Building Mormonism: History and Controversy in the Architecture of the Latter-day Saints

AT SOME POINT in the last 50 years of daily Washington Capital Beltway traffic updates, reporters stopped saying the “Mormon Temple” and just called it the “Temple.” As there is no other temple of glowing white marble and stained glass, with a gilded angel towering 288 feet above the crest of a forested hill next to the heavily traveled freeway, this causes no confusion. No doubt, it also pleases leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who in 2018 formally requested that the name “Mormon” be discontinued as a shorthand reference that distracted from Jesus Christ. (The nickname “Mormon,” which had long been embraced by the Church, derives from The Book of Mormon, an ancient scripture delivered to Church founder Joseph Smith by an angel in 1823. Critics of Smith had originally used it as a slur.)

The D.C. temple’s design—a futuristic variation on the Church’s iconic six-spired temple at its Salt Lake City headquarters—clearly proclaims its affiliation. By building a massive temple in Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s, the religious organization long associated with Utah not only declared its return to its historic roots “back East,” it also claimed a place in the capital of the free world, asserting itself as both an American and a global religion.

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It is remarkable that a church with the end of the world right in its name—the “latter days” immediately precede the Second Coming of Jesus—is currently grappling with its own material and spiritual history. Just before the D.C. Temple was dedicated in 1974, the Church literally threw open the doors of the 16th “House of the Lord” to curious politicians, dignitaries, and the public. (Unlike meetinghouses, which are open to all, temples ordinarily admit only baptized members who have received the approval of local church leaders.) Some 750,000 people visited the temple during that monthlong open house, making it a publicity jubilee for the missionary-minded institution. The D.C. Temple opened its doors to all again this past spring, after three years of renovation and two years of COVID-related delay. This time, 350,000 people visited in person, and hundreds of thousands more watched video walkthroughs online.

An aerial view shows a giant white temple towering over a highway and surrounded by an expanse of trees.
Carol M. Highsmith: Aerial of the Mormon Temple in Kensington, Maryland, 1980, color transparency, 4 by 5 inches.

The Church is putting temples, which long had a reputation as being secretive and exclusionary, at the center of its future, and it wants everyone to notice. These events present an opportunity to explore how the Church’s distinct architectural identity has reflected its evolving culture and mission throughout its 200-year history. Since 1974, the Church has grown from 3 million members who were primarily white residents of the western United States, to almost 17 million members in 31,000 congregations around the world. More than half the Church’s congregants now live outside the US. It took 150 years to build the first 18 temples (including two that were abandoned or destroyed); these days, the Church announces that many new ones every six months. There are 300 temples currently in operation or under construction, including several historic temples undergoing major renovation.

THE ICONIC PROMINENCE of the Church’s space-age temples is not an accident; they are architectural emblems of the denomination’s rapid growth during the Space Age. Since its founding in the early 19th century, the LDS Church has been avidly promulgating its vision of the Kingdom of God on earth. The architectural products of that mission invariably reflect the context in which they were built, whether on the expansionist frontier, in the Rocky Mountains, the postwar suburbs, or the world beyond North America. God’s Chosen People are commanded to build temples to prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ: so preached Joseph Smith. The 24-year-old farmer, who resided in Upstate New York, founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830 amid the Second Great Awakening, a wave of religious fervor that flooded the United States between 1790 and 1840. Smith declared that the full Christian gospel of the New Testament had been restored to him through a series of divine visitations. They began with God the Father and Jesus, then grew to include John the Baptist; the biblical apostles Peter, James, and John; and Moroni, the angel who shared new scripture that comprised ancient records of Christ’s visit to the Americas. Smith dispatched missionaries to share the news of these revelations. They were to gather believers in a City of Zion with a temple at its center, where Christ would soon meet them. The Church first took root in the small town of Kirtland, Ohio, near Cleveland, but the holy city Smith envisioned lay farther west.

Smith and his growing flock were settled and uprooted repeatedly as they tried to build the temple city he foretold. Smith first laid the cornerstones for the temple of the New Jerusalem in 1831 in Independence, Missouri, but anti-Mormon violence drove him and his followers back to Ohio. In Kirtland in 1836, newly arrived converts, including a carpenter named Brigham Young and his brother-in-law, builder Truman O. Angell, finished a three-story, sandstone and stucco temple with Gothic windows and a tower resembling that of a New England church. It was soon abandoned amid financial difficulties. In addition to his role as prophet, Joseph Smith took a job as mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1842. At the time, the newly Mormon city on the east bank of the Mississippi River had a population of around 12,000. There, architect William Weeks executed Smith’s vision of an elaborate limestone temple—which also resembled a New England church, only slightly fancier and on a grander scale—but the prophet did not live to see it; he and his brother were killed by an angry mob in 1844. Young became the Church’s new president, and ordered the temple be completed amid Mormon persecution and plans for a westward exodus; he wanted believers to receive blessings and rites before they left. The Nauvoo temple was soon abandoned, then burned down in 1848.

