Category Archives: Mormon

Tabernacle Temple Update

My former colleague Genelle Pugmire reported over the weekend that the LDS Church has filed “800 pages  of descriptions, elevations, floor plans and landscaping” about the under-construction Provo Tabernacle Temple/City Center Temple. When I first began reading I was skeptical — I’ve written repeatedly that we shouldn’t be so sure the project will revitalize downtown — but by the end of the article I was genuinely excited.

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The Provo Tabernacle in mid 2012

For starters, Josh Yost with the city — who is brilliant — is quoted as saying the church is going to great lengths to preserve the structure. I trust Josh, so I trust that this project is actually being done right.

Among the more exciting features is a “17-foot bronze four-tiered Victorian fountain with ornamental nozzles,” fence posts topped with Beehives, extensive landscaping with less surface parking, and a two story pavilion for taking pictures and waiting around.

In addition, some of the grounds will remain open all the time:

“The entire temple grounds will be beautifully landscaped and will be open to the public following the temple’s operations schedule, consistent with all LDS temples. The grounds closest to the temple will have a taller fence and gates, whereas the grounds both north and south of the temple fence will have lower perimeter fencing and are not gated,” Hall added.

Public gardens with benches, shrubs, trees and grass will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week on the north end of the property, similar to the old tabernacle park. There also will be gardens on the west side of the temple where the current Nu Skin parking terrace is located.

Keeping some of the grounds open all the time — in addition to lower fences, etc.  — will help the temple avoid becoming a spatial black hole as other temples are in other cities.

The article states that the project was originally going to be done in 2015, though that deadline is apparently not fixed due to the complexity of dealing with the building’s historic character.

The Provo Tabernacle on Dec. 17, 2010, as it was burning down.

The Provo Tabernacle on Dec. 17, 2010, as it was burning down.

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Filed under construction, Development, Downtown, Mormon, Provo Tabernacle

Houses of Worship, Not Cookie Cutter Churches

One of my favorite things to do while traveling is visit magnificent churches. I like it so much in fact, that I’m reluctant to travel to places that don’t have great religious buildings.

Good religious architecture is one of life's great pleasures.

Good religious architecture is one of life’s great pleasures. This baroque church is located in Seville.

More than other utilitarian structures, houses of worship are overtly supposed to embody the values and faith of their creators; a great church shows that a community of people came together to glorify something they felt was important.

I was recently reminded of how diverse great religious structures can be while reading this Atlantic Cities article on “13 Eye-Catching Houses of Worship.” Though I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to religious architecture, the slide show demonstrates that new buildings can be as unique and inspiring in their own way as historic structures.

Utah consistently ranks as one of the most religious states in the U.S. Salt Lake is one of the most religious big cities, and Provo is presumably even more so. And there are interesting examples of religious architecture, with the LDS Church’s Provo Temple and Provo Tabernacle standing out.

But a lot of the religious architecture in Provo is, frankly, awful. The new stake center on 900 East immediately comes to mind as a bland, cheaply built structure on a woefully designed piece of asphalt (in a place where congregants could and should walk to church).

This sprawling structure was recently completed on 9th East and has numerous problems. Why, for example, are there so few windows and therefore so little natural light? Why is it surrounded by a massive parking lot when it serves mostly young, able-bodied people who live within walking distance. Why is it just so darn ugly?

This sprawling structure was recently completed on 9th East and has numerous problems. Why, for example are there so few windows and therefore so little natural light? Why is it surrounded by a massive parking lot when it serves mostly young, able-bodied people who live within walking distance. Why is it just so ugly? Is this how we want treat our faith?

Bear in mind that the building in the picture above is a multi-stake center, not a little local church. If it was a Catholic building, it would look like a cathedral or an abbey, not like a prison. And this isn’t an isolated incident, as the area around the Towne Center mall demonstrates:

South Provo.

South Provo and several churches.

Four churchs are visible in the picture above, though they nearly blend in with the mall on the lower right. Significantly they’re all built with a cookie cutter design and are surrounded by enormous parking lots — again in a place where many people could theoretically walk to church.

No one expects any organization to build only magnificent buildings; sometimes it’s just about whatever works.

But while every building doesn’t have to be grand, some should be. And yet I cannot immediately think of an LDS building  that was built in the last 20 years in Utah County that was was not an architectural disappointment. (The point isn’t to single out the LDS Church, which I happen to be a member of. Rather, the LDS Church is simply the largest religious property owner in the area and happens to have a lot of spiritually bankrupt architecture.)

The LDS Church also has an illustrious architectural past that produced grand structures like the Salt Lake Tabernacle as well as charming country chapels like this one in Levan:

This chapel is notable for including the words "Holiness to the Lord" above the door. The phrase is more common on LDS temples.

