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South Valley Journal

Salvation for a place of faith

Sep 04, 2022 11:14AM ● By Mimi Darley Dutton

By Mimi Darley Dutton | [email protected]

Just as people say their faith “saves” and allows them to be “born again,” so it will be for the Chapel by the Wayside at the former state prison in Draper. The Point of the Mountain State Land Authority, of which Draper Mayor Troy Walker is a member, voted unanimously to save the chapel at their May board meeting.

The Point’s announcement that the chapel would be saved included a quote from Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson who said, “One former inmate told us…the chapel served as a place to find God and to ‘touch base with dignity, self-respect and self-worth.’”

The chapel is the only historic building that will ultimately be preserved as the site transforms into The Point, an ultra-modern development and major economic boon to the state that sits within the city limits of Draper. It narrowly avoided the fate of the entirety of the original territory/state prison that once resided on the grounds of what is now Sugar House Park. That prison famously held LDS apostles for participating in polygamy, but it was completely demolished.

The chapel was dedicated in 1961 “To the Glory of God and the salvation of man” and its genesis and history is colorful. It was built by inmates themselves, with their own money and with donations from community and religious organizations, after the inmates staged a riot in 1957 that garnered national attention. During the riot, the inmates took hostages and composed a list of 43 grievances that they presented to Utah’s Gov. Dewey Clyde, including requests for better food and a chapel that would offer them a place to worship and sing.

Since its inception, many Utahns of various faiths have volunteered to offer religious services in the chapel. It was also used as a place for outside volunteers to offer music lessons and singing opportunities for the prisoners. That was part of the argument presented about why the chapel is part of the history for all the people of Utah, because of those who volunteered there. 

The chapel seems to have been saved just in the nick of time as an uptick in activity toward developing The Point is underway. Inmates were moved from the Draper facility to the new state prison west of Salt Lake City the week of July 11-15,  and The Point announced their choice for a Phase One development partner to begin work on 72 acres in the center of the site, beginning with site preparation.

For many months leading up to the last-minute save, Draper resident and retired history teacher Todd Shoemaker spoke on behalf of saving the chapel at Draper City Council meetings, recounting its history and role in the community. He’s been vocal that his efforts weren’t about glorifying criminal behavior but about the architecture, the volunteers who gave their time to that part of the community in the past 70 years, and the history that transpired there. According to Shoemaker, he’s been working on preserving parts of the prison since 2016. He was also an active proponent of the efforts to save the Old Park School in the heart of Draper City.

Walker was first focused on saving one or two of the prison towers and stopping there “because they’re symbolic of keeping the outside safe, protecting society from criminals,” he said in December 2021. “For me, the prison development is the economic future of our city, county and state. The whole point is economic opportunity,” he said.

Organizations including Preservation Utah and Envision Utah helped in the efforts that ultimately saved the chapel. The Johnson-Bar locking system (the only other one that exists is at Alcatraz) will also be saved as will some welded restroom signage that was likely crafted by inmates.

Alan Matheson, executive director of The Point, credits a formal proposal by Preservation Utah for helping save the chapel. “I think it was a good decision by the board and I think that some of the stories associated with that chapel will be inspiring to people,” he said.

Matheson noted that some other buildings will remain for a period of time so that they can be used as interim office buildings as the site begins to develop, and the newer Interagency Fire facility in the area will definitely remain. But the chapel is the only historic structure from the prison buildings that will ultimately be preserved.

How the chapel will be “born again” or used in the future amidst an ultramodern development remains to be seen. Matheson said they’ll likely make some changes to the framework plan that already exists for the site so that the chapel will sit within a public greenspace area. He thinks it could be used as a museum or a restaurant, a decision that will ultimately be made by who shows an interest in purchasing or using the facility. Walker wonders if it might continue to be used as a chapel for a wedding venue, perhaps reservable by the public, or just as a historic site to tour.

“This is monumental, not only for the city, but for the entire population of Utah. That place is going to be a place that people will visit, come to and revere,” Shoemaker said after the announcement that the chapel would be saved.