Historic Wells Ward burns down on eve of planned demolition

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The 98-year-old Wells Ward Meetinghouse, a vacant chapel owned by the LDS Church in the Liberty Wells neighborhood of Salt Lake City, was severely burned in a fire that engulfed the building just before it was slated to be demolished, according to the Salt Lake City Police Department.

The church had been looking to get rid of the structure once used at 1990 S. 500 E., at first through a sale and, as of this month, by demolishing the building itself.

Salt Lake Police said they were called to assist with the fire at 5:36 a.m. on Sunday.

“When officers arrived, they found the structure fully engulfed by large flames,” the police said via social media.

In late 2022, the church listed the building for sale with one requirement: Any eventual buyer would be required to tear down the building. Despite interest from developers interested in buying the property, the church removed the property from the market and, this year, opted to demolish the building itself.

The church currently has a permit to tear down the building and planned to do so any day.

The church hasn’t explained why it was insistent on deleting the structure from the city, other than to say it was damaged “beyond repair” in the March 2020 earthquake.

“This decision was made due to concerns over the safety and stability of the meetinghouse, which has not been in use for some time,” Irene Caso, a spokeswoman for the church, told Building Salt Lake this month.

Developers had expressed interest in buying the property and building townhomes on the site, a move that would require a rezone to accomplish.

At least one developer who is known for historic preservation told Building Salt Lake she would have been interested in buying the property and retrofitting the building to preserve the historic structure, if not for the requirement by the church that it be demolished.

The church plans to own the building to either sell it or use it for another purpose in the future, Caso said.

“To maintain the history of the building, the Church documented it with photography and a high-resolution three-dimensional scan,” she said. “The bas relief in the chapel was removed and preserved by architectural conservators and a time capsule was turned over to the Church History Library.”

The fire is only the latest structure that burned down shortly before it was planned to be torn down.

Last June, a Downtown building that was permitted to be demolished burned down instead. In March 2023, a fire swept through a building in the Granary District before it was to be demolished.

In October 2022, a fire destroyed a mixed-use building in Sugar House shortly before it was completed.

Salt Lake City Fire will investigate to determine the cause of the Wells Ward fire.

Email Taylor Anderson

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Posted by Taylor Anderson

Taylor Anderson grew up near Chicago and made his way West to study journalism at the University of Montana. He's been a staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, Bend Bulletin and Salt Lake Tribune. A move from Portland, Oregon, to Salt Lake City opened his eyes to the importance of good urban design for building strong neighborhoods. He lives on the border of the Liberty Wells and Ballpark neighborhoods.