Mormon Architecture

Temples, tabernacles, and towns in Nevada and Utah embody Mormon vision and craftsmanship.

St. George Utah Temple, example of Mormon Architecture

St. George Utah Temple was completed during Brigham Young's presidency.

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Willie Hunsaker, the retired caretaker of the Brigham City Tabernacle in northern Utah, describes its marvels of craftsmanship with pride and a trace of sardonic humor. Faux-oak pews made of white pine: "That wood graining is a lost art." Faux-marble columns, actually red fir: "Feel it! It feels like marble, doesn't it?" One of the few pieces not crafted on the spot, he notes, is the woolen carpet with a quatrefoil design; too massive for even the best local millers, it was made in Ireland.

The rest of the building features an equally intricate play of textures, colors, and shapes: walls of multicolored stone and red brick, capped by a sheet-metal steeple painted white and 16 slender white fiberglass spires. The Brigham City Tabernacle typifies the exuberant eclecticism of Mormon sacred architecture, particularly the style sometimes called Utah Gothic. Begun in 1868 and dedicated in 1890, the building was gutted by fire in 1896, rebuilt in just 13 months, and restored and rededicated in 1987. "It's a structure that has a lot of meaning to us people here," Hunsaker says.

Powered by faith, ingenuity, a strong work ethic, and communal ties, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made parts of the Western landscape, from deserts to mountains, their own. With the materials at hand and methods they imported and adapted, they laid out towns and built homes and businesses, tabernacles for regular worship services, and temples for their most sacred practices.

The church was founded in upstate New York in 1830, the year that Joseph Smith Jr. published the Book of Mormon. Smith said he translated the work from gold plates shown to him by an angel. Describing the wanderings of the Israelites and, later, the resurrected Jesus in the New World, the Book of Mormon gives Indians a Middle Eastern ancestry and America a divine past. The Mormons' own history is similarly a tale of pioneering and martyrdom. Persecuted as infidels, the saints, as the church calls its members, kept fleeing: to Ohio, Missouri, and then Illinois, where Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered in 1844 by an angry mob.

From Illinois, Brigham Young, the second Mormon prophet and later governor of the Utah Territory, led the first migration to the Salt Lake Valley in 1846-47. The Mormons' cross-country pilgrimage—by wagons, laboriously pulled handcarts and finally, after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, by rail—continued through the 19th century.

A visitor can see highlights of the Mormons' architectural mark on the West, with its combination of homely vernacular and serenely otherworldly forms, on an easy driving trip from Nevada through Utah. Starting in Las Vegas, I traveled up I-15 to St. George, Utah, where Young made his winter home; then to the university town of Provo, about 50 miles south of the Great Salt Lake; a little farther north to the picturesque settlement of Brigham City; and finally to the triumphal center of Mormonism, an increasingly cosmopolitan Salt Lake City.

LAS VEGAS

North of the neon glories of the Las Vegas Strip, past the check-cashing stores and topless bars and wedding chapels, is a remnant of an old Mormon settlement—and the oldest piece of architecture in Nevada. Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort State Historic Park pays tribute to the first seedling of the contemporary city.

Thirty Mormon pioneers traveled here in June 1855 on orders from Brigham Young. That September, one of them wrote, "Our explorations have assured of plenty of desert and Indians." The settlers built a fort, 150 feet on each side; irrigated crops with water from the local creek (which later supplied water to Las Vegas before it dried up); and even tried mining and smelting lead. By the spring of 1857 they were gone, chased away by dissension and the broiling summers. Today, though, park supervisor Chris Macek says it would be wrong to call the settlement a failure, since it led ultimately to the creation of Las Vegas. Despite the inhospitable climate, he says, the Mormons "proved you could live here."

The visitor center exhibition makes a point of the tension between preservation and change. In truth, not much here was preserved: The sole remainder of the fort is part of an adobe wall, incorporated into a building that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation used in 1929 to test cement for Hoover Dam. The ranch house that succeeded the fort is also gone. But the state has recreated the original creek, kept flowing by the recirculation of its own water, and replicated a portion of the fort, including a stubby tower. Three historic markers, a pioneer wagon, and an older exhibition inside the dam building complete the tour. Afternoon shadows fall on the abandoned site, and melancholy pervades it.

