‘It is unacceptable’: Salt Lake City halts demolition of historic church over Easter weekend

Apr 1, 2024, 6:06 PM | Updated: 6:40 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Crews began demolishing a century-old church meetinghouse in Salt Lake City’s Granary District this weekend, but city officials brought the operation to a screeching halt on Sunday because they say they never issued a permit and its owner never went through a public process to obtain one needed to tear down the historic building.

City officials issued a stop work order at what was once known as the Fifth Ward Meetinghouse, 740 S. 300 West, on Sunday, according to Blake Thomas, director of Salt Lake City’s Community and Neighborhoods Department. The order prevents future demolition until the building’s owners have obtained the proper paperwork.

“The city will continue to monitor the site to ensure that no further work is done without the appropriate permits and inspections,” Thomas said in a statement Sunday. “City staff will reach out to the owner to work on a remedy that complies with the city’s historic preservation regulations.”

The city was made aware of the issue after a Redevelopment Agency of Salt Lake City staff member drove by the site Sunday afternoon and noticed the work happening at the site. The employee called two city preservation planners who found that the city hadn’t issued a permit for the site and arrived at the site “rather quickly” to confront the demolition crew about what was happening, said Salt Lake City planning director Nick Norris.

Architectural designer Casey McDonough, who works on historic buildings, also drove by.

“I drove by and saw the trees were down … thinking hopefully I thought maybe they were giving it attention,” he said.

By then, parts of the building’s entryway were already torn down and there was a pile of rubble in front of the remainder of the building. Norris said the workers claimed to have had a permit before they drove off, leaving an excavator parked on top of some of the rubble.

Demolition work occurring at 740 S. 300 West in Salt Lake City has been halted due to lack of proper permitting on Monday. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

The notice was filed to TAG SLC founder Jordan Atkin. He told Building Salt Lake on Sunday that he was “actively working to figure out how this happened,” adding that he’s the building’s manager but neither he nor TAG SLC, LLC own the building.

City employees spent Sunday evening and Monday morning documenting the damage to the building as the city investigates the incident. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall posted on social media that the city is “pursuing penalties for the property owner” and working to ensure that “the site is made secure.”

Norris said the city is still determining what type of “enforcement actions” could take place as a result of the incident, noting that there were at least three city ordinance violations committed: doing work without proper permits, failure to obtain historic approval to alter the site and failure to get the correct air quality permits for demolition.

“It is unacceptable. It’s 100% unacceptable,” Norris said. “We have these regulations and rules in place for a reason.”

The building’s history

The Fifth Ward Meetinghouse was completed in 1910, serving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Fifth Ward in Salt Lake City. The ward formed on the southwest side of the city in 1853, making it one of the state’s oldest congregations, according to a history of the building compiled by the Utah State Historical Society in 1978.

State historians noted that the building was designed “at the height of the ward’s strength.” The architecture firm Cannon & Fetzer designed the meetinghouse in a Tudor Gothic style, creating “distinguished” corbeled arches atop the building’s Tudor window bays and using alternating bands of white and red brick to help make its facade stand out. Its interior could hold 300 people.

It was also one of Cannon & Fetzer’s first designs during a brief but memorable run. The firm would later design some notable buildings across Utah and the Intermountain West, including West High School, the Park Building at the University of Utah and Wasatch Springs Plunge also in Salt Lake City.

A front addition was completed at the Fifth Ward Meetinghouse in 1937, and it eventually became a melting pot. The meetinghouse served Native American wards and members who had immigrated from European and Latin American countries, state historians noted. However, the neighborhood around it started to change in the mid-20th century as more light industrial development began to pop up around the building, and family membership began to drop.

A photo of the exterior of the Fifth Ward Meetinghouse in Salt Lake City taken in the 1970s. The building was originally constructed in 1910 before a front addition was completed in 1937. (Photo: Utah State Historical Society)

Church leaders had sold the property to private developers when the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The building went through a few different uses after that, including a Tibetan temple, a night club and a concert venue called the Pompadour Rock and Roll Club, Salt Lake Architecture wrote in 2010.

Per Setlist.fm, the venue brought in acts like NOFX, and Melvins and The Smashing Pumpkins all performed there in the early ’90s. Nirvana even opened for Dinosaur Jr. in 1991 and reportedly performed “Smells Like Teen Spirit” two months before the track was released, eventually catapulting the legendary band into stardom.

It’s also one of four Salt Lake landmark sites located along 300 West, on top of its place in the national register.

An illegal demolition

But the building had been vacant for some time before Sunday’s partial teardown.

“I’ve always watched that building because since the last tenants moved out, it kind of fell into disrepair,” McDonough said. “It looked like people weren’t really paying attention to it and I knew it was not only a national landmark, but also a city landmark site with protections.”

While its placement on the register doesn’t prevent the building from being demolished, its spot on the city’s local list does offer some extra protections. The local designation requires a special public process before the city determines that the building’s owner can tear down the property, which is an extra step to the demolition permit process.

“When a city is all new and you just hear everything going and start from scratch, it becomes maybe less special, to think of a word. People like to visit Europe for that reason,” McDonough said. “That particular building, the Fifth Ward, the LDS Church at the time, would have their members help build those buildings. Which is even, I think, more significant.”

In this case, it appears that the property owner never submitted any demolition permit requests and hasn’t submitted any development plans for the site, either, Norris explained.

The zoning violation typically results in a fine that’s double the cost of a permit that’s determined by the valuation of the project. That value hasn’t been assessed yet, so it’s unclear yet what type of fine the property owner may face.

There are also possible historic preservation penalties. Norris said it’s possible that the property owner could be forced to restore the damage done to the building if the property owner isn’t able to prove that the building no longer has any economic value.

It may be difficult to prove because the building is located by the city’s budding Granary District and Central Ninth Neighborhood areas near downtown. Several new residential, business and mixed-used developments have emerged in the area over the past decade, but developers have also renovated old buildings in that area to accommodate new uses.

“I think it’s pretty challenging for someone to prove, considering they’re in a zoning district that allows a wide variety of land uses and options — and they failed to even seek any of those,” Norris said. “They could apply for that, but I would be surprised if they are successful.”

Demolition work occurring at 740 S. 300 West in Salt Lake City has been halted due to lack of proper permitting on Monday. (Photo: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)

The future of the building is yet to be determined through a public process. Norris added that he isn’t aware that the property owner has ever violated the law, but that the incident compromises the city’s trust with the developer.

“Just the fact that somebody who’s a known developer in the city had crews that they hired out demolishing a building on a weekend without permits — to us is enough that it certainly destroys whatever trust the city has in issuing permits to that individual and following through,” Norris said.

The Salt Lake City Council is also expected to vote later this year on whether to adopt new measures tied to historic properties, which may include larger fines for violations.

“These buildings are really important to us,” Norris said. “We’re not going to tolerate people working outside of the process to obtain the proper approvals.”

KSL TV’s requests to the property owner and developer were not answered.

Contributing: Shelby Lofton, KSL TV

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‘It is unacceptable’: Salt Lake City halts demolition of historic church over Easter weekend