A grayscale view up the inside of a spiral spire. There are circles tracing the spiral and letting in sunlight; they create a magical feel.
Balthazar Korab: Independence Temple, Independence, Missouri. Interior. View of steeple, 1955, silver gelatin print, 8½ by 11½ inches.

This early period left behind an unusual architectural legacy. Some Latter-day Saints did not follow Brigham Young to Utah but returned instead to Kirtland and reclaimed the temple. Others started buying plots of land in Independence, seeking to make use of the temple site Joseph Smith had dedicated. In 1994 the Community of Christ, one of three churches that own part of the original site, built a temple there. Designed by Gyo Obata, the Peace Temple features a 195-foot spiral spire reminiscent of a nautilus shell. Meanwhile, beginning in the 1960s, the Utah church began acquiring, restoring, and rebuilding historic properties in Nauvoo, where the Community of Christ also owns multiple sites, including Joseph Smith’s former home. Working together, the two churches have turned Nauvoo into a Colonial Williamsburg–style destination for Mormon tourists, where missionaries in 19th-century costumes tell stories from early Church history. In 1999, spurred by a large anonymous donation and the rediscovery of William Weeks’s original drawings, the LDS Church rebuilt the Nauvoo Temple.

Brigham Young’s vision of the Promised Land as not just a City of Zion, but the entire American continent, gave an explicitly religious pretext to western expansion and settlement. Within days of arriving in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, he chose a temple site and laid out a city around it. A stream of Mormon settlers was sent to establish a chain of cities and towns across the West, reaching as far south as San Bernardino, California. Many of these outposts began as forts to subdue or expel the Shoshone, Ute, and Paiute Natives who already lived there. In all the settlements, the Mormons built chapels; in some of the biggest, they built tabernacles to hold large conferences; and in a few centrally located spots, they built temples.

If the temples Joseph Smith saw in his visions looked like New England churches, what Brigham Young envisaged for Salt Lake City was something different: six towers, representing the offices of the priesthood, were made of granite blocks hauled from the Wasatch Mountains 20 miles away, and a sermon’s worth of cosmological symbols were carved into the facade. The temple was conceived as a literal fulfillment of prophecy from the Book of Isaiah: “In the last days … the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains.” Young appointed his brother-in-law Angell as Church Architect. It took 40 years to build the Salt Lake structure. During this time, Angell, assisted by his son Truman O. Angell Jr. and by William Folsom, oversaw the completion of three more temples in Utah.

A spiral spire against a twilight sky
Balthazar Korab: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Temple, Independence, Missouri (exterior view at night), 1994, color transparency, 4 by 5 inches.

These pioneer-era temples all have a fortresslike presence, with stone towers and crenelated roofs, a symbolic refuge from a threatening world. They are not hidden retreats, though, but rather architectural beacons that dominate their surroundings. The whitewashed sandstone temple in St. George, the first one completed in Utah, in 1877, stands in stark relief against the red rock hills of Utah’s southern desert. Its interior is finished in the style of a Victorian palazzo, with plaster and woodwork made by craftsmen converts who emigrated from England. The towers of the Manti temple, also in Utah and completed in 1888, can be seen from across the Sanpete Valley.

Eschewing the chapel-like interiors of earlier temples, pioneer-era architects laid out the Utah temples
to house ceremonies that Church leaders formalized once they no longer faced the looming threat of persecution. The ground floors are home to large baptismal fonts resting on the backs of twelve sculpted oxen, a design concept Brigham Young took from an Old Testament description of King Solomon’s temple. Rooms with altars at the center are where marriages and other family bonds are sealed for eternity. In a series of mural-covered rooms representing the Creation, the Garden of Eden, and the world after the Fall, the faithful learn God’s great plan through a ritual called the “endowment,” making covenants with God and receiving blessings as they proceed. Only then are they prepared to enter the grandest and most hallowed space in the temple, the Celestial Room, which symbolizes the return to God’s presence.