This chapel is notable for including the words “Holiness to the Lord” above the door. The phrase is more common on LDS temples.

Or this one in Provo:

This building, which today is no longer a church, is located on 5th West in Provo.

This building, which today is no longer a church, is located on 5th West in Provo.

Other religions have also built impressive religious structures in Utah. Salt Lake City has a handful of beautiful religious buildings, but other communities have noteworthy examples as well:

This Catholic Church is located in Park City. Unfortunately, Provo's best example of Catholic architecture was pointlessly demolished several years ago.

This modern Catholic Church is located in Park City. Unfortunately, Provo’s best example of Catholic architecture was pointlessly demolished several years ago.

Sadly, there’s good reason to fear the future; the LDS Church is currently transforming the Ogden Temple — which was similar to the one in Provo — from a modernist building to a cookie cutter structure. Hopefully a similar fate is not in store for Provo.

In Provo, the church also recently converted an interesting little modernist building in my neighborhood to a McMansion style office:

This building is located on the corner of 6th East and 1st North.

This building is located on the corner of 6th East and 1st North.

The transformation is detailed in Alan Peters’ blog — which has a lot of great Provo-related stuff. He writes,

This makes me sad. It was a unique-for-its-setting modern building; now its just another boring LDS-Church-plastic-style building. The building was actually built in 1964 as a seminary building for the now closed Farrer Junior High School. The seminary closed when Farrer became a middle school and that’s when the Family History people moved in. Farrer is completely gone now, replaced by the brand new Provo Peaks Elementary.

Is this really all our faith means to us? Cheap, generic structures surrounded by seas of asphalt? Shouldn’t at least a few buildings be designed to make us think of God?

English critic John Ruskin apparently thought so when he argued that buildings must be good on more levels than one:

We require from buildings two kinds of goodness: first, the doing their practical duty well: then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it.”

Gaudi also pointed out that human creations, including buildings, are more than just containers meant to do a job:

The creation continues incessantly through the media of man.

Certain parts of select religious structures in Utah are designed to do just that. But spirituality isn’t a piecemeal thing and an utilitarian building with a pretty room isn’t the best we can do.

Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

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Filed under building, Mormon, travel

The Salt Lake Temple Hasn’t Revitalized Salt Lake City

A few days ago I read this post from Provo Buzz expressing excitement about the city’s development. I share that excitement and I love reading blogs like Provo Buzz that write intelligently about the city. But after reading I thought it might be time to revisit the economic impacts of the LDS Church’s Provo Tabernacle Temple — aka the “City Center Temple” — which may not be as significant as most people expect.

First, there isn’t a major precedent for the temple to revitalize downtown. Most LDS temples are located in suburban areas where commercial revitalization isn’t an issue. The fact that these temples have failed to spur adjacent commercial development should itself be a warning sign. And the handful of urban temples went into places that were already comparatively well-developed, even thriving.

I’ve expressed these concerns before (also, here), but the one big exception is the Salt Lake temple. It’s urban, historic, and a major destination in the city. The comparison to Provo makes sense, which is probably why people keep making it.

But the funny thing is that Salt Lake, particularly around Temple Square, isn’t all that thriving.

Consider first the high percentage of parking in downtown Salt Lake City. As mentioned in this post, 20 percent of downtown Salt Lake is paved for parking lots. That only happens when demand for real estate is low enough to make structures economically unattractive. In other words, there is surprisingly little demand for real estate in downtown Salt Lake City.

This problem is particularly apparent in the area immediately surrounding Temple Square, where massive parking lots abound.

This picture is pretty typical of downtown Salt Lake City, where tall buildings are generally surrounded with huge parking lots. In this picture, the lot is on the right and is larger than the picture really conveys.

This picture is pretty typical of downtown Salt Lake City, where tall buildings are generally surrounded by huge parking lots. Here, the lot is on the right and is larger than the picture really conveys.

It’s ugly, of course, but most importantly shows that the land immediately surrounding the temple is barely performing, economically speaking. That’s a situation at odds with our image of a lively temple with lots of temple-goers-cum-consumers in the area. But either way, if the temple was generating significant investment, people would be snatching up this land for development.

Yet another big, flat, underperforming piece of land in downtown Salt Lake City.

Yet another big, flat, underperforming piece of land in downtown Salt Lake City.

So based on Salt Lake City, the biggest change we should expect to see in downtown Provo when the temple is completed is more parking lots.

