Labor of Love | Opinion | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Labor of Love 

The Fonnesbecks never stopped fighting to preserve historic buildings

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In 1971, Chris Fonnesbeck joined a handful of picketers in front of LDS Church headquarters. A self-described “bearded, hippie-looking guy,” he carried a sign that read “Save the Coalville Tabernacle.”
The stately tabernacle in Coalville was on a list of pioneer-era buildings the LDS Church intended to raze to make way for modern ones. The building, a twin of the Assembly Hall in Temple Square, became a cause célèbre for preservation-minded people like Fonnesbeck, no matter if they lived in Coalville or not. Efforts to save the building, which included a temporary restraining order, were covered by New York Times reporters. Nonetheless, a few days after the restraining order was lifted, the bulldozers moved in.

Not long after the unavailing picket, Fonnesbeck moved to an apartment on A Street in the lower Avenues. A returned missionary and practicing Mormon, he and his young family joined the congregation of the 18th Ward, whose boundaries encompassed the land on which Brigham Young’s wives once tended gardens. It was not an unfamiliar place. Fonnesbeck’s mother, LaRae Skeen Fonnesbeck, had grown up in the ward, and his grandmother had served as its Relief Society president. He was christened there in 1940—Christian Skeen Fonnesbeck, my mother’s brother’s son. Thirty-one years later, he was dismayed to learn that the 18th Ward chapel, located at 107 N. A St., would share the fate of the Coalville Tabernacle.

The 18th Ward was one of the original 19 ecclesiastical units into which the Salt Lake Valley was divided in 1849. Most of the land in the ward belonged to three high-ranking

LDS Church leaders—Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball and Newel K. Whitney—so the congregation was composed of their large polygamist families. The small, Gothic Revival-style chapel with 12 stained-glass windows was dedicated in 1883. It was the first church in the valley to have a steeple.

LaRae shared her son’s commitment to saving vintage Mormon buildings, but she disapproved of his tactics. She felt a public demonstration was unnecessary and provocative. In those days, it was relatively easy to meet with church leaders in their offices; however, when she tried to make appointments to discuss the 18th Ward chapel, she found their doors closed. Outwardly, LaRae was soft-spoken, delicate and compliant, but in reality, “she was one of those tough, independent Mormon women—like Emma Smith and Eliza Snow,” Chris says. “She stood up to the church even though we were considered bad guys for doing so.”

Church leaders were not only determined to raze the 18th Ward Chapel, but also opposed to the idea of rebuilding it. However, they did allow ward members to purchase parts of the building. Chris spent $500 to buy the steeple, the stained-glass windows and the pulpit. In 1973, Chris and a few friends carefully chiseled the large windows out of their frames. A crane removed the steeple.

LaRae, then 60 and employed as a special-education teacher, launched a guerrilla campaign to rebuild the historic church. She chartered The Memorial Chapel Foundation as a nonprofit corporation, with Chris, a graduate of the University of Utah law school, as president. She hired Steven Baird, a local architect with experience restoring 19th-century Mormon buildings in Illinois, to design an 18th Ward chapel replica. Then she set out to raise the $50,000 ($258,550 in 2012 dollars) Baird estimated the project would cost. Donors were courted. Special friends of the ward were honored at Lion House dinners, and “Uncle Roscoe” Grover, a 1950s children’s television personality on KSL, painted their portraits. Felt-Buchorn, an upscale gift store, sold pewter dishes inscribed with a drawing of the 18th Ward chapel.

“She was on the telephone perpetually,” Chris says of his mother’s dogged efforts to raise money as the years passed. “I would have given up; she wouldn’t.” Not all fundraisers were successful, however. Only 50 people showed up for a benefit concert by the King Family.

Finding a building site was harder than raising money. “No one thought we could do it,” Chris says. LaRae eventually focused on a state-owned parking lot opposite the Capitol, adjacent to Council Hall, which had been moved to make space for a new federal office building in the 1960s. She enlisted state Sen. Dixie Leavitt in the cause. The bill he introduced in the Utah Legislature to allow the site to be used for the replica chapel was approved in 1975.

It was a good year for preservationists like the Fonnesbecks. In March 1975, the LDS Church, bowing to public pressure, backed off from the planned demolition of the Bountiful Tabernacle, announcing it would be renovated as “a cherished treasure.”

As the months passed, it became apparent that $50,000 was not going to be enough to see the project through. The cost would be more like $300,000. By then, LaRae, who had rheumatoid arthritis and was  dependent on a wheelchair, began to look for a major donor. She eventually found M. Kenneth White, the real-estate developer of White City in the farmlands of Sandy in the 1950s. He was willing to contribute $240,000 if the building would bear his name. Accepting the offer was expedient.

On June 27, 1980, White Memorial Chapel was dedicated and deeded to the state of Utah. The dedicatory prayer was offered by N. Eldon Tanner, first counselor to LDS Church President Spencer Kimball. “The church mellowed and, in the end, gave its blessing,” Chris says.

LaRae died a few weeks later. Her funeral was held in the chapel, now standing at 128 E. 300 North. The seven-year project was “a source of much heartache and anxiety,” her husband later wrote in a family history. “But,” Chris says, “it was a monument to her persistence.”

The end of the story is not that there is a replica Mormon chapel on 300 North, but that one woman’s vision has been realized in brick and mortar. 

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