LOCAL NEWS

Historic church burns in downtown Salt Lake City

May 26, 2024, 8:19 AM | Updated: May 27, 2024, 6:11 am

SALT LAKE CITY — An arson investigation is underway after a historic church building in downtown Salt Lake City caught fire over the weekend.

At approximately 5:30 a.m. Sunday, fire crews responded to the Wells Ward meetinghouse, located at 1990 S. 500 East.

A large fire at a historic church building in downtown Salt Lake required a three-alarm response from fire crews early morning Sunday, May 26, 2024. (Salt Lake City Police Department)

SLCFD’s public information officer Cap. Brandt Hancuff said fire crews arrived and heard screaming. Two young adults were rescued from a balcony and had minor injuries, he said. They were treated on scene, questioned and then released.

Salt Lake Fire Department’s public information officer, Chaptain Brandt Hancuff. (KSL TV)

Shortly after they had been rescued, parts of the building began to collapse.

Fire crews said they were still working to extinguish pockets of the fire just before 7 a.m. Police advised residents nearby to close windows due to the large amount of smoke the fire caused.

Special meaning

The building held meaning for many people surveying the damage Sunday evening. 

“I saw those doors and I almost cried,” said Kami Wallace, who attended church there with her husband Wally up until a few years ago. It was their first church home in Utah. 

“When we moved down, this was the first ward that we attended,” she said. 

The solid wood doorway church members fondly remember walking through was smoldering. The Wallaces remember the church’s layout vividly. 

“There were stairs on either side of the foyer that you would go up into the balcony, which was the overflow for the chapel,” she said. “It had beautiful stained glass windows inside and out.” 

Shards of glass now litter the sidewalk. 

The Wallaces said they were hopeful the church building would reopen, or some of it could be saved. 

“There was definitely hope that they would either reopen it or be able to, you know, take the stained glass windows and reuse them somewhere else, some of the things inside the building that would be salvageable.” Wallace said. 

The fire has changed plans. Kami Wallace said she was frustrated to see the building damaged over the years. 

“I saw the tagging and that just destroyed me,” she said. “I just don’t understand how people can be so selfish and disrespectful to do things, because this building has been in the community for years, decades, and just because it’s closed down doesn’t mean it doesn’t mean something to people.” 

She and her husband mourn another historic place lost. 

“For 40 years I’ve lived in this community and to see another building go down, it hurts, especially the way this one went down,” Wallace said. 

They’re concerned about what comes next. 

“Now we have this empty lot and chances are, somehow, now apartments are going to go up,” 

Wallace said. “And that’s not going to make me happy because I’d much rather see a beautiful church here than more ugly apartments.” 

Building history

Archived reporting from KSL shows the church is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was nearly 100 years old. The Salt Lake Herald-Republican wrote in 1920 that the building was to be “one of the unique, complete, and up-to-the-minute churches ever built,” and “the social and educational as well as the spiritual center of the community.”

 

A photo that appeared in a 1920 Salt Lake Herald-Republican showing the first renderings of what became the Wells Ward. The church was constructed in 1926. (Photo: Utah Digital Newspapers)

The building is on the National Register of Historic Places and remained open until it was damaged in an earthquake in 2020.

The Church decided it would sell the building in 2021, but only on the condition that its new owner would demolish the building. After “analysis from engineers, architects, historians and other invested parties,” it said the building was not structurally sound.

The property was not sold though, and it was scheduled to be demolished later in May due to “stability and safety concerns related to the earthquake,” it said Sunday.

“For 95 years, the building has served the Wells community as both a religious meeting place and home to civic activities,” the stake presidency said, ahead of a farewell event for the building in 2021.

The exterior of the Wells Ward building in Salt Lake City’s Liberty Wells neighborhood on Saturday. The building includes designs unique to the neighborhood it served. (Carter Williams, KSL.com)

Arson investigation

Police said 500 East was closed from 2100 South to 1700 South Sunday morning, and advised traffic to avoid the area.

A complete demolition of the building was scheduled for a few weeks later, but was moved up Sunday after the fire, due to the building’s instability. Crews began demolishing just after 11:30 a.m. when the fire had completely been extinguished. Authorities said 500 East would therefore be closed until further notice.

Police initially reported the fire as a three-alarm response fire, and fire crews confirmed later that the caliber was a four-alarm response. There were no reports of injury to firefighters.

Salt Lake fire crews will conduct an arson investigation to determine the cause of the fire. Hancuff said the results of the investigation could take weeks.

In a statement released by the Church, it said it was aware of the fire and yielded to the fire department for information on the investigation. It said it did not know if any artifacts or significant pieces were lost in the fire, only that a congregation had not occupied it since before the 2020 earthquake.

Due to the structure’s instability, crews were called out to tear down a portion of the building so fire personnel could continue to work the hotspots.

A firefighter who spoke to KSL TV said the demolition of the building will likely continue on Monday.


Contributing: Jessica Lowell, KSLNewsRadio, and Carter Williams, KSL.com

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Historic church burns in downtown Salt Lake City