ST. GEORGE, UTAH

From Las Vegas I drove about two hours northeast to St. George. There the main building of the Seven Wives Inn, a gray-and-white Victorian with capacious porches and verandas and a tiny swimming pool, overlooks the Brigham Young Winter Home. The inn's name commemorates a tradition that fugitive polygamists, on the run from federal marshals, used the mansion as a hiding place. Plural marriage, a storied and controversial part of early Mormonism, was outlawed by the church in 1890 to square with federal anti-bigamy laws and fortify Utah's bid for statehood. The practice nevertheless continued intermittently for decades. Today it is confined to renegade sects like those portrayed in the HBO series Big Love.

Young bought the home in 1872 to take advantage of the town's mild winters. Born into a Vermont farm family, he learned an array of trades—including carpentry, cabinetmaking, painting, glazing, and urban planning—that he employed vigorously during his 30-year tenure as church president. To his St. George house, he added characteristic New England touches, including a wraparound porch and veranda. The building, meticulously restored, is painted green and rust and surrounded by a white picket fence. Original furnishings and artifacts show off Young's refined taste, his woodworking skills, and the Mormon craft of painting native pine to simulate other materials: an imitation crotch-mahogany table, a staircase grained like oak, fireplace surrounds that look like Italian marble.

Though he practiced plural marriage and had 57 children, Young's usual companion in St. George was his wife Amelia, whose portrait adorns the wall. "Why Amelia?" I asked my guide, Sister Rhea Johnson. "Because she was younger," Johnson said, "and she had no children." The home seems to have been a quiet retreat for the man whose vision and leadership earned him the sobriquet "American Moses."

As an urban planner Young was influenced by Joseph Smith's vision of a City of Zion. The ideal Mormon town, replicated repeatedly, was to be a square mile in size, with about 10,000 inhabitants, surrounded by farmland. "Being a pragmatist as well as an idealist, Young made a few changes," including the addition of irrigation ditches, says Richard Francaviglia, professor emeritus of history and geography at the University of Texas at Arlington. Francaviglia, whose books include The Mormon Landscape and Believing in Place: A Spiritual Geography of the Great Basin, sees Young as "a visionary colonizer—the most significant in Western history. Brigham Young told his people to build communities where they want the angels to visit. Mormons believe that what they build on earth is a representation of what Heaven is going to be like." No wonder Mormon architecture tends to be both durable and awe-inspiring.

St. George is still called Utah's Dixie, a name derived from the mission of the first settlers that Young sent down from the Salt Lake Valley in 1861, during the Civil War: planting cotton. The 309 families harvested 100,000 pounds in their first year. Young visited St. George soon after the town's founding to tell its inhabitants—most of whom had not yet put up decent houses—to build a meeting hall that would seat at least 2,000 persons.

Completed in 1876, the tabernacle that Mormons regard as "the jewel in the desert" resembles a New England Georgian red-brick church with a white spire. But the "bricks" are another Mormon trompe-l'oeil: blocks cut from the sandstone cliffs embracing the city. Inside, plaster decorative motifs representing cotton and grapes pay tribute to local agriculture.

The architect Miles Romney—a great-grandfather of former Massachusetts governor and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney—designed two freestanding circular staircases leading to the balcony. Young noticed that the balcony was so high that people sitting there couldn't see the pulpit, and he ordered the stairways trimmed. Romney refused to tamper with his architectural gem. So Young had the balcony lowered instead. Worshipers now descend eight steps to reach the pews there.

Distances—as shown on a map—can be deceptive in Utah. Young's signature as an urban planner was long, wide boulevards with plenty of space for ox-drawn wagons to turn in. It's a brisk 15-minute walk from the tabernacle to the St. George Utah Temple, a crenellated white fortress topped by a white tower and surrounded by verdant grounds. Originally constructed in the 1870s, the only Utah temple completed during Brigham Young's presidency is made of native red sandstone clad in plaster and painted white.

Non-Mormons are barred from entering temples. But in the visitor center, Elder Boyd Cook described some of what takes place there, including instruction in Mormon beliefs, the exchange of covenants with God, and the "sealing" —a ritual to make relationships last through eternity—of couples and families. Mormons also perform baptisms for deceased non-LDS relatives, so they can join their families in heaven. "That's why genealogy is so important to us," Cook said.

A few miles away, in Santa Clara, is the Jacob Hamblin Home, built of local red sandstone and ponderosa pine in the frontier style—four straight two-story walls unadorned except for a wide porch, with an immense front lawn. It seems generations earlier than Young's house, though the two men were contemporaries. Hamblin (1819-86) had 24 children and four wives in all, but never more than two at a time. Their bedrooms, on the ground floor, are mirror images of each other. The wives tended Hamblin's large family while he was on the road making peace between settlers and Indians and preaching the Mormon gospel.

