In wake of temple mural removals, question arises: How is the LDS Church doing in preserving its past?

Retired architect Allen Roberts, a leader in preservation, points to significant saves and lamentable losses.

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The decision by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to remove historic wall murals from its iconic Salt Lake and Manti temples has brought new attention not only to the preservation of religious art but also to the art of religious preservation.

So The Salt Lake Tribune sat down recently with a trailblazer in that field. Allen Roberts — a retired Utah architect who specialized in preservation, including work on Latter-day Saint chapels, tabernacles and temples — has spent his professional career urging the powers that be to act in the present to protect the past for future generations.

Besides lamenting the loss of the murals, Roberts also spoke on the origins of Mormon architecture, the faith’s utilitarian approach to preservation and the use of religious symbolism in church buildings. He also called for more inspiring designs for Latter-day Saint meetinghouses.

This question-and-answer interview has been edited for length and clarity:

What was your reaction to recent news the church had decided not to preserve the historic murals inside the Salt Lake and Manti temples? [After this interview, the church announced an effort to try to preserve the Manti paintings.]

(Courtesy of Allen Roberts) Allen Roberts, retired longtime architect for the LDS Church, helped pioneer the field of historic preservation in Utah.

I am disappointed, although I understand why they are being removed. Temple attendance has been decreasing for years and many people, especially younger ones, think the old temple endowment is archaic and outdated in comprehensiveness and relevance. The endowment ritual itself has been modified in response and now the intent is to use a modern audiovisual presentation with participants staying in one theater room, rather than moving from room to room in a progressive ceremony. This eliminates the need for the historic murals, which were designed to be thematically consistent with the function of the room they were in. Also, by eliminating traveling from room to room, the existing rooms can be converted to theater rooms, increasing the number of participants who can experience the endowment at the same time.

I compare the Mormon situation with the painted murals on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and in churches and cathedrals built and used by the Catholic Church. No one would consider removing these murals to achieve better functionality in the rooms they occupy. The difference is those rooms are not being changed functionally.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photoP Bicycle racers zip by the Manti Temple in 2013.

Each of the murals was designed to convey certain ideas and elicit certain feelings from the audience. When the murals disappear, do those ideas and feelings vanish with them? Does a movie endowment provide the same intellectual, spiritual and emotional power as the more participatory one, supported by its murals?

I would prefer that at least one temple, the Salt Lake Temple, retain the historic endowment and the associated murals. Then I hope that the murals removed from other temples could be preserved and shown, perhaps in the church museum or another museum built for that purpose. [The church later announced that it intends to preserve Minerva Teichert’s beloved Manti murals, which were painted on canvas and then adhered to the plaster walls, and put them “on display in a public setting.”] I realize that some murals were painted directly on the plastered walls rather than on canvas adhered to the walls. This makes their intact removal much more difficult, but I think it has been done successfully in non-LDS buildings, especially in Europe. If it cannot be done, then carefully and thoroughly document the historic murals photographically and dimensionally [something top church leaders have said is being done] so that perhaps giclée replicas could be made and displayed elsewhere.

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) An artistic rendering of the renovated garden room in the Salt Lake Temple, December 2019. The church says the mural had to be removed as part of the temple renovation.

I respect and revere our pioneer and later artists and artisans and wish to see their works remain for our education, enjoyment and spiritual edification. But if the murals must be removed, I hope they will be retained, replicated if necessary, and displayed elsewhere so that our historic mural tradition may live on.

What got you involved in historic preservation?

(Tribune file photo) The razed Coalville Tabernacle in 1971.

From the time I was a small child, I’ve been interested in art and history. I started drawing when I was about 4 and when I was 12, I got a scholarship to an art institute in Milwaukee, and I studied art in high school. I got an art degree from Brigham Young University and, parallel to that, I’ve always been interested in beauty generally, whether it’s fine art, sculpture, architecture and history. Plus, I lived in historic places like Milwaukee and other cities where the schools I went to, the churches, the houses were historic buildings. I seem to have been surrounded by those through a lot of my early life.

Frankly, growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, I found historic buildings more interesting, more beautiful and more captivating than most modern architecture.

