University of Utah plans to buy historic LDS chapel as church shuffles some east-side congregations

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The University Ward at 160 S. University St. in Salt Lake City was built in 1924.

A historic Latter-day Saint chapel on University Street in Salt Lake City — with a giant Jesus mosaic beckoning to passersby — soon will trade worship services for concerts, Sunday school classes for college courses, and bishop offices for faculty digs.

The University Ward, as it is known, is a “design jewel,” said Allen Roberts, “a significant piece of early modern Mormon architecture.”

The preservation architect, who has cataloged 19th- and early 20th-century buildings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, added emphatically, “There is not another one like it anywhere.”

It was designed and built in 1924 by architects Harold Burton and Hyrum Pope, who also were responsible for the faith’s temples in Cardston, Alberta, and Mesa, Ariz., Roberts said. “They were young and very progressive.”

The chapel, which seats 500, features a “tall narrow nave with huge wooden beams across the ceiling,” Roberts said, “gilded with scriptures.”

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) The University Ward in Salt Lake City was built in 1924.

The University of Utah confirmed Wednesday it is in negotiations with church officials to buy the gothic masterpiece “in its current form.”

“We see it as a perfect building for offices, classrooms and concerts for the College of Fine Arts,” said Robin Burr, the U.’s chief facilities officer. “We are not looking to make any changes at all — except for safety and ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] upgrades.”

What about the Christ mosaic?

Even though the U. is a state-owned school, Jesus stays, said Charles Shepherd, the school’s campus planner and historic preservation architect. “The way we see it, it’s a piece of artwork.”

(Photo courtesy of Allen Roberts) A mosaic of Jesus on the exterior of the Latter-day Saint University Ward building, facing University Avenue in Salt Lake City.

On Oct.13, members of the Salt Lake Central Stake were informed of impending changes to their assigned buildings.

The Douglas Ward, whose meetinghouse is a block north of the East High School Seminary building, no longer will be used, while the 33rd Ward building at 453 S. 1100 East will be renovated, with its decades-old community garden replaced by a parking lot.

In the future, all three wards, or congregations, will meet separately at the revamped 33rd Ward building.

LDS Church spokeswoman Irene Caso confirmed these changes.

“Plans for the University Ward building on University [Street] in Salt Lake City, which has been vacant for the past 18 months, have not been finalized,” Caso wrote in an email. “The University Ward now meets at the 33rd Ward building. To better accommodate members, that building will be renovated and expanded. Once that happens, this building will also host the Douglas Ward."

Members of the University Ward have been worshipping at the 33rd Ward but many had hopes of returning to their historic home.

Esther Hunter, chair of East Central Community Council, started getting frantic phone calls and emails about the loss of the 2.5-acre garden.

It has 15 beehives, dozens of chickens and rows of vegetables, Hunter said. “People walk there from Friendship Manor [an apartment tower on the corner of 500 South and 1300 East] and many depend on this food.”

The community garden is used by a “very eclectic group of about 50 families,” said Arla Funk, a member of the University Ward, “some of whom are dependent on the produce for their livelihood, including low-income people and some refugees.”

She added: “It’s not limited to members of the church.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The University Ward at 160 S. University St. in Salt Lake City was built in 1924.

For his part, Martin Buchert, who serves in the University Ward bishopric, is relieved that his beloved chapel will be spared the wrecking ball.

“It has been a lovely thing to worship in a sanctuary that beautiful,” Buchert said Wednesday. “I felt a kinship with the building. It is the architectural sibling of the previous place I worshipped — the Honolulu Tabernacle, which had the same architect and builder.”

A physical space “can enhance worship,” he said. “I will be sad not to be there anymore.”