PROVO, UTAH

An easy four-hour drive to the north, Brigham Young University in Provo combines spectacular views of the Wasatch Mountains and a modern, immaculate look, as though it has been scrubbed clean.

Several buildings, influenced by postmodernism, evoke historical styles. The Joseph F. Smith Building (named for a nephew of the first prophet who became a prophet himself) has Renaissance touches, including a piazza. The law school, built in the 1970s, is an homage to art deco, with a façade marked by strong vertical elements. My guide, Abram Cordell, an affable 25-year-old senior majoring in public relations, told me his wife used to walk over there to study in hope of meeting a lawyer. Instead, he said, "she met me." It's not too late to go to law school, I suggested. "That's what my wife says," he answered with a smile.

Provo's well-preserved downtown is anchored by the tabernacle. As I arrived, a daytime Utah Valley Symphony concert ended inside and elementary school kids tumbled out of the building with shrieks of joy. The tabernacle's Victorian revival façade, with octagonal towers at its four corners and a steeply pitched roof, resembles a grand Gilded Age mansion, a confident assertion of prosperity and dominion.

By contrast, the Provo Utah Temple, on a hill overlooking the Utah Valley, looks almost surreal. Dedicated in 1972, the circular, ribbed, white stone structure capped by a thin white spire might be mistaken for a space ship. I skipped a close encounter and headed to Brigham City, a not-quite-two-hour drive skirting the great lake, for Willie Hunsaker's tour of the tabernacle there. Then I turned south for the one-hour trip to Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY

At the heart of Salt Lake City—and of Mormonism—is Temple Square, a 10-acre complex that aptly reflects the faith's worldly success and global reach. Regular tours conducted by missionaries focus more on the church than architectural detail, but plaques, two visitor centers, and the engaging Museum of Church History and Art across the street help fill the informational gaps.

Dominating Temple Square is the six-spired temple whose design is said to have appeared to Brigham Young in a vision. The architect was Truman O. Angell, Young's brother-in-law, who also designed several of his houses and had a hand in the St. George Temple. Hauling each block of quartz monzonite, the granite-like rock used in the temple, by ox from Little Cottonwood Canyon, 20 miles away, took four days—one reason the temple took a biblical 40 years to build. Young died 16 years before its completion in 1893.

Opposite the temple is the recently restored Salt Lake Tabernacle, with its pin-drop acoustics and the domed roof, like a tortoise shell, that is still considered an engineering marvel. Its curved wooden roof trusses, originally held together by wooden pegs (another testament to Mormon ingenuity), have been reinforced with steel. And its pine pews, with their painted graining, have been replaced with real oak. The pioneers dragged their instruments across the plains—some are on display in the church museum—and music remains integral to Mormon culture. I listened as Richard Elliott, the tabernacle organist, gave an afternoon demonstration of the building's magnificent 11,623-pipe instrument, and on Sunday morning I returned to hear the celebrated Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing a mix of patriotic and religious hymns.

Along E. South Temple Street are the Assembly Hall, an old church meetinghouse; the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, whose ornate columns and cornices are reminders of its past life as an opulent hotel; and the Beehive House, built in 1854, whose motif symbolizes the Mormon work ethic. Young lived here with his wife Lucy and their eight children, and used it as his official residence. A dozen of his other wives lived next door in the Lion House—those with children in nine "sitting rooms" on the ground floor and the rest on the second floor, whose 20 bedrooms also accommodated homeless guests whom Young sheltered. "He took care of more than one family" is how one missionary guide tactfully put it. The Lion House dining room, which seats 142, is now a cafeteria serving excellent home-style cuisine.

My last stop of the day was the Conference Center, completed in 2000 to house the church's twice-yearly general conference. Its 21,000-seat indoor amphitheater is cavernous. The center's hallways contain artwork, including images from the Book of Mormon and of the Prophets and the iconic journey west. The building's southern façade, facing the temple and clad in stone from the same Little Cottonwood Canyon quarry, resembles a Mayan temple or Babylonian ziggurat, with stepped terraces, gardens, and fountains—a verdant contrast to the desert fort where my trip began.

At dusk, Elder Jim Smith led a rooftop tour. We watched the setting sun crease the temple, the downtown, and the entire Salt Lake Valley with gentle shafts of pink and gold. There was just time to admire the roof gardens before night fell. By then, the temple was illuminated, its towers iridescent like pearl, an emblem of both spiritual and earthly zeal.

Photography courtesy of St. George Area Convention & Tourism office

This article was first published in January 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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