Preserve Provo Temple’s midcentury design, petitions urge Latter-day Saint leaders

“Abstract building” helps broaden members’ religious experience, says defender of the current Space Age look.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The current Provo temple, left, and a rendering of the planned reconstruction.

After seeing plans for remaking the Provo Temple, hundreds of Latter-day Saints have signed a pair of online petitions urging church leaders to stick to the structure’s current look.

“We respectfully urge the Temple Department to reconsider and instead preserve the exterior of the Provo Utah Temple and do seismic upgrades on the current building,” one Change.org petition states.

President Russell M. Nelson first announced plans to reconstruct the building at the October General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On Thanksgiving eve, the church unveiled a rendering of the redesign, which replaces the current edifice’s distinct drumlike base and dramatic center spire with a boxy structure similar to many other contemporary Latter-day Saint temples.

Those opposing the new appearance argue that going through with the redesign would sacrifice a relic of the faith’s architectural heritage on the altar of current tastes and preferences.

“We must recognize and honor our past, the good and bad of it,” petition signer Rachel Whipple wrote, “not erase it and replace it with a homogenous present.”

Adding to the sense of urgency is the church’s 2014 overhaul of its Ogden Temple. Once the twin of the Provo building, it now carries a more conventional look.

Built in 1972, the Provo and Ogden temples provoked strong emotions before they ever broke ground.

“The early pioneers would not have been so callous in their approach to housing the activities of their faith,” one early critic, Donald Bergsma, wrote in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought back when the church first revealed plans for those two buildings. The efficiency baked into the shared designs convinced Bergsma the faith had become more preoccupied with efficiency and optimizing costs than “spiritual matters.”

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But for Emil Fetzer, the architect of the two temples, streamlining the building and use of temples was a spiritual matter.

According to Fetzer’s autobiography, then-church President David O. McKay stressed this point in 1967 when he handed Fetzer the assignment to build both temples.

“In the coming years, many temples will be built,” Fetzer quotes McKay as saying. “Of necessity, these temples must be functional in design and cost so that they may accomplish their sacred purposes and be blessings to the church membership.”

A few months later, Fetzer wrote, he was aboard a flight to Frankfurt, Germany, when he saw a vision of the layout that eventually would serve as the basis for the two temples.

It would contain multiple ordinance rooms — where members undertake a symbolism-rich reenactment of humankind’s mortal journey in a religious rite called the endowment — all funneling into a central Celestial Room, representing a return to God’s presence.

This configuration would allow more patrons to participate in more ordinances than any other temple at the time.

Fetzer, who died in 2009, took it a step further, attending the iconic Salt Lake Temple with a notebook and pocket watch in hand. His goal: to determine exactly how long ordinances in the temple took, and how much time was simply spent waiting on ceremonies to start or restart.

“He then built the building around the length of time needed to complete the endowment session as a whole,” said his grandson Joe Lyon, referring to the longest rite to take place in the temple.

Prominent architect Allen Roberts has worked on a number of Latter-day Saint temples, chapels and tabernacles through the years. He was a student at Brigham Young University when the Provo Temple was built.

“There were a lot of jokes,” he said Wednesday on The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast. “Some people joked it was Ramada Inn Revival.”

Nicknames soon followed, including the Lord’s Thumbtack, the Mothership, the Celestial Cupcake, Carrot Top, the Carousel and Marshmallow Matey.

Roberts — whose favorite temples include the ones in Manti and Cardston, Alberta — acknowledged the Provo Temple’s look doesn’t strike him with any particular sense of awe. Still, he isn’t exactly relieved to see the old design go.

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

“I have mixed feelings,” he said, “about removing entirely the appearance of a temple that’s now historic in its own right.”

Lyon, who was close to his grandfather, said he understands the need to update the temple and that doing so in an old structure often requires major changes. Lyon said he is less concerned about changes to the temple’s form than to its function.

“My biggest hope,” he said, “is that they won’t mess” with the “German efficiency” that he believes his grandfather was inspired to introduce in the Ogden and Provo temples.

In contrast, Provo native and architectural historian Alan Barnett believes the current design of the temple serves a function of its own.

“It’s an abstract building,” Barnett, the author of a separate Change.org petition and a Facebook group in support of the current look, said in an interview. “And like abstract art, it opens us up to exploring and understanding things that we’re not used to.”

In other words, in a faith fascinated by object lessons, the current Provo Temple is a building that teaches Latter-day Saints that worship is “not a uniform experience.” Limit the architecture where people seek to experience God, and you limit religious experience.

Indeed, the new design represents a template the church has used on a number of occasions, including the Ogden Temple reconstruction.

“Just like [for] meetinghouses,” Roberts said, “the church has standard plans for temples.”

This more uniform approach saves money and is certainly more efficient, he said, especially when the church is building so many temples in so many places and at such a rapid pace. It also helps brand the structures as Latter-day Saint temples, though Roberts favors a bit more variation.

“It would be great,” he said, “if individual temple designers were given more freedom to do something more unique.”

Barnett and others like him realize they face an uphill battle in retaining the Provo Temple’s exterior. The effort, however, isn’t without precedent. Earlier this year, members rallied successfully to protect historic murals in the 133-year-old Manti Temple, which is currently undergoing renovations.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The now-discontinued Mormon Miracle Pageant gets underway at the foot of the Manti Temple in 2019. This pioneer-era temple is undergoing renovations.