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St. George Utah Temple
St. George Utah Temple is the first temple erected by Mormons after their 1847 migration to Utah. Brigham Young, the successor of the founding Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, identified the site and provided the idea for the temple’s design. Truman O. Angell, a carpenter-turned-church architect who was very close to Young, developed the scheme.
President Young had overseen the migration of his people to the Utah Territory and took responsibility for settling the region. Unforeseen delays in the completion of the Salt Lake Temple (1853–1893) led to the construction of the St. George Utah Temple, which was meant to provide an immediate home for performing the rites of the Mormon Church. Situated at the heart of the city, it was also intended to turn the meagerly populated area into a major economic hub; temple construction would bring jobs, making St. George attractive to other Mormon colonizers. John Taylor, Young’s successor, noted that the area was also chosen to provide a strong center for the proselytizing activities between the northern and southern parts of the territory. As such, the spiritual and profane functions of architecture neatly coalesced in the commission.
Young chose to build the temple on a six-acre swampy plot with underground streams. When informed about the challenges of the site, he claimed that its selection was divinely mandated and he refused to relocate the temple. Builders and engineers were forced to develop a solution for erecting a monumental structure over swampland; they spent two years redirecting most of the water via underground pipes and laid crushed local lava rock to stabilize the site. Above this they erected the eighty-foot-tall, red sandstone structure that was plastered in stark white.
The exterior organization of the temple contributes to the refinement of a prototype, first tried in Kirtland, Ohio, then modified in Nauvoo, Illinois (the only Mormon houses of worship to precede St. George). Angell, the architect of St. George, had worked as a carpenter on both the Kirkland and Nauvoo buildings. Each of the three temples is a simple, two-story rectangular box with a tower that houses a large assembly hall featuring a set of pulpits at each end and instruction hall partitioned for presenting the endowment; the baptismal font is located in the basement. Despite the similarities in plan, there are significant differences in architectural style. The Kirtland Temple was articulated in a humble, colonial style with dormers and pointed arches, while the Nauvoo Temple took on the much grander appearance of a Greek temple, complete with a pediment, gabled roof, and engaged pilasters. The St. George Utah Temple retained the same footprint, measuring 196 x 142 feet, but was erected as a curious combination of the neo-Gothic and French Norman Revival styles. Thin buttresses replaced neoclassical pilasters and the pitched roof gave way to a thick parapet defined by battlements. Here, Angell also introduced hexagonal stair towers at either side of the entrance and repeated the porthole windows (a motif that also appears in the Nauvoo Temple) in the span between buttresses.
A rare plan for the interior published on the centennial of the temple shows that the assembly halls on each story originally spanned the entire floor. As the procedures for rites were refined and codified, the halls were partitioned. Smaller rooms were deemed more appropriate to distinguish different steps of the endowment ceremony; temporary partitions were created using heavy drapery. By 1938 these partitions were made permanent with masonry walls. A 1975 expansion nearly doubled the size of the building; today, three ordinance rooms, eighteen sealing rooms, and supporting facilities spread over an area of 110,000 square feet. The changes in the interior do not register on the exterior, and the expansion did not disrupt the formal integrity of Angell’s design. The rectangular temple form accommodates any number of complex programmatic requirements within its walls.
This split, or rather, the independence of the interior from the exterior expression, is evident in each room, whose small size creates an intimate atmosphere. Carpeted floors, thick drapes, heavy furniture, massive walls, and arched openings are meant to create environments isolated from the outside world. Mormons intend for their temples to evoke the ancient temples mentioned in the Bible, but in no way do these rooms create an environment that transports one to a bygone place and time. The furniture is practically interchangeable with furniture found in hotel lobbies, business schools, and affluent residences; benches, folding chairs, and television screens abound. Ceilings are just high enough to avoid the sensation of a squat space. Plush furnishings remove all reverberations and echoes. This interpretation of a modern-day temple with modern-day furnishings reveals a fundamental tenet of the Mormon faith: it insists on a place for unquestioning faith and collective spiritual purpose in modern American life. In fact, it envisions a codependence between its definition of a moral kingdom of God and American values like competition, materialism, individuality, innovation, and entertainment.
De Mille, Janice Force. St. George Temple: First Hundred Years. Hurricane, UT: Homestead Publishers, 1977.
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