A developer buys Salt Lake City building filled with late artist’s massive sculptures

With a Salt Lake City building sold to a developer, the daughter of the artist who created a half-century of art there is approaching a Sept. 1 deadline to move out the last of his works.

Some of that art, though, isn’t going anywhere.

Neena Plant-Henninger and Utah Arts Alliance founder Derek Dyer have been working to preserve what they can of the art her father, Ralphael Plescia, left behind in his Christian School at 1324 S. State St. Plescia died August 14, 2022, at age 84.

The paintings and some smaller sculptures have been removed from the two-story building where Plescia, a self-taught artist, created his idiosyncratic takes on various Bible scriptures and teachings from Christianity.

But many of his artworks — such as “The Serpent,” a large dragon in the basement, or the upstairs sculpture “The Queen of Heaven” — are built into the structure and impossible to move.

“The building itself is most of the art,” Dyer said. “Not only the building that Ralphael built on top of, but also the caverns and all of the concrete work.”

Plescia had leased the building for years from Shriners Children’s Hospital. A month after he died, his widow, Vonna Rae Plescia received a letter from the hospital, asking that the building be vacated by Dec. 1, 2022.

That’s when the Utah Arts Alliance — which is behind such projects as the Urban Arts Festival and South Salt Lake’s Mural Fest — got involved. Dyer approached Shriners about buying the building.

Instead, Dyer said, “I guess what happened is a developer, or development group, heard about the situation, called and … made them an offer over the phone. … [Shriners] accepted it without any opportunities for us to do anything, make a counteroffer or anything.”

Plant-Henninger said that when she was first approached by a representative for the buyer early this year, she recalled that the person said, “get used to the fact that the sculptures that aren’t able to be removed will be demolished.”

(Palak Jayswal | The Salt Lake Tribune) Neena Plant-Henninger, daughter of artist Ralphael Plescia, poses for a photograph at the Christian School art building on State Street in Salt Lake City, Nov. 15, 2022.

A string of emails

In emails shared with The Tribune, Dyer chronicled his efforts to strike a deal with Shriners.

On Oct. 10, Dyer contacted the hospital’s real estate coordinator to arrange a meeting — with the goal of leasing the building to preserve it. The coordinator responded the next day, saying her manager would be in touch when they returned to the office.

Two weeks later, on Oct. 24, Dyer emailed the coordinator again — and the next day, she responded that her manager was working on setting up a meeting between Dyer and Shriners leadership.

On Nov. 16, Dyer emailed the coordinator again, asking for an extension on the Dec. 1 deadline for Vonna Rae Plescia to vacate the building. Dyer also asked again about setting up a meeting.

“I had been waiting for months and months for them to get back to me and just to even have the meeting to have a conversation about the building,” Dyer said.

Dyer said he emailed the hospital again on Dec. 27, to discuss issues with break-ins in the building. He said he wanted to get permission from the hospital to deal with the security problem themselves, to protect the artwork from damage.

Two days later, Sharon Russell, Shriners’ vice president for finance, emailed Dyer to say the hospital was taking steps to secure the building. She also told Dyer the hospital had made a deal to sell the property.

“Our charity has been extremely fortunate to receive a considerable offer from a buyer who is very interested in the revitalization of this area of Salt Lake City,” Russell wrote in the email. “The funds from the sale will allow us to invest in the care of our patients in need and continue our mission.”

Russell continued, “The buyer is keenly aware of the importance of this building to the community and wants to preserve this legacy. We will be entering into a lease agreement with the buyer immediately, and they will be providing security for the premises until we close.”

Dyer, who said he had been working with a foundation to get the money to save the Christian School, sent emails on Dec. 29 and Jan. 6, 2023, to make a counter-offer. He said he wasn’t given the opportunity to do so.

Russell replied in a Jan. 12 email, reiterating that “We are under contract with a buyer for this property, who is also interested in the revitalization of the area and building.”

Representatives from Shriners did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.

According to Salt Lake County Assessor records, the building’s new owner is listed as 1324 South State, LLC. A representative for the Salt Lake County Recorder’s office confirmed that the agency is sending tax notices for the building to the address of Colmena Group, one of Utah’s largest development companies.

On its website, the Salt Lake City-based Colmena Group boasts that it has developed more than 120 projects, covering 5 million square feet and 11,000 housing units. Its current portfolio under development comes in at $500 million.

Among Colmena Group’s major projects in Salt Lake City are the Milagro Apartments downtown, the Wilmington Apartments in Sugar House and a proposed mixed-use development at 1435 S. State St. — across the street and a block south of Christian School. Colmena Group also is one of three partners chosen to develop The Point, the development on the former site of the Utah State Prison in Draper.

A representative for Colmena Group did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Dyer said he didn’t fault any one person for Christian School’s demise — but its fate is part of a larger problem of artists and art spaces getting priced out of the Salt Lake City real estate market. He cited as an example Dreamscapes, the Utah Arts Alliance’s sustainable art exhibit, which moved from downtown Salt Lake City to Sandy’s The Shops at South Town.

“There’s no safeguards for any of these cultural facilities,” Dyer said. “There’s no funding set aside for it, [but] there is funding set aside for development and housing. … There’s certain places that deserve to be preserved, or certain places that are important to our culture and our history.”

(Palak Jayswal | The Salt Lake Tribune) Art in the Christian School art building on State Street in Salt Lake City, Nov. 15, 2022. The two-dimensional art in the building has been moved, but some of the massive sculptures created by artist Ralphael Plescia are embedded in the structure and cannot be moved.

What can be moved

Plant-Henninger and Dyer said they did not know how much the buyer paid for the building. Since the sale, Plant-Henninger said, Shriners is no longer involved with any decisions about the building.

When the new owners got in touch, Dyer said, they immediately floated the idea of getting everything out of the building before demolition.

Plant-Henninger said the buyer has been “tight lipped” about what ultimately may happen to the property. No demolition permit has been issued for the property, according to a search of Salt Lake City building records.

Plant-Henninger and Dyer said their only contact since has been with Scott Karen, who works in property management with Colmena Group.

When contacted by The Tribune, Karen said in a text message statement that “from the moment the property was acquired, we were in contact with Neena and making arrangements for her and her team of volunteers to have full access to the building and execute their plan to preserve and relocate as many pieces of artwork as possible.”

Karen also told The Tribune that “there are no plans for redevelopment.”

All of the two-dimensional art is out, Plant-Nenninger said, except for a painting on the ceiling of the top floor — where Plescia painted portraits of family members who had died. “I guess they’re angels of some type,” she said. “To take that out, we’d have to actually take the roof off.”

Two anonymous donors, she and Dyer said, have offered money to help remove as many of the concrete artworks as possible. The Christian School is accepting donations to help with moving expenses.

The works that have been removed are being stored at the Art Castle, the refurbished former Latter-day Saint meetinghouse the alliance acquired in 2021. For the art that can’t be moved, Plant-Henninger said, people have take 3D scans and professional photographs to capture Christian School in its original glory.

Dyer said, “We’re trying to make the best of it, and trying to create a good ending — or the best ending we can for this situation.”

“It’s sad to see it come to an end, because I know that my dad would have wanted to see more saved,” Plant-Henninger said. “Though he was realistic about it, he didn’t know whether any of it could be saved.”

In a 2016 video — produced by OHO Media, the arts publication 15 Bytes and KUER’s VideoWest — Plescia expressed his doubts about the building’s permanence.

“The reason I don’t think it’ll survive,” Plescia said in the video, “is because what I’m doing here is not something to make money on. I’m not trying to sell anything other than knowledge.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

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