Salt Lake City’s Christian School, the brainchild of late artist Ralphael Plescia, is in limbo as an arts organization’s preservation efforts are hampered by the recent sale of the property.
SALT LAKE CITY—Along an inconspicuous stretch of Salt Lake City’s State Street exists a most unusual building, artist Ralphael Plescia’s Christian School. The exterior structure, adorned with low-relief sculptures of religious symbols and a painted panel of Christ, manages to stand out in a city that isn’t a stranger to public religious art.
Now, after Plescia’s August 2022 death at age eighty-four, the fate of the Christian School remains unknown. This past November, the Salt Lake Tribune reported on Utah Arts Alliance’s plans to take over the site to ensure preservation and public access. But those plans have since morphed and changed.
Plescia’s passing, along with the possibility that the building and his artworks may not be saved, has caused hardship for his family members.
There’s another complication. The prospect of removing the building’s artworks to a new venue has been met with concerns that doing so would damage them, as many of Plescia’s one-of-a-kind pieces are reportedly imprinted into the building’s structure in such a way that removal would cause irreparable damage.
For approximately fifty years, Plescia created a bevy of sculptures, paintings, and other artworks that constituted the Christian School. The site has engendered curiosity from individuals drawn to Plescia’s unusual and wildly creative depictions—which multiply in volume inside the building—elevating the artist and his creations to the realm of cult status alongside other bizarre art staples like Gilgal Garden.
But unlike the strange sculpture garden that’s an ode to Mormonism and the Bible, there aren’t many places to park along blighted State Street (also known as Highway 89). As a result, the Christian School has remained less known than Gilgal Garden.
The modest brick façade near 1300 South holds two rows of rounded lancet-style windows that demarcate the top and bottom halves. A painting of Christ is depicted in one of the rounded forms on the bottom register, while low-relief sculptures adorn the upper half of the structure between the two windows. It’s these works—and the array of visual wonders that exist within the building—that have made this structure an offbeat destination for Salt Lake City residents for decades.
According to Derek Dyer, executive director of UAA, the arts organization began discussions with Shriners Children’s, which owns the Christian School building, for a potential purchase “only to be told months later that [Shriners] was going with another purchaser’s offer,” Dyer tells Southwest Contemporary. “Our plan was to work with our national foundation partner to purchase the building and renovate it to a public museum to preserve this unique and important place.”
Dyer says that at the time of his October conversations with Shriners—a healthcare provider with more than two dozen nationwide hospitals—he emphasized the significance of the site and the many works contained inside, articulating the point with images and news articles.
Those discussions, however, came to an abrupt halt as Shriners accepted an offer from another buyer. They informed UAA of this decision on December 29, 2022.
“Shriners Children’s was unaware of the extensive artwork in the building and had no intention of causing any stress for Mrs. Plescia,” writes Mel Bower, a Tampa, Florida-based chief communications and marketing officer for Shriners Children’s, in a statement prepared for Southwest Contemporary. “We understand the importance of the Christian School building to her and her family, and we will certainly do what we can to ensure that Mrs. Plescia is able to safely relocate her late husband’s work.”
While Shriners’ statement refutes Dyer’s account of relaying ample evidence of the site’s artistic value, Dyer chalks up any crossed wires to bureaucratic channels of miscommunication. In any event, the survival of Plescia’s standalone artworks hangs in the balance.
An assortment of original sculptures and paintings adorn the interior of the building, which is now closed off to the public. Prior to his death, Plescia greeted curious guests with tours and conversation. Visitors have described the assortment as fascinating, albeit a bit chaotic, with Google reviews and admirer anecdotes reveling in the originality of Plescia’s vision and his longstanding commitment to the project.
People have described the interior as immersive, filled with cement figures as well as elaborately painted Biblical narratives, old musical instruments and car parts, and casts of previously executed or unfinished projects.
Aside from its cult status, the work—which has also been featured by Atlas Obscura—has engendered admiration from Salt Lake City residents and artists.
“To me, Ralphael Plescia is a true outsider artist, completely unphased by the opinions of others, unmotivated by money or recognition,” says local artist Alexis Rausch. “The Christian School is a pure act of purposeful obsolescence, and I also view it as an obsessive effigy created to make sense of the devastating familial losses he experienced.”
Still, the sale of the building has wrought hardship on the Plescia family and strikes worry for those eager to preserve the artist’s work. Additionally, vandalism has prompted tighter security measures amid the transition.
“There is a pending sale of the property, and the new owners have given a fairly short timeframe, relative to the tasks at hand, to accomplish [the move],” says Neena Plant-Henninger, Plescia’s daughter. She tells Southwest Contemporary that she and her mother Rae are deeply concerned with preservation efforts, but details are fluid considering the quick timeline imposed on the family for a move.
“We will still work with the family to recover and preserve what artwork we can with a possibility of displaying it at our Art Castle project,” says UAA’s Dyer.