If there was a single event that got me most interested in this field, it’s when the [LDS] Church decided to demolish the Coalville Tabernacle. I was a student at BYU at the time and the demolition really struck a dissonant chord with me. It was a spectacular building and designed from the same set of plans as the Assembly Hall on Temple Square. It’s a Gothic Revival building and instead of being all stone like the one on Temple Square, this one was a combination of stone and brick. It had spires, a tower, fantastic windows, a huge vaulted ceiling in the chapel, oil paintings of the various church presidents on the ceiling. It was truly a stunning piece of architecture and really the most significant building in Coalville by a long shot. And they tore it down.

So I decided to do an intensive survey of existing Mormon architecture in Utah, and it eventually expanded into Arizona and Idaho, the Mormon corridor. I bought a ’67 Volkswagen Beetle and spent the next five years — weekends, holidays, early in the morning, after work, at night — driving to every single, town, village or rural crossroads with three buildings on the corner. I went everywhere in Utah looking for Mormon architecture.

I learned there were not only meetinghouses and churches, but there were also these tabernacles, which were 19th-century stake centers — and they were spectacular. I found tithing offices. There were Relief Society halls. There were bishop’s storehouses and various auxiliary buildings, each built separately. It wasn’t like today where everything is under one roof, in one building. In a typical town like, say, Paris, Idaho, or Spring City, Utah, you’d have maybe a tabernacle and maybe another meetinghouse or two — if the town was big enough — and you’d have tithing offices and bishop’s storehouses and all these other buildings scattered around through the town.

I took pictures of the buildings and wrote up descriptions. And then I spent the rest of my free time in the LDS Church archives, the state historical archives, university archives, libraries, any place that had city histories, county histories, state histories, and tried to fill in the data that went along with each building.

Leonard Arrington, who was church historian at the time, eventually arranged to give me a grant to write up my research. It became a document called “A Survey of LDS Architecture in Utah: 1840-1930” — a written volume accompanied by four volumes of photographs.

Does your being a pioneer in your field also tell us something about the LDS Church as an institution, that this awareness wasn’t there from the get-go, as it were?

(Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Eagle Gate and the Beehive House in 1937.

It does. There was Nauvoo [in Illinois] and there was interest in that, but even that started out as a private project. J. LeRoy Kimball started Nauvoo Restoration Inc. because he was a descendant of [former church leader] Heber C. Kimball and wanted to preserve family heritage at Nauvoo and then got interested in the whole town. Then the church became interested and came in later and took that over.

But they had even considered tearing down the Lion House and Beehive House [in Salt Lake City] in the ’60s. It took a grassroots outcry from some members, the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, Sons of Utah Pioneers, others. There was such an outcry they decided not to tear those buildings down, but there was a plan to do so at one point. We’ve lost many, many hundreds of significant pieces of Mormon architecture through the years.

The late historian Paul Anderson and I made a presentation to a group of general authorities in the late ’70s, maybe early ’80s and it was kind of a preservation plan.

We took my survey of Mormon architecture and other information from other states besides Utah, and we came up with a ranking of Mormon buildings based on letters A, B, C, D, E. The A buildings were the really, really, really important architecturally and historically significant buildings. There were 19 of those. Some were temples, some were tabernacles, some were meetinghouses. And then we had a B list, etc.

The whole premise was to recommend that the higher ranked a building is, the greater effort the church should extend to preserve, restore and keep that building. The B buildings were very significant buildings, and there were a lot more of those. The C’s and the D’s were less significant. Maybe they had been altered or had bad additions. Maybe the church didn’t even own them anymore. Those we were less concerned about, but the A’s and B’s we thought should be preserved and saved.

And then, we had a policy, too. We presented it — and one of the general authorities, whom I will not name, got angry at us. On our A list, we had the Park First Ward. It was a beautiful Prairie-style building in [Salt Lake City’s] Central City, built around 1912. And the architects were [Hyrum] Pope and [Harold] Burton, who had designed the Prairie-style Cardston Alberta Temple. It was just a wonderful piece of architecture.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Cardston Alberta Temple.

Well, we didn’t know it, but apparently the church had made an agreement to allow that building to be sold and destroyed and replaced with, I think, tennis courts or something. This particular general authority was angry that we had that on a list, and he thought it made our whole effort less credible. We just said, “Look, this isn’t a political list. This is a list of resources and what’s significant. You’re the decision-makers. You get to figure out what to do with these buildings.”

However, for the most part, they accepted our policy but didn’t accept our ranking list verbatim.

Why, in your view, is the preservation of historic LDS structures important?

