One of the LDS Church’s architectural gems is destined for demolition

The nearly century-old meetinghouse was badly damaged in Utah’s 2020 earthquake.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Wells Ward Latter-day Saint meetinghouse, shown in May 2023, is poised to be torn down.

Despite a seemingly imminent sale last year, a storied Latter-day Saint meetinghouse that was once described as one of the faith’s “finest and largest” will stay in church hands, at least for now.

But it won’t keep the bulldozers at bay.

After northern Utah’s 2020 earthquake sent shockwaves across the Salt Lake Valley and damaged the historic Wells Ward at 1990 S. 500 East in Salt Lake City, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opted to abandon the building and put it up for sale with the stipulation that the buyer demolish the nearly century-old chapel.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Wells Ward Latter-day Saint meetinghouse, shown in May 2023, is poised to be torn down.

Negotiations with a potential purchaser, however, fell through. In a statement, church spokesperson Sam Penrod said the Utah-based faith will hang onto the property for potential future use or another sale.

“Due to concerns over the safety and stability of the meetinghouse,” he said, “the church will soon seek a permit from the city to demolish it and secure the property.”

In 1919, members of the Wells Ward 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 pioneer-president, Brigham Young.

When the meetinghouse opened in 1926, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that it was said to be one of the faith’s “finest and largest,” with a seating capacity of 1,000. It became a community hub, hosting dances, lectures and athletic competitions.

It’s unclear who was in negotiations to buy the property last year or what the plan was for the land.

In the past, according to architect and preservation advocate Allen Roberts, the church’s old buildings have been put to good use after retiring as places of worship. There are economically feasible ways, he said, of preserving and repurposing the Wells Ward.

Many buildings were damaged in the 2020 quake, he said, and they’re being fixed. This one is its neighborhood’s most architecturally significant structure, and he doesn’t want to see it go.

“It’s a wonderful building,” he said. “It’s really the heart and soul of the neighborhood that it sits in.”

The global church has shown it is willing to spend big money to preserve historic buildings. The faith shelled out nearly $200 million to acquire a series of structures and artifacts that trace back to the church’s earliest days, including the Kirtland Temple in Ohio.

Jettisoning old buildings, Roberts said, is “pretty coldhearted.”

Bill Davis, chair of the Liberty Wells Community Council, said members of his organization adopted a resolution last year to lobby for keeping the property zoned for single-family homes in the event a buyer wanted to rezone the land but has since had a change of heart.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Wells Ward Latter-day Saint meetinghouse, shown in November 2021, is poised to be demolished.

While change may be hard, Davis said, he and his board want to see the land transform into a development that offers more density, as long as it fits the scale of the neighborhood. The existing building, he said, is simply damaged beyond repair.

“We want more density because we’re aware of the fact there’s a critical housing shortage in Salt Lake,” he said, “or actually all of Utah on the Wasatch Front.”

Although the meetinghouse faces a future of rubble, the church has taken steps to preserve some of its elements, including the removal of a sculpture and time capsule. The faith also documented the chapel with photographs and a high-resolution 3D scan.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The church plans to raze The Wells Ward Latter-day Saint meetinghouse, shown in May 2023.