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SALT LAKE CITY — In David Amott's eyes, the Utah State Prison chapel isn't just a church; it's a symbol of the Utah community and reformation.
"It's about the people of Utah who donated the money to make sure that this building was constructed ... and how this wonderful synergy was created in the 1950s and early '60s to discuss this thing amongst the people on the inside of the prison and the people on the outside," said Amott, the executive director of Preservation Utah. "Together, they really made a space that will make a difference."
The members of the Point of the Mountain State Land Authority Board agree. They also believe the chapel can continue to serve a useful purpose even as the other components of the Utah State Prison disappear, which is why they took steps last week to preserve the building.
Members of the Point of the Mountain State Land Authority Board voted to save the building during its meeting on Thursday. It'll be one of the few reminders of the prison that will remain as the state moves its prisoners to a new site in Salt Lake City and redevelops the Draper land in the coming years.
"We owe Point of the Mountain's future to its past. I love the redemption and the hope that the chapel symbolizes," said Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, the board's co-chair, in a statement after the vote. "I'm very happy that the board voted unanimously to preserve this piece of Utah's history."
The prison chapel essentially dates back to the 1940s, which is when the state started to focus on Draper for its prison site as the one in Sugar House became inadequate, Amott explains. That led to the prison's relocation in 1951.
But the transition between sites wasn't exactly smooth. Newspapers from the time highlighted concerns with the new prison, including the need for more funds to improve it. That continued for the first few years of its existence. Amott points to articles that note a need for a sewage treatment plant and other basic infrastructure.
The frustrations boiled out of control in 1957, which is when a riot broke out in the prison.
"This is a big scene that attracts national and even international attention," he explained to the board on Thursday. "As a part of the process of quelling the prisoners and their discontent, Utah Gov. George Dewey Clyde accepts (43) different requests in the form of a petition from the inmates."
Most of the requests never got addressed, including a prison chapel. So, three months after the riot, prisoners decided to design their own chapel. Their plans called for a 90-by-40-foot building with room for 162 people in its chapel, as well as four classrooms and a pair of offices for chaplains from the Catholic church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Prison officials approved the idea on the conditions the prisoners built it themselves, the Salt Lake Tribune reported on May 19, 1957. The initial construction wouldn't occur until the summer of 1958, which is when Clyde backed the growing support to fund the project, which the prisoners carried out.
That led to an "outpouring of support" from all over Utah in the following years, Amott said. Newspapers reported on the various gifts toward the project. For instance, Bountiful seminary students gathered $450 from a coin drive; a group of Italian-Americans in Utah came up with another $400. One donation from The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints added $8,000 toward the project.
The building was then completed in 1961 before it was dedicated by multiple leaders of various faiths. Amott said the actual church is "remarkably similar" to the one drawn up by the prisoners 65 years ago this month.
Since 1961, it's been the center of reformation among those sentenced to prison in Utah. It's helped countless people turn their lives around. Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, the board's other co-chair, underscored that history during Thursday's meeting.
"Speaking for myself, I think we believe in redemption. And Utahns, regardless of your religious affiliation, believe that we are capable of making changes in our lives with the help from powers on high," he said. "Our churches and our chapels help us in that effort."
I think the story (of the building's creation) will be inspirational. And I think the building, especially put to the right use ... whatever that might be moving forward, will still continue to make a difference.
–David Amott, Preservation Utah
Preservation Utah theorizes dozens of uses the chapel could serve in the future, including a museum, gallery, library, workforce facility or office space, if it's not used as a house of worship. It can even be moved or linked up to a new building next to it.
The estimated cost of renovating the building ranges between $370,000 to a little over $1.5 million, factoring in historic credits that the building would be eligible for, according to the group. The board ultimately agreed it was a good investment toward the future of the site.
Amott told KSL.com Monday that he doesn't believe the chapel will impede any future growth because it isn't that large of a building, but he believes it will bolster the community that uses it next. It very well may end up an unofficial usable memorial to the outgoing prison in one of its many future possibilities.
"I think the story (of the building's creation) will be inspirational," he said, "and I think the building, especially put to the right use ... whatever that might be moving forward, will still continue to make a difference."