Gordon Monson: What the LDS Church should consider for a bigger Temple Square

Spruce up the faith’s landmarks, but make the rest of it more like NYC’s Central Park.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City is pictured on Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2023. Tribune columnist Gordon Monson would like to see an expanded Temple Square that is welcoming to all.

As an enormously wealthy church considers what to do with its landholdings in downtown Salt Lake City, specifically in the blocks around its centerpiece temple, I have some ideas.

Don’t we all.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shelved an initial draft proposal, recently reported in The Salt Lake Tribune, but that doesn’t mean some of those ideas might not be actualized in some way at some time in the years ahead. Will it be the massive “Mountain of the Lord” endeavor discussed in the 107-page document, complete with a reconfiguring that puts a wrecking ball to the 28-story Church Office Building, the historic Church Administration Building and the classic Joseph Smith Memorial Building, while erecting new structures around a vast fountain-lined green space that would be a cross between the National Mall in Washington and the Catholic Church’s Vatican City in Rome?

Probably not. But don’t be surprised to see what a deep-pocketed religion might have in mind for land it owns in a town it owns in a state it owns — or, some say, thinks it owns. As church President Russell Nelson was quoted as saying a few years back, “Eat your vitamin pills. Get your rest. It’s going to be exciting.”

It might be expensive, too, to the tune of millions, maybe billions. No problem for a church that has plenty of cash. It already is drawing on its resources with the ongoing renovations on the Salt Lake Temple, an extensive undertaking meant to freshen the iconic structure and make it more efficient and seismically safe, all scheduled to be completed in 2026. Here’s to hoping the famous building’s classic interior won’t be severely altered to a more utilitarian model found in newer Latter-day Saint temples. Don’t spend a fortune transforming the temple from what it was into God’s version of a Marriott Hotel. Nothing wrong with preserving a little antiquated quirkiness in the faith’s marquee edifice.

It seems to be the church’s aim and ambition to make the center of its worldwide religion something to catch the eye and refresh the spirit of those — believers and nonbelievers alike — who take the time to drop in on its home base.

Let visitors inside the temple

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The plaza at Temple Square is lit up for the holidays as people take in the visual delights in November 2023. Tribune columnist Gordon Monson would like to see at least parts of the Salt Lake Temple opened to visitors after its renovated, reopened and rededicated.

The aforementioned proposal said the idea is to elevate the “guest experience” for those who trek to the Salt Lake Temple and Temple Square, bumping the annual visitor presence from the former 5 million all the way up to 10 million. A hang-up inside the goal of luring that many guests is a significant one: Most of them are barred, without a clergy-approved recommend, from entering the temple itself.

Here’s a better option: Let them in the square, as they are now, and, yes, let them in the temple, too. This is radical, I know, but stay with me.

Other religions allow visitors into their holy places, into cathedrals and basilicas smiled on by the Almighty, bedecked as they are by works of art by masters such as Michelangelo and Raphael and Bernini. How about if the Latter-day Saint leadership created a space inside the Salt Lake Temple where visitors from around the world could have a temple experience inside the actual temple?

Take some of the mystery out of it. Like the old Baptist revival preacher barked, “Get the people in the tent.”

It reads on the exterior of Latter-day Saint temples “House of the Lord.” Maybe visitors of all faiths or no faith at all could get just a taste of the building’s spirit by being allowed into a limited corner of the signature holy house’s newly renovated square footage. The Manhattan Temple, for instance, has floors inside its building that allow admission to folks who have no recommend.

That’s a start. It would be an important one, one that would elevate that guest experience.

Another possibility: As mentioned in The Tribune’s report, the nearby Relief Society Building could be outfitted as a fully functioning (though not yet dedicated) temple to be kept permanently open for guests. It could be dedicated at “special times” so only recommend-carrying members could attend to relieve pressure on the Salt Lake Temple. At other times, it could welcome non-Latter-day Saint tourists. A common complaint among Temple Square visitors is that they are forbidden from stepping inside the principal building they came to see. Let them in, or offer this other option, giving them a chance to have a temple experience on the grounds.

How much is too much?

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

One of the problems for the church in creating an expanded Temple Square — whether new buildings are added, new lawns are manicured, new monuments are created, new lakes are dug and filled, new fountains are featured, new residences for top church leaders are constructed — is finding the right line between what is useful for the Lord’s work and what is seen as ridiculous excess. Between what is godlike and what is gaudy.

It’s one thing to visit and experience over-the-top structures that were built on the backs of the peasant poor to honor the heavens hundreds and hundreds years ago, and there are some magnificent minsters to see across Europe. It’s another to witness modern chapels, sanctuaries and even office buildings that are dripping with extravagant baubles via money and means taken from worshippers who donate their hard-earned cash for the love of the King of Kings.

Throwing in bits of tasteful design, interesting oddities, might be fine. Throwing around obscene displays of wealth could be seen as wasteful and worldly.

Also, if there are homeless travelers desperately camped out on the streets nearby, what message can that send other than … well, maybe some of the wealth that went into so much ostentatious beauty at Temple Square might have been better used helping those who are less fortunate.

It’s tricky business, this idea of elevating the guest experience. What would Jesus do?

Moreover, if the church plants grand greenery and forms bubbling fountains, where will it get the water? Of course, it can rely on water-wise plants and recycled water (as it does with many landmarks), but what happens if the Great Salt Lake dries up, sending toxic particles into the air? How many millions will want to visit the Lord’s mountain wearing gas masks?

If it were up to me, and I was in charge, and water wasn’t an issue, I’d build two world-class 18-hole championship golf courses over those eight blocks, and let everyone who wants to visit Temple Square and learn a little something about the faith play for free, waiving all greens fees. See how many global visitors would stop by then. Is there anything in this terrestrial world more sacred than, say, Augusta National or Pinehurst No. 2? No, there is not.

Failing that, I’d keep what was necessary for the church to function in place, spruce things up here and there, but turn much of that downtown land into something similar to Manhattan’s Central Park, all of it beautifying and underscoring the appearance and importance of the faith’s centerpiece — its most notable temple. But that’s just me.

A gathering place for all

There are hurdles galore for the church as it considers what to do downtown. Will it be empowered to close public thoroughfares and build over them? How much input will it allow those who care about the health and heartbeat of Salt Lake City, not just about the image the church presents to those who come to visit? Will the potential dollars the church draws to Utah’s capital help boost restaurants and hotels and retailers and businesses enough to grant what the faith desires? What sort of consideration should those who are not followers of the faith be given, those who don’t see it in their best interests to have images of a single faith so dominant in the city center? What is that metro center going to look like in 10 or 15 or 50 years? What should it look like?

Let’s say it all plain, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints certainly has contributed in a huge way to Salt Lake City and its surrounding communities, having founded much of it and many of them. It has played and will continue to play a major role here in the shape, economy, culture and politics of the city. But it also should keep in mind the interests of those outside the faith.

Not everyone here desires a downtown dominated by the Latter-day Saint presence. Many would prefer an emphasis on diversity, putting out a welcome mat to all, seeking to smooth over a societal divide that does exist.

Most of the eight blocks in and around Temple Square belong to the church, true, but they also belong to all the multifaceted people of Salt Lake City. It’s their town, too.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune columnist Gordon Monson.

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