After going through these rites for themselves, members return and perform them on behalf of their ancestors, one at a time. The belief is that these ancestors, as spdoirits, can choose whether to accept this vicarious offering. This doctrine underpins a centuries-long project of genealogy and temple-going—temple ordinances can be performed on behalf of everyone who ever lived without the chance to do them themselves. Everyone, Brigham Young taught, except Black people. After legalizing slavery in the Utah Territory in 1852, Young refused to recognize the priesthood ordinations or temple sealings Joseph Smith had performed for Black converts in Nauvoo, and he barred the few Black members in Utah from entering the temples. Young’s racist views came to be interpreted by his successors as official Church doctrine until they were finally rejected by divine revelation in 1978. But over the intervening century, the culture of Mormonism became intertwined with America’s devotion to white exceptionalism, and its buildings reflected that context.

THE LATTER-DAY SAINTS BUILT MUCH MORE than temples. By the end of the 19th century, Utah’s Mormon population was 277,000, including nearly 100,000 converts from the Protestant countries of northern Europe, Scandinavia, and the United Kingdom, where the Church focused its missionary efforts. Every congregation, or “ward,” was responsible for funding and building its own meetinghouses, which varied widely in quality and style. Though a few showed the influence of ecclesiastical pattern books, most were utilitarian vernacular structures built without architects. These were readily modified or replaced as membership grew. An anonymous critic complained about Utah’s architectural hodgepodge in the Deseret News in 1887: “We can truly say that in our travels throughout the world we have never found any place where building material is so wantonly thrown together without design or forethought as in Utah.” That critic turned out to be church apostle John W. Young, one of Brigham Young’s 56 children. That same year, the critic’s half brother Joseph Don Carlos Young was appointed Church Architect; he had studied architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Church architects were more involved in the design of tabernacles, which were used for larger meetings by “stakes,” a regional organization of several wards. The most famous of these is the Salt Lake Tabernacle, built next to the temple in 1863–75. The 250-foot-long, elliptical, column-free, timber and rawhide dome engineered by Henry Grow rests on 44 massive sandstone piers, designed by William Folsom. Originally, the building seated 7,000 people. The tabernacle hosted the Church’s semiannual general conference for 133 years, until 2000, when a new Conference Center was built across the street.

A white geometric spire against a blue sky. A golden statue of an angle sits at the highest peak.
Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in San Diego, California.

One of the most beautiful but little-known tabernacles was designed in 1883 by Don Carlos Young, and built in Paris, Idaho, near the Utah border. The at once rustic and delicate Victorian Gothic structure comprises sandstone blocks cut and hauled from a quarry 24 miles away. It seats 3,000 people, almost five times the town’s current population. Changes in meeting formats having made local tabernacles obsolete, William Folsom’s five-spired 1898 Provo Tabernacle is one of the Church’s first examples of adaptive reuse. The historic structure had fallen into neglect, and suffered a catastrophic fire in 2010; Laurie Lee Hall, then Temple Design Director, was charged with transforming the tabernacle into a temple. In an interview, Hall explained that her goal was not just to create a historic-style temple. She immersed herself in Folsom’s work—including his other temple designs—to try and extrapolate how he would have designed the building as a temple. Dedicated in 2016 as the Provo City Center Temple, it is one of the busiest and most popular LDS Church buildings.

The Church’s stability, prosperity, and growth in the early 20th century enabled building beyond the Intermountain West. Temples sprang up in Laie, Hawaii; Cardston, Canada; and Mesa, Arizona. Architects Pope and Burton won design competitions for the first two, and Don Carlos Young Jr. and Ramm Hansen won one in Arizona; all proposed modern neoclassical buildings that did not include a spire. Their block-like forms share a sense of institutional solidity with federal courthouses and other government buildings, a calculated choice at a time when the Church was aggressively seeking political normalization and cultural acceptance by the American mainstream. At the same time, starting in Utah, the Church Architecture Department, called the Bureau, began experimenting with standardized meetinghouse designs in a Colonial Revival style that includes a gym to host dances and sports activities.

In cities farther afield, wealthy congregations funded extravagant statement meetinghouses that proclaimed the Church’s commitment to the community, while nominally sticking to its basic design program. One prominent example is the Hollywood Tabernacle (now the Wilshire Stake Center) in Los Angeles. Built by Pope and Burton in 1927, both the chapel and the basketball court are surrounded in rich wood paneling punctuated with stained glass. 

A 1928 Art Deco chapel for the Home Gardens Ward in South Gate, California, is the first LDS meetinghouse known to have been designed by a woman. Edith Northman, who emigrated from Denmark, was the first woman to be licensed as an architect in Los Angeles. The building is currently used as a school. The Idaho Falls Fifth Ward meetinghouse, from 1939, by local architects Sundberg & Sundberg, is a rare example in a Moderne style, and is even rarer for surviving largely intact. Such modernist chapels were local anomalies, however; the Bureau found it easier and more efficient to gain the approval of conservative Church leaders and accountants for traditional designs.

