David Amott: Utah prison’s Chapel by the Wayside is a landmark too valuable to lose

Point of the Mountain development should preserve the historic chapel.

For several days in early February 1957, events at Utah’s new state penitentiary complex in Draper made headlines across the nation. Seeking redress for poor living conditions, 511 inmates at the state prison revolted, taking several hostages including members of the Granger Second Ward basketball team who were in the prison gym practicing shots.

The prisoners held these hostages for hours as they compiled a list of 43 grievances that was sent directly to Utah Gov. George Clyde. Listed among petitions for better food and a kinder parole board was the request for “a real chapel.”

Eventually, the Utah National Guard regained control of the Utah State Prison and quelled the riot. The historical record is not clear if the prisoners ever got better food, a more sympathetic parole board or most of their other demands. Clyde, however, personally saw that the prisoners got a real chapel of their own.

In 1958, the governor launched a statewide fundraising campaign aimed at amassing private funds to build this prison chapel. Citizens across Utah generously donated coins and dollar bills. Various social clubs and other organizations held prison chapel fundraiser dances, theatricals, rodeos and raffles. The Catholic, LDS and various Protestant churches likewise donated to the chapel’s construction.

When enough money had been raised, the prisoners themselves constructed the prison chapel. In 1961, the chapel stood complete enough to allow representatives of several religious faiths to visit and dedicate the Utah State Prison’s “Chapel by the Wayside.”

Since 1961, the Utah Prison Chapel has served as a place of worship, learning and community service. The chapel has represented the construction skills of the prison residents, the generosity of citizens across Utah and the combined volunteer efforts of local religious and other organizations which have used the prison chapel as a base for their efforts to engage Utah’s inmate population.

Considering this chapel’s rich history and transformative legacy, it is distressing that in just a few months the building will be scrapped and sent to the dump along with the rest of the Utah State Prison complex.

Citing their own views of public opinion, the Point Commission, the group of individuals assigned with planning the development of the 700-acre prison site, has labeled the prison complex “offensive” and have asserted that the prison is not something that should be remembered. When The Point reopens as a mixed-use development, almost every trace of its history will have been eradicated, including the Chapel by the Wayside. One guard tower will survive to remind people that 65 years earlier, the residents at the prison asked for and built a chapel with the help of Utah’s citizens.

One assumes the Point Commission chose a single tower to memorialize the prison not because the tower offers meaningful public benefit or a positive source of inspiration and memory, but because a single tower requires little in terms of land and funding to preserve. The prison’s chapel, a small building with far greater significance, can likewise be preserved at minimal spatial and financial cost and yet provide real public benefit through adaptive reuse or continued use as a chapel. Most importantly, this building, as a result of unique history, simultaneously embodies our society’s harsh realities together with our hopes, aspirations and generosity.

We urge Utahns to support saving the Utah State Prison Chapel by contacting The Point Commissioners (info@thepointutah.org) and telling them that the Prison’s Chapel by the Wayside is too valuable to lose as it, among other things, illustrates how the people of this state can come together to serve each other, even under extraordinary circumstances.

David Amott | director of Preservation Utah

David Amott, Ph.D., is executive director of Preservation Utah.