Discovering Great Mormon Buildings

Forest Dale Ward Exterior


A competition was held to select an architect for this meetinghouse, and the person selected was ward member Peter Mortensen. His 1901 design for the building was a three-spired classical building. Foundation work began that year on the building. By December, Mortensen had an accumulated debt of $3800 for lumber materials on other projects. The treasurer for the lumber company was James Hay. Mortensen invited Hay to his home on the evening of December 16th to pay the debt. Hay went to Mortensen’s home but was never seen alive again. His body was discovered the next morning buried in a fresh mound of dirt in a close-by field.

Of course the incident brought construction of the meetinghouse to a halt and brought a division in the ward. Mortensen neither admitted nor denied that he was guilty of the crime, but was tried in court for the murder. Half of the members of the ward “knew” he was not guilty and the other half “knew” he was. Those for Mortensen wanted the building to go ahead as he had planned. Those against would not contribute another penny toward its erection using his design. The impasse was cleared up by holding another competition to provide a new meetinghouse design to be used on the existing foundation. A design submitted by architect Samuel Whitaker was accepted in April 1902. After the new design was developed, construction on the meetinghouse resumed. Paralleling the ongoing construction was the trial, which continued with great drama described by the Salt Lake Tribune as “the most celebrated murder trial since the days of John D. Lee and the Mountain Meadow massacre.” Mortensen’s attorneys received a death threat in July 1902 if they continued to defend him. “Your house and home will be blown to atoms in case you make a motion for a new trial.” The case continued without incident and Mortensen was tried, convicted and executed in November 1903, receiving coverage as far as the New York Times. He was the ninth person to be executed by the state. The following month, the meetinghouse was completed and began to be used for services. Dedication services took place in 1905 by Church President Joseph F Smith.

The design of the new meetinghouse by Samuel Whitaker was quite different in appearance than Mortensen’s design, having a circular dome feature in the center of the chapel, rather than the three spires at the front of the building. Unique to LDS meetinghouses, the dome opened to the chapel space providing beautiful natural light through clerestory windows. The original rostrum had classical columns on each side of the chapel. These were removed in 1929 by Cannon and Fetzer who also added classrooms and hallways to connect to the cultural hall built at the rear of the building in 1913. During the 1970’s the interior of the dome was covered over with a ceiling, but was opened again during a remodel in 1986.

739 E Ashton Avenue
Salt Lake City, UT
Foundation built 1902; Completed 1903; Dedicated 1905
Architect: Samuel T Whitaker (original architect Peter Mortensen)
Part of Forest Dale Historic District on National Register
Click for Map Location of Building

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11 responses

  1. Paul Slaughter

    There’s more about this on another blog – it also includes a drawing of the original three-spired plan – fascinating (and sordid!) history.

    http://saltlakearchitecture.blogspot.com/2009/06/forest-dale-chapel.html

    September 8, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    • Paul Slaughter

      Oh, I also ran across these great pics of the building on this Flickr page:

      Forest Dale Chapel

      September 9, 2011 at 12:00 am

  2. I attended a ward that met in this building some years ago. It was really unique, and quite interesting to see how the multiple upgrades to the building were accomplished.

    September 9, 2011 at 1:17 am

  3. Steve_G

    Wow, I never heard this story before. Peter those interior shots on Flickr are gorgeous. Hopefully more pictures will be posted, I’d like to see the rostrum.

    September 9, 2011 at 10:04 am

  4. Yes, I too have been fascinated by the history of this building. Both the Salt Lake blog and the Flickr pics are also mine. I won’t post all of the pictures here, but will post several more. The other post definitely goes into more detail than I did here. This is kind of the executive summary.

    September 9, 2011 at 6:40 pm

  5. Ken

    I have never heard this story, but it certainly is an interesting one! Makes me wonder what other fascinating stories are attached to some of these older buildings you are documenting. Keep up the great work!

    September 13, 2011 at 11:33 am

  6. DJ

    I attended a married-student ward in this building. This post and the flickr pics brought back so many wonderful memories. Thank you for sharing.

    September 19, 2011 at 8:33 am

  7. Wow, this is a book waiting to be written…

    December 14, 2011 at 4:47 am

    • Are you referring to this particular building, Ben? I’m actually finalizing a proposal to send in for a book featuring all of these on this site (and more.) First book, so I’m kind of winging it.

      December 17, 2011 at 4:33 pm

  8. Yeah, I was referring to this particular building. It would make a great microhistory book about intersecting themes in turn-of-the-century Mormonism: the Americanization and popularization of Mormon culture (seen in the architectural competition), the decline of the Young Family estate and decentralisation of Utah social life (since the property went through a hectic transition from family to public land), and the persistence of polygamous tensions (since Forest Dale became a refuge for post-manifesto polygamous families migrating from Canada and Mexico). Plus, the murder investigation/chapel building provides a fantastic competing narrative to weave it all together. It could be a Mormon version of “Devil in the White City.”

    But I’m thrilled to hear about your book project–not only is it sorely needed, but you are just the person to do it. Best of luck!

    December 27, 2011 at 12:34 am

    • That does sound like a fantastic study – far beyond what I will be looking at. I was not aware that Forest Dale became a polygamy refuge. It appears to be quite the fascinating location. It would also be interesting to look at the effects that Interstate-80 had on the community from essentially splitting Forest Dale in half. Many communities all across America suffered the same fate from these types of public works projects and many have never fully recovered.

      December 29, 2011 at 9:46 pm

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