The first time the LDS Church facilities-maintenance folks took a look at Salt Lake City's Yale Ward, they thought maybe $200,000 would be enough for significant improvements to the nearly 90-year-old brick building.
More research changed their minds, and the east-side meetinghouse has undergone a meticulous restoration of its three original elements the chapel, foyer and cultural hall and renovation of the rest of the building.
To celebrate the project's completion, the ward at 1431 Gilmer Drive is holding an open house on Saturday from 5 to 8 p.m.
The meetinghouse was built in what Bishop Derek Miller called the second generation of the original pioneer wards erected after the Mormons arrived in 1847. The Salt Lake Valley was still sparsely populated in the 1920s, and the ward's boundaries stretched from 1300 East and 1300 South north and east toward the foothills.
The architect was Taylor Woolley, who'd worked with Frank Lloyd Wright, and the meetinghouse became the first to include a chapel, foyer and cultural hall all in one building.
In 1928, A. Eugene and Catherine Christensen bestowed a beautiful stained-glass window of Christ in memory of their son, who died that year. The window bears the words: "Behold, I stand and knock at the door" and "In memory of our son, Eugene Burton Christensen, 1926-1928."
Through the years, more young families with young kids have moved into the ward because they value the historical character of the homes more than a "McMansion" in the surburbs, Miller said.
And that, he added, has renewed interest in preserving the neighborhood.
Miller, who became the bishop five years ago, worried when he heard a rumor at the time that the meetinghouse was going to be razed.
"It was a primary concern because we still have a woman in our ward who, as a Primary child, helped with the building," he said. That woman, Julia Nixon, "lives right across the street. She remembers the building being built and having fundraisers and contributing her pennies.
"I thought, 'Boy, we sure don't want to have it torn down,' " he said. "She's still here every Sunday."
But instead, the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints marshaled a team of historians, architects, engineers and others to analyze the building, even down to the carpet in the chapel, and arrive at a plan.
"Parts of the building were beyond cosmetic, including the roof. Some of the flooring was starting to warp, and we were getting water damage," Miller said. "And one of the things in the building that was sort of infamous were the ramps."
Turns out that in earlier renovations, builders put in steep ramps instead of stairs in the ward's lower levels. Little kids loved it "How far can you slide down the ramp?" Miller said but they were unsafe for older ward members and, as Miller's wife, Laura, put it, "any woman in high heels."
Construction work unveiled other problems: the roof, like the one on the Millers' own home in the neighborhood, had been balanced on the top of the walls without securing it.
"They retrofitted it," Miller said, noting that crews added earthquake protections as well.
Today, the chapel's pews glow with fresh paint, fabrics and carpeting along with the window and a bas-relief of Jesus appearing to church founder Joseph Smith. The foyer features the original marble of a sizable fireplace. The cultural hall still boasts a stage, but also a shortened basketball court.
The Millers liken the renovation to the before-and-after amazement of a home remodeling.
"In your own home, you get used to things a pile of books, a tear in the couch, a hole in the wall," Derek Miller said. "It wasn't until we saw it fixed that we realized it needed to be fixed."
More important, he said, the LDS Church is using the Yale Ward as a model for other work the faith is doing.
"They're bringing in architectural and construction teams to look at this project," Miller said, "and how they'd like similar projects to be done."
As for the total cost of the job, Miller said he didn't know.
"I'm told it was a lot more than the original $200,000."
About Salt Lake City's Yale Ward
Location • 1431 E. Gilmer Drive, Salt Lake City
Built • 1924-26
Cost • Unspecified
Architect • Taylor Woolley; 1964 west-end addition by Fetzer and Fetzer
Features • Stained-glass window, bas-relief of Jesus appearing to Joseph Smith, and pews on a slope down to the pulpit in the chapel
Notable members • LDS Church President George Albert Smith; President Ezra Taft Benson; apostle Russell M. Nelson; former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn; Carmen B. Pingree, advocate for children with autism.
Salt Lake City's renovated Yale Ward at 1431 E. Gilmer Drive will hold an open house Saturday from 5 to 8 p.m.