Next, consider who is investing in Salt Lake City: the LDS Church. I applaud the church’s efforts to revitalize downtown (even as I criticize its methods) but again, this suggests that there’s a conspicuous lack of demand for space downtown.*

If the temple in Salt Lake was spurring adjacent development there should already have been a lively retail sector before City Creek existed. Instead, the temple's owners — the church — had to step in and do it themselves.

If the temple in Salt Lake was spurring adjacent development there should already have been a lively retail sector before City Creek existed. Instead, the temple’s owners — the church — had to step in and do it themselves.

If existing buildings, including the temple, were really generating investment the church wouldn’t have needed to build its own mall; investors would have lined up to do it for them. If demand had been high enough — and it should have been — the church could even have dictated the type of environment it wanted the way it did with City Creek. None of that happened so the church had to foot the massive bill on its own.

The type of development that surrounds Temple Square is also curious. There are mediocre hotels, a ratty looking JB’s restaurant, etc. Other than Church-owned property — which is in great condition — it’s surprisingly run down. Within a block or two there are major vacancies and blight. It’s pretty dire and in some cases worse than the situation in Provo, though the gleaming towers in the mix make it seem more thriving than anywhere in Utah County.

This JB's restaurant is directly across from Temple Square. The fact that it's a old, single-story building suggests to me that the Temple is not creating significant demand for space or investment opportunities.

This JB’s restaurant is directly across from Temple Square. These kinds of building suggests to me that the temple is not creating significant demand for space or investment opportunities.

There’s no doubt that Salt Lake City is on the rise and downtown in particular is improving. But it’s being buoyed up by the same economic and demographic factors that are benefiting Provo, not by the presence of an LDS temple. Indeed the temple has existed for generations, but that didn’t stop Salt Lake from experiencing the disinvestment and decline that the car-centric mid twentieth century brought to many cities. And that was still going on very recently; when I moved to Utah a decade ago downtown Salt Lake was even less desirable. During those last 10 years the temple is one of the few things that hasn’t changed.

I like the Salt Lake Temple and I like the area surrounding it. But in terms of economics and revitalization it’s really a case study in the surprisingly minimal economic benefits a temple brings to surrounding consumer businesses. Sure any infusion of people helps and when the temple in downtown Provo opens nearby restaurants are likely to get a few more walk-ins.  But if Salt Lake City offers any clues about the future of Provo, we all have reason to worry.

*Some people will argue that the area surrounding Temple Square has been developed (or paved) by the LDS Church because the church wants to protect the environment around its headquarters. Or in other words, that economics aren’t a factor. That may be true to some extent, but many of the parking lots are privately owned, conditions generally get worse moving away from Temple Square, and the retail centers that aren’t insulated from the market — namely Trolley Square and now the Gateway — are struggling.

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Filed under Mormon, parking, Provo Tabernacle

Walk to Church

By Jesse Thomas

Ever since moving to Utah, I’ve had the intuition that nobody should be driving to church (of course, except the pregnant, disabled, elderly, etc.). I have witnessed perfectly able-bodied individuals hop into a car and drive less than a quarter-mile to get to the meetinghouse.

LDS churches around central Provo, from the Church’s official meetinghouse locator

LDS churches around central Provo, from the Church’s official meetinghouse locator

I’ve seen this happen in Davis County, northern Utah County, and here in Provo–while living at Wymount Terrace. Less than a quarter-mile. It’s just another symptom of our entrenched automobile-only thinking. And despite the fact a large majority of members live within about half a mile of buildings in Provo, the church continues to build parking lots with usually over 100 stalls around them.

Here’s the deal, having LDS churches scattered across neighborhoods all over Utah is actually an advantage to forming move livable and enjoyable communities because they are already a part of neighborhoods that otherwise have little or no mixed land use. They currently are the best hope for community in our isolated neighborhoods.

Eric Jacobson, the author of  The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment, argues that car-centric, suburban thinking is affecting our spiritual lives. While discussing the way that our built environment interacts with our society in an interview with Christianity Today, he said, “Churches shape the built environment either by becoming a key gathering spot within a particular neighborhood or by becoming a kind of alien presence in a neighborhood where a whole bunch of cars from ‘who knows where’ show up intermittently throughout the week, but especially on Sunday morning.” The churches are in our neighborhoods, it’s really our choice how much we allow them to benefit our spiritual community.

Norman Rockwell catches the sentiment.

Norman Rockwell catches the sentiment.

Think about how a weekly routine of walking to church can enhance your life. Health benefits of walking places have been well documented on this blog here and here. It gives the chance for more interaction with your many of your neighbors that are also heading to church. And doesn’t the whole idea of walking to church have a romantic feel to it? It’s quaint. It’s about enjoying the company, the conversation, and the moment.

