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Saving historic Mormon chapels (with multimedia)

Published July 17, 2009 1:00 am

Warding off wrecking ball » Beloved buildings often caught in middle between the push for preservation and the pull of economic reality.
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One glance around the 1924 Yale Ward Chapel and Martine Smith was hooked.

Previously worshipping in a spanking new Mormon meetinghouse in Louisiana, Smith was dazzled by the light playing on Jesus' robe in the stained-glass window in Yale's chapel, the white pews with dark wood trim, the vaulted ceiling and sloping floor.

"I felt inspired and elevated," says Smith, who has been going to the Salt Lake City chapel for the past 14 years. "And every Sunday I still do."

The Yale meetinghouse is among a handful of historic chapels that still exist from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' building boom of the first decades of the 20th century. Scattered throughout the city and state, they dot the landscape with Renaissance domes, Gothic arches, scalloped Spanish Baroque gables, Romanesque archways and American colonial steeples.

For every historic Mormon church that remains standing, however, dozens more have been sold, razed or rebuilt beyond recognition.

So who decides which buildings get sensitively renovated, like the Tabernacle on Temple Square or the Salt Lake 10th Ward on 500 South, and which ones bite the dust, like the Riverton Ward meetinghouse or the Salt Lake 17th Ward?

Landmark LDS temples, tabernacles and meetinghouses could be maintained if they have "significant history, art or architecture," says Steve Olson, a member of the church's historic-site committee. "But the church is not in the preservation business. We don't just preserve things because they're pretty. Our buildings need to continue to facilitate the work of the church, which is saving souls."

There probably are four dozen LDS structures in the Intermountain West built between 1860 and 1940 on the church's landmark list, he says. About half are meetinghouses, including the Yale Ward and the others profiled here.

In recent years, the church has developed a systematic way to manage the tension between the desire to preserve historic structures and the reality of contemporary congregational needs. Often it's a question of money and the most responsible use of the church's resources.

If one of these historic chapels needs a major repair -- such as replacing a roof, boiler system or plumbing -- Salt Lake City's codes may require the church to include costly seismic or other upgrades. Such upgrades could make renovations impractical.

Decisions are not just handed down from church headquarters without input from local LDS leaders, Olson says. "They are negotiated in good faith by all parties involved -- from the physical-facilities managers to local ecclesiastical leaders to architects and historians."

All of the buildings profiled here are in continued use and none faces demolition, he says. "Yet all of them will, at some point, go through this process of evaluation."

New push for old buildings » In February 1971, LDS leaders decided to demolish the Coalville Tabernacle, a magnificent edifice rising like a cathedral from the Summit County farmland. Every day for a week, The New York Times reported the progress of a group of residents working furiously to win a restraining order against the church. When a judge overturned the order, Mormon officials didn't hesitate. Two days later, a testament to the devotion of early Saints was reduced to rubble.

A generation of LDS preservationists was born that day. And the church learned that many people -- in and outside the church -- care about preserving physical evidence of LDS faith and faithfulness.

Still, the 1970s mostly were disastrous for the church's historic buildings. From 1975 to 1979, temples in Mesa, Ariz., and St. George were drastically changed, while Logan's temple was gutted. No attempt was made to restore the buildings' original splendor. Murals were removed or painted over. Walls were rearranged.

Only a handful of LDS buildings remain from the first generation of settlers in Salt Lake City (1847 to 1870). None of the original 19 ward buildings has survived.

Eventually, the tide turned, says Paul Anderson, an architect and curator at Brigham Young University's Museum of Art. "Over the last 20 to 30 years, it's been wonderful to see the church's efforts to make some of its beautiful old structures earthquake-proof and to preserve their historic character."

Image building » The first few decades of the 20th century were pivotal for the LDS Church and architecture became its public face.

"The great variety of those structures reflects the church's wide-ranging search for appropriate new images of itself as it emerged from the isolation of its pioneer past into the mainstream of early 20th-century American life," Anderson writes in a forthcoming book, Mormon Moderne: New Directions in Latter-day Saint Architecture, 1890--1955 .

Eager to show that Mormonism was no longer a "strange and scandalous sect," Anderson writes, "Mormons asserted their respectability as upright American citizens and Christians by building churches that incorporated many elements of traditional American and Christian imagery ... pointed arches, stained-glass windows, buttresses and pinnacles."

Their churches even drew on styles not common to religious buildings such as 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 Americanism.

But these architects also substituted images, for example, of Joseph Smith's First Vision in stained-glass windows for more iconic biblical scenes to provide a uniquely Mormon feel.

Today, those historic buildings continue to be some of the most beloved in the Salt Lake Valley, Anderson says. "They are landmarks in our community and they enrich the lives of those who see them from the outside as well as those lucky enough to worship in them. It would be a great loss if any more were to disappear."

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