What I have found is that church members have a lot of fondness, love, respect and high regard for being connected to physical reminders of their pioneer past and of their spiritual history. I’ve seen town after town where the people are brokenhearted when their meetinghouses are torn down.

As an example, I co-wrote a history of Summit County and while writing a chapter on architectural history, I went to Coalville and started asking people what they considered to be the most important historic event that’s ever occurred in the town. Every person, regardless of age or anything else, said, “It was when they tore down our tabernacle.”

People love to see that physical remnant of the efforts of their pioneer ancestors. The spiritual evolution of individuals takes place in these buildings, and they love the buildings because of that. So when they disappear, it’s as if their pioneer homestead was torn down.

That’s why we have historical societies and Daughters of Utah Pioneers and history books by the thousands. Mormons have this great affection for family history, genealogy, and this is all tied together. They’re not only very conscious of history, but they are the current extensions of a great history that has played out over the decades. It’s an ethos that runs through Utah culture and even extends to non-Mormons, and saving significant non-LDS buildings has a place in all of this, too.

How would you describe the LDS Church’s approach to historic preservation?

(Courtesy of the Utah State Historical Society) Cove Fort in south-central Utah.

What we’ve come to understand is that the church has three major missions or global goals and anything that they do, any expense of funds, has to support these goals. And the typical goal that’s associated with historic sites is the missionary program. So, they’re not interested in preservation, per se, or history for its own sake, art for its own sake. They’re interested in those things if they can be brought into the service of the church and its missions.

So you have buildings like Cove Fort, the rock fort about three hours south of Salt Lake [City] that was built to protect the pioneers against the Indians. You have Chesterfield, the Mormon ghost town in Idaho, that has seen preservation efforts. You have the Brigham Young winter home in St George; the Paris [Idaho] Tabernacle; Nauvoo.

You have these historic sites that the church owns and maintains and the reason they do that is they have missionaries there, even at Cove Fort. The church has done a lot of preservation, but it’s in the context of telling the story of the church, its history, and it’s a proselytizing instrument.

So, the utilitarian function of church buildings has not only guided design but also preservation efforts.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Provo Tabernacle, shown here in a photo from somewhere between 1858 and 1902, has been restored and rebranded as the Provo City Center Temple.

That’s true and it’s more true of the 20th century than the 19th century. Every ward was responsible for designing and building its own buildings. So you had this rich diversity of styles and qualities of buildings. There wasn’t the standard system that came about later. So you had some spectacular pieces of architecture. A lot of it was derivative of other Christian architecture but modified for regional characteristics. In Panguitch, they had this beautiful brick tabernacle. Other places had other materials and influences. The Provo Tabernacle that [William] Folsom designed — it’s now a temple — the idea there was to design it after a Presbyterian building that somebody had been fond of back East.

So each ward had that responsibility and some rose to the occasion. But there were also some pretty mediocre and even badly built or badly designed buildings. There was one down in La Verkin that’s gone now. But the ward built this building to look like a National Guard armory. It didn’t have any ecclesiastical character whatsoever. It was sort of an embarrassment.

Starting in about 1905, the church started doing standard plans for tithing offices and bishop’s storehouses. In Sanpete County, there are five, and four of them are built off the same plan, then one in Manti built on a different plan.

Then in the early ’20s, they started doing the standard plan meetinghouses, and they were kind of Colonial Revival in style initially because the church architect had that background. The floor plans were U-shaped and L-shaped. They’re called the alphabet plan, built from the early to late ’20s, even into the ’30s, hundreds of them.

Today the meetinghouses are standard plan, though they vary by ward size, tithe-paying members, temple attendance. There’s a formula. And frankly the temples are also standard plans, associated with the size of the population, context.

How would you describe the current state of LDS architectural design?

(Jeremy Harmon | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) The Conference Center in Salt Lake City in April 2020.

You have to look at it in categories. One is meetinghouses; another is temples.

And, of course, the church also builds various secular buildings. The Conference Center [in downtown Salt Lake City] is a gigantic building, seats 21,000, and it has like the largest clear-spanning open room, one of the biggest in the country. Very spectacular architecture. It was also very expensive.

Buildings reflect the values of the owners, of the people that build them. Sometimes it’s the physical builders, the architects. But really, they are responding to the stated value program of the client. And so what does any building say about its owners, its builders, its clients? We can talk about churches or 7-Elevens or McDonald’s or the state Capitol. We can talk about this principle applying almost universally.

