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Former Mormon women’s leader Florence Jacobsen dies at 103, but her hand in preserving historic sites lives on

First Published      Last Updated Mar 08 2017 08:18 pm


The “smartest person in the room” helped maintain many a Mormon monument.

Florence Smith Jacobsen was a woman of impeccable taste, an educated eye, a generous spirit and a steely determination that she sometimes showed to others — but always with a dash of diplomacy.

As one of Mormonism's top female leaders, Jacobsen's accomplishments within the faith were legion, as were her wide-ranging friendships.

The elegant, gifted Jacobsen, who died Sunday at age 103, served as general president of the faith's Young Women organization for much of the 1960s and into the early '70s. She also became the official art curator for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the first director of its history and art museum in downtown Salt Lake City.



The granddaughter of two Mormon prophets — Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant — Jacobsen was on a first-name basis with current LDS Church President Thomas (Tom) Monson and late apostles David ("Dave") Haight and Marvin ("Marve") Ashton. She often referred to Mormon general authorities as "boys."

"Florence was the only Mormon woman with the kind of clout that she had," Linda Jones Gibbs, who worked as an art historian in the 1970s, recalled Wednesday, "the only church employee who could function equally with the men."

Sure, Jacobson had clout that came with her LDS lineage, Gibbs said, but she exercised it for others "with extreme integrity, a strong work ethic and a desire for perfection."

Though some were intimidated by Jacobsen, the art historian was not. "She never expected any employee to do anything she wasn't willing to do herself. ... The night before the museum opening, she was polishing the brass doorknobs and scrubbing the floors."

Jacobsen focused on Mormon history partly because she had lived so much of it herself. She dazzled Gibbs with tales of raising money for World War I and of sitting in a Salt Lake City theater box when Harpo Marx swung on a rope from the stage and landed in her lap.

If you complimented her on an outfit, Jacobsen would explain with a laugh that she sewed it herself in the 1970s and then raised or lowered the hem as customs dictated.

"I saw Florence exhibit grace under stress," Gibbs said, "and always carry herself with dignity."

When the LDS Church considered razing the historic Lion House to make room for its high-rise headquarters, Jacobsen came up with the idea to save it — and turn it into a reception center with a restaurant in the basement. She even compiled the first "Lion House Cookbook" with many of her own and her family's recipes.

Architectural historian Paul Anderson worked with Jacobsen to preserve and restore Mormon buildings and sites.

According to her obituary, the woman known as "Flo" to her late husband, Ted, but as "Sis" to her seven siblings, considered these as among her most notable efforts: the restoration of the Promised Valley Playhouse (the old Lyric Theatre) in Salt Lake City, the Joseph Smith Sr. frame home in Manchester, N.Y., and the Brigham Young home in Nauvoo, Ill.

After the Logan LDS Temple was gutted in 1976, there was a public outcry about all the interior furnishing, murals and beauty that were lost. Everywhere they went, church leaders were asked what had happened.

"We won't let it happen in Manti," they assured the questioners, according to Anderson. "That's when they appointed Florence to be in charge of the interiors."

The two worked diligently to find just the right pieces and to oversee renovations — like installing elevators — with the least amount of disruption to the landmark temple in Sanpete County.

One day, Anderson and Jacobsen heard building department employees discussing what color grout to put on the tiles surrounding the baptismal font. Jacobsen walked calmly over to the men and said, "We had an argument about that last week — and I won." The grout would be white.

Anderson continued to visit his mentor for decades, even as recently as a few months ago, when her body was spent but her memory and mind were as sharp as ever.

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