Latter-day Saint Architecture: Designing the Buildings that Draw Us to God

Editors’ Note: The BYU Museum of Art has launched a special exhibit, Mormon Moderne: New Directions in Latter-day Saint Architecture, 1890-1955 featuring original drawings, woodwork, art glass, windows carved stonework and historical and contemporary photographs from this period. The exhibit, which is free, runs through September 15.

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Alberta Temple, Cardston Alberta, Canada, 1912;
Hyrum C. Pope and Harold W. Burton, architects; courtesy of LDS Church Archives.

Every day the sun rises on at least one and sometimes two new church buildings constructed by the Latter-day Saints. In the last years we have built the Conference Center that could house a Boeing 747, accelerated the idea of dotting the land with temples and toiled meticulously to re-create the Nauvoo Temple. On April 5, 1998, President Hinckley announced the building of 30 more temples, and then added another two in a justified burst of optimism. Rene Descartes once said, “I think, therefore I am.” Latter-day Saints might say, “I build, therefore I am.” The most secure job in the world must in be the Church architectural department.

Yet the first half of the twentieth century was not a sleepy time in building either and laid the groundwork for today’s building program.. The Church built more than a thousand buildings which display a surprisingly diverse array of architectural designs and styles. Renaissance domes, Gothic stained-glass windows, scalloped Spanish Baroque gables, elaborate Romanesque archways, and American colonial steeples were all part of the architectural landscape.

But even more surprising is the number and quality of Latter-day Saint buildings in various modern modes that were less common for religious buildings-the Prairie Style of Frank Lloyd Wright, the International Style of the European avant-garde, and the Art Deco and streamlined modernism of Jazz Age America. Some of the outstanding LDS buildings featured in this exhibition remain as landmarks in their communities today, while others have been razed or remodeled beyond recognition and can be appreciated now only in photographs and drawings. All together, they constitute an important chapter in the cultural history of the Latter-day Saints.

What is it?
A. A mosque in Constantinople, about A.D. 1350.
B. A neo-classical church in Paris, about A.D. 1780.
C. An LDS ward meetinghouse in Utah, A.D. 1898.

Mormon Architecture in an Era of Change, 1890-1912
The dedication of the Salt Lake Temple in 1893 coincided with an important time of transition in Mormon history. As Latter-day Saints emerged from the geographical and social isolation of their pioneer past, their architecture changed to accommodate the Church’s tentative entry into the American mainstream. The great variety of architectural forms and decorations used in turn-of-the-century ward meetinghouses and stake tabernacles reflected a search for new images of Mormon cosmopolitanism and respectability, helping to open the way for acceptance of more modern styles in the decades ahead.

Latter-day Saint architects designed many buildings in styles that were already widely used by other religious denominations. The Wellsville Tabernacle in Gothic Revival style and the Riverton Ward meetinghouse in Classical style are two fine examples of this approach. Amid their borrowing of architectural forms, however, Mormon architects and artists also sought to create a distinctive Latter-day identity in their buildings with stained glass windows, murals, and other decorative elements that portrayed symbols from the Mormon past.

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Salt Lake City First Ward, 1911; Hyrum C. Pope and Harold W. Burton, architects;
courtesy of Paul L. Anderson, BYU Museum of Art.

The Prairie Style in the Rocky Mountains, 1910-1920
The bold designs of early-twentieth century America’s most innovative and influential architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, had a profound impact on Mormon architecture between 1910 and 1920. Although Wright built only one religious building during his early career, Latter-day Saint architects imitated and adapted his “Prairie Style” for more than two dozen Mormon meeting houses, tabernacles, and temples.

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Montpelier Tabernacle, Idaho, 1918;
Hyrum C. Pope and Harold W. Burton, architects; courtesy of Paul L. Anderson, BYU Museum of Art.

The selection of a brilliant modern design for the Alberta Temple in a 1912 Church-wide architectural competition gave the blessing of Church leaders to this progressive style. The Hawaii Temple, the Parowan Third Ward, the Ogden Branch for the Deaf, and the Montpelier (Idaho) Stake Tabernacle are some of the most significant buildings in this style that are still in use today. Together Mormon structures in Prairie Style formed one of the largest collections of modern religious architecture in America at the time.

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Oahu Stake Tabernacle, Honolulu, Hawaii, c. 1936;
Harold W. Burton, architect; courtesy of LDS Church Archives.

Forward into the Past, 1920-1935
As the influence of Prairie Style and other modern movements waned in the early 1920’s, the Church turned to traditional styles that projected an image of permanence and respectability. For example, the 1920 design for the Arizona Temple was a sophisticated composition in classical style with a dramatic interior centered on a grand stairway.

American prosperity in the 1920’s brought increased demand for new meetinghouses. Part of this need was met by a Church Architectural Department that produced standard for more than 200 buildings, most of them in simplified American Colonial Style. Other Mormon architects designed handsome meetinghouses in English Tudor style, with tall steep roofs, brick of stone walls, half-timbered gables, and Gothic windows. Meanwhile, Latter-day Saints in California and Arizona created their own architectural identity with buildings influenced by Spanish Colonial styles.

Two of the most impressive Mormon buildings of the period were the Hollywood Stake Tabernacle (Wilshire Ward) in modernized Spanish style and the Washington D.C. Chapel, a skillful mixture of Gothic and classical elements.

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What is it?
A. A palace in Egypt, about 580 B.C.
B. A church in southern France, about A.D. 1870.
C. An LDS stake center in Hawaii, about A.D. 1937.

Modern Architecture for Hard Times
New varieties of modern architecture were popular in American during the Depression years. Art Deco Style commercial buildings ornamented with abstract floral and angular patterns, Streamlined Moderne and International Style factories and apartment buildings with sleek undecorated walls and horizontal bands of windows, and Simplified Classical Style public buildings purged of their traditional details.

The Latter-day Saints were among the few groups to adapt these aggressively futuristic and secular styles for their religious buildings. Dozens of meetinghouses in these three modern modes appeared throughout the Church, including the Art Deco Idaho Falls Sixth Ward, the streamlined International Style Glendale Ward in California, and the spectacular Simplified Classical Honolulu Stake Tabernacle. The Idaho Falls Temple was another major Church landmark in exuberantly modern style. The austere simplicity of many of these structures gave them a practical, unpretentious appearance appropriate for the hard economic times, while their sleek modernism implied progress toward a better future.

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Idaho Falls Sixth Ward, 1936-39; Sundberg and Sundberg architects;
photograph courtesy of Paul L. Anderson, BYU Museum of Art.

Buildings for the Post-War World, 1945-1955
Like the 1890’s, the decade following World War II was also an era of change for the LDS Church as it adapted its institutions and architecture for unprecedented national and international growth. Hundreds of standardized red-brick meetinghouses in American Colonial style appeared in the burgeoning new suburbs across America while Latter-day Saint architects in California and Arizona experimented with more modern styles.

The Los Angeles Temple, the largest in the Church at the time, was the first built outside of a predominantly Mormon community. It was also the last of the old-style temples containing a series of ordinance rooms decorated with colorful murals. The much smaller Swiss Temple with its single ordinance room using a film presentation became the prototype for temples around the world in coming decades.

As the vast international Church building program took form in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, it continued to draw much of its architectural inspiration from the variety, creativity and exuberance of Mormon buildings of the first half of the twentieth century.


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