So what do Mormon buildings say about the church at any given time? You can ask that question about the Nauvoo Temple, the early temples. You can ask about the early Greek Revival period meetinghouses in Utah. You can ask it about the Victorian period. You can ask it about today or the 1920s. You can ask that same question. And those buildings from any of those periods reflect the values at those times.

But there’s another question. How can architecture be a type of translation, where it’s a physical embodiment of the core values, beliefs of the church? Can that even be done in architecture? Is that asking too much? Can you do it in art? Can you do it in music? Various people have tried.

So in terms of symbols, for Mormon architecture, that’s a tricky, tricky situation.

The early 19th-century buildings had a lot of visual symbols that were in the architecture. The Salt Lake Temple has the Big Dipper, [the constellation] Ursa Major on one side. It’s got all-seeing eyes and clasped hands. The original drawings for the temple showed that it had much more symbolism that never got put on the building.

The reason is, it’s a controversy.

The symbols that the Mormons were using came from Freemasonry. Some people will say, “Oh, they didn’t come from that.” The first temple built in Nauvoo was the Masonic Temple, and the religious temple was finished later.

These symbols were on a lot of the buildings. If you look at a picture of [Salt Lake City’s] Main Street when the ZCMI group was formed in the 1860s, a lot of the stores had all-seeing eyes and “Holiness to the Lord” [inscriptions] and all of this symbolism that was overt. It was everywhere — on stationery, on plates, dishes and cups; on barrels of goods. But now the church wants to disassociate any connection with Freemasonry.

Today, you’ve got the Church Office Building and on the front of it, kind of a bas-relief of the world. The whole idea is, it’s a worldwide church. That’s a symbol that makes sense. But there are other symbols from the Bible and even from the Book of Mormon that could have been used, like the Liahona. It’s a device that supposedly helped [guide] the Nephites. That’d be a great symbol — if you’re righteous and you have this compass, it’ll guide you to the right place.

(Salt Lake Tribune file photo) The Church Office Building in downtown Salt Lake City.

Well, you don’t find any images of Liahonas that come right out of Mormon scripture. The modern Mormon architecture pretty much stays away from symbols. That is to say, visual symbols.

I advocate the idea that more architecture should strive to reflect its beliefs and its values, its principles. And I don’t know if the meetinghouses do a great job of that right now.

They’re well-built. They’re functional, utilitarian. But when I think of great Christian architecture through hundreds of years, some of the basic characteristics are that the worship spaces are tall and heaven-reaching. Not that every Mormon meetinghouse should look like a cathedral. That would be overdoing it. But a lot of the tabernacles in the 19th century had these characteristics.

A second characteristic besides the interior height and heaven-reaching ceiling that inspires awe, is natural light. You know, the cathedrals with the clerestory lights — the light came from above.

Today’s Mormon meetinghouse chapels basically don’t have windows. The ones built in the last couple of decades have fluorescent lights. They’re not inspiring. That’s maybe why they call them meetinghouses instead of churches.

In terms of religious symbolism, what are some of the recurring themes in temple design over, say, the past 20 years?

Temples in the last 20 years, the vision of the church architecture department has had a lot of change. As various people come into power — the general authorities assigned to deal with architecture, the architects, the administrative people — they go in a certain direction. Years later, he’s replaced by somebody else whose priority is something else. Some of the temples got to be very expensive and perhaps overly built and costing too much. There’d be a reaction and then they were simplified. There’s a tendency now to build more of them and build them smaller, instead of building fewer of the great big $70 million ones. There is an economic factor that’s always right upfront. There is a functional factor. They really have to function for the purposes for which they’re built. Those are very specific.

What about artwork?

Going back to meetinghouses, the church has had some policies that I think have been unfortunate. One was they didn’t really want artwork in the meetinghouses. So some meetinghouses, like the Garden Park Ward, had some niches on the interior for pieces of art. Then, because of this policy, they were taken away and then members had to fight to try to get them back.

There’s an iconographic controversy, where Catholics worship art, statues of Jesus and Mary and crosses. I think Mormons want to stay very clear of anything that approaches that. But maybe not wanting art in buildings is an overreaction.