So I can hear the objections already: “It’s winter outside; I’m cold!” “You try walking to church with little kids!” Well fine, wait till spring. As for the kids, you would know that it is hard enough for most kids to keep their energy pent up for three hours at church. Why not let them get some of that energy out on the way to and from the meetings? And do you really want to have to go through the extensive process of loading the kids into car seats and boosters two more times each week?

And as a bonus, biking or walking to the temple is certainly doable for many here in Provo. Despite the hill that the temple is on, there are bike lanes and racks at the grounds. And the future city center temple will definitely be a walkable venture for many of Provo’s residents in downtown neighborhoods (not to mention that there are already a few meeting places for friends of faiths other than LDS already located in downtown).

Jesse Thomas is originally from Chicago and came out to Provo to attend BYU. He will be graduating in April  2013 in Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic. He and his lovely wife plan on moving to DC after graduation to pursue work in international affairs. Visit his blog at byubathrooms.com.

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Filed under biking, commuting, Mormon

Really Old Baptistry Discovered At Tabernacle Temple

Workers at the LDS Church’s under-construction Tabernacle Temple have unearthed the oldest baptistry in Utah County:

The baptistry, with its 5-by-9-foot font, was built around 1875 and is a significant discovery, said Benjamin Pykles, an LDS Church history department curator, in a press release. “This one city block spans nearly the entire history of the church in Utah with the construction of the original meetinghouse in the 1850s and 60s, the baptistry in the 1870s, the tabernacle in the 1890s, and now the temple under construction.”

According to my colleague Genelle Pugmire, the baptistry includes a water pipe and a wooden floor. Apparently there are also photographs of it, though I haven’t seen them:

In early photographs of the baptistry a chimney is shown, which archeologists believe vented a stove that heated the water to make the facility usable year-round. Large quantities of painted plaster fragments also were discovered, revealing the original sky-blue color of the baptistry’s interior walls.

Genelle’s article didn’t mention what was to become of the baptistry, but this “significant discovery” only adds to the argument that it would be a travesty to bulldoze the history surrounding the Tabernacle. (See previous posts on that topic here and here.)

Historic ruins at the site of the Tabernacle Temple in downtown. Some of these ruins have been ripped out of the ground, while others are covered up.

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Filed under Downtown, Mormon, Provo Tabernacle

When People Compromise, Everybody Wins

The LDS Church announced Friday that it has cancelled plans to build a 9-story building on the campus of its Missionary Training Center. According to a preliminary piece by my employer the Daily Herald, the church is looking for a different solution that pleases more people:

Expansion of the MTC is necessary but we are confident we can find a solution that builds upon the long-standing working relationship between the MTC, BYU and the community at large. We look forward to further discussions as the process moves forward.”

The decision ends a controversial process that at one point saw church leaders relying on religious grounds to encourage residents to fall in line.

The story is literally unfolding as I write this, so keep checking the Daily Herald website for Genelle Pugmire’s more exhaustive piece. It should be up sometime later Friday afternoon. Mayor Curtis also blogged about the development Friday.

In the meantime, it’s worth noting that this decision shows how compromise is possible and benefits everyone. Residents in the area — who have long opposed the building — should be happy about this development. But the church also benefits by revealing that it’s sensitive to local concerns.

The LDS Church has cancelled plans to erect this structure at the Missionary Training Center in Provo.

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Filed under construction, Development, Mormon, neighborhood

The Economic Impact of LDS General Conference

Back in April, I suggested that Provo could capitalize better on the LDS Church’s General Conference weekend. The idea is that tens of thousands of people come to Utah for conference and spend time and money in various Utah cities. Many of those visitors have, or could acquire, a connection to Provo, yet there is apparently no overt effort to entice them to the heart of Utah County.

In the time since I wrote that post, nothing seems to have changed.

However, ABC 4 reported this weekend that Salt Lake City reaps major economic benefits from conference. The article reports that more than 100,000 people flood to Salt Lake City for conference, often spilling out into surrounding businesses.

All five sessions fill up the 21,200-seat LDS Conference Center.  Afterwards, people are hungry so they fill up local restaurants like the Blue Lemon right across the street.

The result, according to one business owner, is “pretty epic.”

Provo may never see the kind of influx that Salt Lake experiences, but with a huge LDS population, BYU, ample assembly space, and many other resources, Provo could still see greater economic benefits from conference. Those benefits won’t materialize on their own, however, and until there is a concerted effort to draw more visitors the city is essentially throwing away money.

Civic, cultural, and business leaders in Provo should give LDS General Conference attendees a reason to come to the city.

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Filed under economics, Mormon