Photos by David Ricketts
Castles in the United States are rare. A castle devoted to the arts on Salt Lake City’s West Side? Rarer still, but there it is in Poplar Grove, at the southwest corner of 900 West and 100 South.
The Art Castle, as the building is now known, was formerly LA East Studios, a world-famous recording studio. Predating the reels and lyrics, the building was filled with different music: hymns and harmonies during its original life as the fifteenth ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, part of the original nineteen ward houses that were built by the Mormon Church in the early 1900s.
A century later, the historic building will continue serving as a location where folks can gather and engage with the arts as the headquarters of a local nonprofit, the Utah Arts Alliance.
The building’s history is perhaps best captured in what was formerly the Chapel recording space, the building’s main studio where many world-famous artists had recorded. The building has a rich history in media, with organizations like Disney and venerable actors like Anthony Hopkins producing work there. In music, artists such as Elton John, Demi Lovato, and the Backstreet Boys have cut tracks in the building.
According to Derek Dyer, Director of the Utah Arts Alliance and the Art Castle’s latest caretaker, Dolly Parton even recorded an album while staying in the apartment that is tucked away upstairs. The UAA acquired the building during the pandemic with plans to turn it into a hub for culture and the arts on Salt Lake City’s West Side.
For Dyer, the Art Castle is a culmination of two decades of his own history and hard work. Frustrated with the lack of opportunities for showcasing artistic talents in Salt Lake City, Dyer began down what he calls “a road of adventure” by founding the Utah Arts Alliance (UAA) unofficially in 2001 and officially in 2003.
An accomplished artist in his own right, Dyer has talents in the visual arts, as a painter and photographer, and is recognized as the creator of the largest mirrored sphere in the US, “Illuminator,” which is the mirror ball for SLC’s EVE festivals of years past.
Dyer sees the Art Castle as the recording and creating space for west-side artists and beyond – a “melting pot” that will position the UAA as a platform for current artists and help inspire future artists. The UAA wants west-side residents and artists abroad to know, as Dyer puts it, “This space is for you.” In the building and its existing and planned amenities, Dyer sees the ultimate artist support framework, “a combination of everything we do well already.”
Now as the state and communities open up, Dyer is ready to get to work. Renovations for the building are planned and keeping the architectural integrity is a must for Derek and the Alliance as he recognizes that the Art Castle is a significant local landmark. The Castle is the crown jewel of the UAA’s eight cultural facilities, which include, among others, Counter Pointe Studios, KUAA, and the Urban Arts Gallery and Dreamscapes, which are located at The Gateway Mall.
Funding for the Art Castle stems from multiple sources, including legislation supported by Rep. Sandra Hollins and Sen. Luz Escamilla, and through the crowd-sourcing site Go Fund Me. Dyer sees these investments paying long-term dividends by providing access to artistic services, cultural assets, and performance spaces operated by a projected staff of 35.
Dyer’s enthusiasm for the Art Castle’s potential impact is infectious, especially as the fruits of the UAA’s labor are becoming apparent. Future plans for the building and HQ include a sculpture garden, concerts at a planned amphitheater for the 900-west side of the property, and ADA-compliant amenities and features. UAA programming at the Art Castle will begin in the summer and fall of 2021, expanding as Dyer’s hopes continue to take shape figuratively and literally in the historic space.