Another policy a while back was that every meetinghouse should have a steeple. A lot of the architectural styles did not include steeples. The Prairie-style Cardston Temple is an example of that. So the church has a supplier of these metal and fiberglass steeples that are different sizes and shapes and designs, and they pick them out of these catalogs and just plant them on buildings regardless of the style. I had a building that I designed, a new stake center in Logan, and it was designed without steeples. It’s a beautiful, beautiful building, especially on the inside. One day, I drove by and there’s this great big brown metal steeple on the roof that wasn’t compatible with the architecture at all.

The idea was probably well intended, that these need to read as religious buildings. Some of the Prairie-style buildings look as much like libraries or schools as they did churches. But there was kind of a lack of respect for the original design of the building.

Another policy that I’ve long wondered about is, what happens when a building becomes unneeded or redundant. Let’s say a nice chapel was built in a place that’s now become urbanized such that the members have moved away, and it’s now commercial-industrial. And you’ve got this building that people don’t attend anymore. They need to get rid of it. The policy is to tear the building down and sell the vacant lot rather than selling the lot with the building still there. And I know why that was done. It’s because they sold some buildings that ended up being converted to other uses that were antithetical to, if not offensive to, the original church function of that building. Members who were still left in the area were hurt when their church was turned to other uses.

Many decades ago in Monroe, there was a stone building and the church sold it. The chapel was turned into an auto repair place and there were hubcaps lining the wall and cars and a wing of it became a state liquor depot. Imagine how offensive that would be to the members who thought that was their spiritual centerpiece.

Are there other big losses that marked turning points in awareness on historic preservation? And what are some of the remaining gems?

There are hundreds of historic Mormon buildings of architectural significance that have been torn down over the years. I completed my survey in 1976. About 20 years ago, I looked at that survey again and counted up how many of the buildings had been torn down. More than half of them were gone. I’m guessing by now, probably two-thirds of them are gone. So a lot have been lost.

One that was torn down recently that was not owned by the church anymore was the Murray First Ward. That was probably the most distinguished and architecturally significant building in Murray. It was built in 1907. It had a four-story tower. It had a very interesting chapel, kind of a T-shaped plan. Stained glass. It had a recreation hall that had been added in the ’20s.

There were historic buildings around it, apartments and houses and there was a historic Carnegie library just to the west of the neighboring property. But the library and the church have both been torn down.

(Steve Griffin | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) A statue of Brigham Young stands in front of the newly restored Academy Square in Provo in 2001.

Sometimes these townspeople are so passionate about their desire to keep the buildings, they’re able to persuade church leaders to do it. One example in the ’70s was the Heber City Tabernacle. It’s a really significant piece of architecture built in the 1880s.

Another one that was sold and almost torn down and then saved at the last minute, with the church’s help by the way, was the BYU Academy in Provo. That’s now the city library. So there are some good stories like that. But there are surely a lot of buildings that we’ve lost all up and down the state.

So, in terms of gems, the St. George Tabernacle is a spectacular 1860s piece of architecture. I think that the church will probably never want to tear that down.

(Chris Caldwell/The Spectrum via AP) In this July 23, 2018, photo, community members tour the St. George Tabernacle after two years of renovations to preserve and secure the historic building.

In Pine Valley, there is a beautiful wood-frame house built in 1860 through 1880s. That’s really a special building. In Parowan, there is the Parowan Rock Church that was built in the 1860s. It’s one of the best pioneer-period buildings left. On the same block is a 1920s-built church and a 1912ish Prairie-style building. So they have three generations of Mormon meetinghouses on the same block. That’s pretty rare.

(Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Parowan's Old Rock Church in 1938.

The historic Box Elder Tabernacle [across the street from the 2012 Brigham City Temple], has been preserved, and it’s spectacular.

The Bountiful Tabernacle. I was involved with that. The church was going to tear it down. The stake priesthood voted to tear it down, reluctantly, because the church architect didn’t want to save it. It’s an adobe building. It was built between 1857 and 1863. It’s the oldest continuously used Mormon building on the planet. All the church presidents have preached there. It had a mural of Joseph Smith on the front wall. It’s the best piece of Greek Revival architecture in all of Utah. And they were considering tearing it down. I found out about it and wrote a letter to [church] President [Spencer] Kimball and met with [women’s leader] Florence Jacobsen, who was in charge of historic sites at the time, and helped to persuade President Kimball to reverse the decision of the stake and to save that building. And they did save it. It’s still there.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bountiful Tabernacle, December 12, 2020.