The LDS Church is selling its 97-year-old Wells Ward chapel with one requirement: It must be demolished

Photo by Jonathan Kland | Line 29 Architecture

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A few years shy of the building’s 100th birthday, the LDS Church is selling its Wells Ward chapel for $1.6 million with one condition: the buyer must tear down the church.

The building, built for a ward that is the namesake for the Liberty Wells neighborhood, was severely damaged during the March 2020 earthquake and has sat vacant and facing an uncertain future for three years.

A listing that called for offers by January indicates the 1-acre property is being marketed as a redevelopment opportunity, and that “BUYER WILL BE REQUIRED TO RAZE BUILDING.” The building hit the market in December, calling for the highest offers.

The LDS Church didn’t respond to a request for comment on the condition. Neither did the listing agents with CBRE, which is a Building Salt Lake supporter.

The condition calls into question what the future holds for the property, which sits near the south end of the Liberty Wells neighborhood at 1990 S. 500 E., between Hollywood and Redondo avenues.

The buyer would likely look to rezone the property, given it sits on R-1-5000 (or single-family homes that require at least 5,000 square feet of land per home.) In this case, the buyer could build up to eight detached homes on the site.

It’s far too soon to say whether a buyer would take advantage of the updated RMF-30 zoning, which was recently updated to make it more likely that missing middle housing can be built in the city.

A developer successfully rezoned the site of the former Sears Mansion nearby, from R-1-5000 to RMF-35. They pointed out St. Joseph Villa, a nursing home and health center within a block of the site, was zoned institutional and RMF-35. 

Demo clause

Despite its battered condition post-earthquake, the meetinghouse is one of several vacant former community spaces that could serve a higher purpose.

There are tax credits through the National Parks Service for rehabilitating historic buildings that might have helped to retrofit the building. And meetinghouses are particularly suited to continue acting as community spaces, whether affiliated with a predominant religion or not.

“With changing demographics those opportunities are beyond repurposing specifically for another meetinghouse,” said Warren Lloyd, founding partner with Lloyd Architects. “I’ve personally been involved in several conditions where other community groups are very interested in utilizing the type of spaces that these buildings serve.”

Earlier this month we reported on a project in Fairpark where Lloyd is helping to retrofit an old meetinghouse into a community center for Afghan refugees.

As for the Wells Ward, which has been boarded up and fenced off since shortly after the earthquake and aftershocks, a retrofit might be cost prohibitive, Lloyd said.

“The property may currently be deemed uninhabitable. So it probably is worth more as bare ground than it might be than a structure in need of a million dollar renovation,” he said.

“I don’t understand their requirement to demolish the building,” he added.

Darin Mano, who represents the neighborhood on City Council, said he worked to look into options to preserve the building.

“Real estate transactions are a Mayoral power but she allowed her team to work with me to explore the idea,” he said. “Neither a clear path forward nor a viable city use were found. I’m disappointed it didn’t work out but couldn’t find a good justification to push further.”

“My goal, and what I heard from the community, was the preservation of the structure itself,” Mano said. “The demolition condition placed on the purchase contract by the Church, along with the City’s struggle to preserve historic building already in our care, made that goal seem unrealistic.”

If the seller is requiring the building to be razed, perhaps a 1-acre park would have been a welcome public amenity. The area is within the city’s central community, which is the least served by parks, according to a city assessment.

More on the Wells Ward

The church opened in October 1926, just over six months after builders started erecting the brick structure that sat up to 1,000 people. They built it for $45,000, the Salt Lake Tribune reported at the time.

The ward was formed from another ward called Waterloo (the original name for much of the Liberty Wells neighborhood), and built on the former farm of Daniel H. Wells.

It was among the biggest chapels erected at the time, according to newspaper accounts, and had particularly good acoustics for the organ that was place within the building. 

If demolished, the church or new owners should be sure to retrieve the cornerstone, laid in May 1926, which contains historical elements buried in the project 97 years ago.

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.