will require that the building be restored.

That has bolstered many residents and historic preservationists upset over damage to the historic site. It also has swung Buck and Sorensen from deep disappointment to new hope that their dream of a nurturing space inside a piece of history may yet be alive.

Unauthorized demolition ‘not OK’

(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.

An employee for the city’s Redevelopment Agency also saw the demolition unfold that Sunday holiday and alerted colleagues with historical expertise, who confronted the demolition crew about not having any city permits and issued a formal stop order.

Officials say that quick response saved the edifice from being completely totaled.

The excavator operator, Karl Christensen with Move Man LLC, told The Tribune he had been hired by Atkin to tear down the building and said he proceeded assuming all the approvals were in place.

A registered landmark built in 1910, the worn meetinghouse is fenced off now and surrounded by debris. Its front portion and entryway have been destroyed, an exterior stairwell damaged, a back shed flattened and two mature trees ripped out.

City crews boarded up lower reaches of the building Wednesday to secure it further.

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

The City Council issued a statement saying it was “deeply saddened” by the partial destruction, while Mayor Erin Mendenhall called it “not OK” for bypassing the city’s permitting process and vowed to seek penalties against the property owner.

City Hall has since issued formal violations for failing to secure a certificate of appropriateness for the demolition and for proceeding without city permits. Both carry $100-per-day fines that will start accumulating after the developer has a reasonable time to fix the violations.

Atkins, who is owner and president of TAG SLC, a Salt Lake City-based development firm, has not responded to multiple requests from The Tribune for comment. In a short interview with the development news site Building Salt Lake, he denied ownership of the building.

Documents and other interviews indicate otherwise and point to the owner’s intention to tear down the building, which is also supported by the perspectives of Buck and Sorensen.

‘Dramatic miscommunication’

Sorensen, 34, is the co-owner of Crowdsourced Comedy, a comedy troupe in Salt Lake City specializing in improv shows and workshops. Buck, 37, is the founder of Stonewall Sports, which coordinates inclusive and LGBTQ-friendly sports leagues and philanthropy. Together, they say they started talks with Atkin on acquiring the Fifth Ward building in January.

The owner’s stated goal from the outset, Buck and Sorensen said, seemed to be revitalizing the building and putting it to new use in light of its historic protections.

Now they feel misled.

In a “curt conversation” on April 1 — the day after the demolition — they said Atkin acknowledged sending a crew to the property the day before.

“He said they were supposed to go there and remove some debris,” Sorensen recalled, “and through ‘a dramatic miscommunication,’ they started demolishing the building instead.”

Buck said he suspects Atkin “got in over his head and knew he was going to lose money, so he was trying to find a way he could do what he wanted with the space.”

Sorensen noted that the city’s move to increase penalties for unauthorized demolition of landmarks and buildings within its 16 historic districts was coming under consideration by the City Council just as Atkins moved on the meetinghouse.

The city’s requirement that the building be restored, they say, has given them new optimism. “This guy needs to pay for what he did,” said Sorensen, “and hopefully we still have a future.”

‘Somebody’s got to do it’

With recent turbulence and leadership changes at Utah Pride Center, Sorensen and Buck said some in the LGBTQ community have felt they lack a haven in the city.

The two say Utah also lacks spaces that cater to Black and Latino residents, especially in terms of inclusive community spots that serve as a “third space” to socialize in addition to work and home. The Granary District, Sorensen added, is a great location to reach those potential patrons.

The pair’s detailed plans and market research for the Fifth Ward meetinghouse had mapped every room on every floor of the building for related community functions, including hosting events, art exhibits, banquets, weddings, galas, theatrical shows, marketplaces and more.

“We want to serve everyone,” Sorensen said. “We want to serve as a spot where people know for a fact we’re on their side and we accept everybody for who they are.”

They realize they face financial obstacles, even if their plans get back on track. Their studies show the building has deteriorated heavily in recent years and needs $1 million to $2 million in repairs — before Easter’s wreckage — to ensure its structural integrity and restore its floors, plumbing, electrical, heating and other systems.

But they still aspire to acquire and convert the Fifth Ward once Atkin resolves his issues with the city.

“Somebody’s got to do it if they want this historic building to be part of the community,” Sorensen said. “So that’s what we concluded: All right, we two gays are going to do it.”