In 1930 the Bureau took exceptional interest in the design of one far-off chapel. In Washington, D.C., the bustling congregation that had begun meeting in the living room of LDS apostle-turned-Utah Senator Reed Smoot needed a chapel to embody the Church’s growing political credibility. On 16th Street in Columbia Heights, Don Carlos Young Jr. designed a chapel of Utah marble with elaborate stained-glass windows. It features a mosaic of the Sermon on the Mount by Don Carlos’s cousin, the sculptor Mahonri Young; a three-tiered, 160-foot spire that echoes that of the Salt Lake Temple; and an angel Moroni statue. By the time the Washington, D.C., Temple was dedicated in 1974, white Church members, who had largely fled to the suburbs, saw the District as dangerous and the D.C. Chapel as obsolete. The ward was dissolved in 1976, and the building was sold. It took 35 years, and the possibility of a Mormon, Mitt Romney, in the White House, for the Church to build another chapel in Washington, D.C. That building, on 16th Street, houses a ward for Spanish speakers, and a multiracial ward.

Golden light graces the facade of a temple with three towers; the building is reflected in a body of water, and a golden statue of an angel sits at the highest peak.
Sunset at the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah.

WITH THE RESUMPTION AFTER WORLD WAR II of a widespread missionary program, Church membership boomed. Membership reached one million in 1947, two million in 1963, and four million in 1977, with the majority in the US and Canada. The Church scrambled to meet demand for new buildings in the sprawling suburbs of California and beyond by expanding its in-house architecture department to produce standardized designs. The process was not smooth. “With regard to the architectural design of our church buildings, we have no fixed policy with the possible exception that we wish our churches to look like churches,” stated the new Church Building Committee in a 1952 letter. In practice, this ostensible stylistic openness translated into meetinghouses that followed one of the Church’s 57 slight floor plan variations of the same basic design: a single-story, cinder block building with a low-pitched roof, a barebones steeple, and a gym big enough for a basketball court that can open onto the chapel for overflow. From the 1950s to the 1980s, local wards built hundreds of these meetinghouses each year. But disparities arose when some wards struggled to raise their required portion of the funding, and wealthier wards unilaterally opted for custom designs, or expensive pipe organs. Architect Lynn Pinegar argued that the high-visibility site his ward was building on in the Salt Lake suburb of Holladay warranted a prominent structure. His 1963 design augmented a standard floor plan with clerestory windows, custom doors and fixtures, and multicolored woodwork, capped by a steeply pitched, curved copper roof raised on buttresses that gave the building its nickname: the Pagoda Chapel.

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These meetinghouses have hosted the religious gatherings of an entire generation of American Mormons. Their industrial-scale church aesthetic, from the painted cinder block walls with scuff-resistant sisal wainscoting to the identical floral sofas in the foyer and the sea of bronze-finish folding chairs, provides both a winsome homogeneity and a reassuring sense of familiar simplicity. It has also become a source of cringe admiration on social media, providing a whole language of if-you-know-you-know references for people who have had the Church in their lives.

The need for temples also increased, especially for the booming Church membership in California as well as converts outside the US, who were now encouraged to stay and grow the Church in their native lands instead of emigrating to Utah. In the 1950s, Church Architect Edward O. Anderson designed the second-largest temple to date, in Los Angeles, and the first created as a drive-by landmark. The modern 190,000-square-foot temple with a perforated stone spire and a 15½-foot-tall figure of Moroni in Maya-inspired dress sits on a hill above Santa Monica Boulevard, on a 13-acre site.

One of the Church’s most significant architectural moments for the Church almost didn’t happen at all. For two years, local leaders in New York City tried to persuade the Church to sponsor a pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair, but Salt Lake was wary of the projected $3 million cost. In the end, the Mormon Pavilion, featuring a freestanding replica of the Salt Lake Temple facade, was a startling success. The Church ended up with one of the most prominent sites, right at the Fair entrance, which it enhanced with a gardenful of flowers flown daily from Southern California. Young missionary volunteers, wearing now iconic name tags for the first time, served as guides inside the pavilion, which featured an inspirational film titled Man’s Search for Happiness. More than six million people of many nationalities and cultures visited the pavilion in the two-year run, and the experience transformed not only the Church’s public image, but the institution’s own approach to its mission of sharing the Gospel. The organization began a worldwide campaign of marketing and public relations to augment the work of its young, white-shirted, door-knocking missionaries. The fair effort boosted membership in the Tri-State area for several years. And when the fair was done, the pavilion was dismantled and used to construct a meetinghouse in Plainview, Long Island.

As membership continued to grow, especially outside the US, the cultural, racial, and economic homogeneity of the Church began to diminish, alongside an expanding recognition that not everyone going to Heaven would be white, American, and middle class. New economic and cultural disparities led to changes in how and where the Church built. In Utah, members could visit a different temple every day, while in developing countries, members might save for years to travel even once to the nearest one. In the 1980s the Church switched to financing meetinghouse construction like temples, through members’ tithing. President Gordon B. Hinckley, who had led the development of the now ubiquitous film-based temple experience, which required only one room and which, unlike a live service, could be easily translated into different languages, began a major push to build more temples closer to where members live. Hinckley dedicated 76 of the 103 temples built between 1983 and his death in 2008. For every traffic-stopping standout like the futuristic San Diego Temple, whose twin spires jut high above the I-5 freeway in La Jolla, Hinckley opened dozens of small temples, built from standardized plans. These boxy, single-story temples with one central spire appeared in midsize US cities like Raleigh and Anchorage, and in countries across Central and South America, the South Pacific, Africa, and Europe. Their modest design and tasteful interiors feel like an upscale hotel; if Salt Lake’s High Victorian Baroque interiors are the Ritz, these are the Ritz Carlton. There are exceptions: a multistory temple opened in Hong Kong in 1996, a year before the British departed; and existing buildings became temples in sites as varied as Copenhagen, Manhattan, and Vernal, Utah.

In the last 15 years, temple construction has continued apace, with landmark temples in Paris and Rome punctuating a steady stream of standardized temples of various sizes. The Church’s goal is to have a temple within a 3-hour trip of every member, putting same-day round trips and regular temple worship within all members’ reach. Like the statement chapels of the past, temples also make the point in a country or community that the Church is local and there to stay. This is made possible, former Temple design director Hall explained, by applying to temples the strategies of standardization and adaptation developed for meetinghouses. In her 15 years as a Church architect, Hall oversaw both. Meetinghouse templates were trimmed down to three examples that could be built in phases, as growth demanded. These models could be adapted to local construction standards and techniques, allowing the Church’s full program to be available to every congregation, with no basketball court required. Temples are now similarly scalable, with a two-room temple in Guam accommodating all the same religious rites as a 150,000-square-foot temple in South Jordan, Utah.

BUT THE PROLIFERATION AND HOMOGENIZATION of temples around the world reflects a cultural shift for the Church that is still being sorted out. In its October 2022 general conference, President Russell M. Nelson announced 18 new temples, including four in Mexico City, and, for the first time, zero in Utah. With 26 temples, the most of any state or country, Utah, which used to have 100 percent of all the Mormon temples on earth, now has less than 10 percent. Utah might still feel like the center of the Mormon world, but it is not. At the moment, three of Utah’s original pioneer-era temples, including the one in Salt Lake City, are undergoing major renovations. The realization that these temples will change is hard for some Church members to handle.

A tan building with arched vertical windows, elaborate crown molding, and a flat roof.
Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Hong Kong.

In March 2021, the Church announced that as part of the Manti temple renovation, historic murals by prominent Mormon artists like Minerva Teichert would be altered or removed. The outcry for their preservation was quick and strong, and by April, President Nelson said that he had been persuaded to preserve the “pioneer craftsmanship, artwork, and character” of the Manti temple. He decided to restore the murals in place. Plans to modernize the temple services with multilingual, film-based services would go ahead, Nelson said. He also announced the construction of a new temple to be built one town over, in Ephraim, which will provide increased temple capacity to the same community.

The Salt Lake renovations have been more controversial, especially after the reversal of the Manti decision. This stems in part from the Church’s relative silence about what changes are being made. It was not until 18 months into the renovation, after seismic retrofitting and the razing of annexes and visitor centers had turned Temple Square into a vast construction zone, that the Church announced the extent of major interior renovations that were also underway. The historic processional endowment ordinance, through ornate rooms designed by Joseph Don Carlos Young and painted by pioneers, would be replaced by film-based services in rooms that are historically inspired but newly constructed. This prompted an outcry both from historic preservationists, who did not want the building to change, and Mormon traditionalists, who did not want the temple ceremony to change. The Church was faced with a choice: either faithfully preserve its most historic building but limit its use only to English speakers, or change parts of the layout to align it with the other 299 temples. This would make the Church’s most iconic temple at its headquarters accessible in 80 languages, to members from all over the world. Nelson, the current LDS Church prophet, chose the latter—a more expansive vision, perhaps, than the one his predecessor saw.  


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