A new era in LDS preservation of temples is underway

Historians discuss the faith’s commitment to caring for the Kirtland and Manti temples.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The Kirtland Temple, left, and the Manti Temple.

In the past, historians and preservationists were not always pleased with how The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints treated its treasured buildings. Bulldozing Utah’s Coalville Tabernacle and gutting the Logan Temple led to cries of anguish from insiders and outsiders alike.

These days, though, the same groups are lauding the painstaking and resplendent renovation of the faith’s pioneer-era Manti Temple, which is now open to public tours. And they are reassured by the Salt Lake City-based church’s plans for its recent purchase of Mormonism’s first temple, in Kirtland, Ohio.

“We can look back, and we’d want to redo some decisions here and there,” Matthew Grow, managing director of the church’s History Department, said on a recent Salt Lake Tribune “Mormon Land” podcast. “And, of course, one big change has been, over the last 50 years, there’s been a much more professional approach taken as people like [historic-sites curator] Emily [Utt] and others have become experts in how to do historic preservation with the latest technology.”

Grow added that another change has been “the willingness of the church to spend significant resources in preserving some of the real gems of our pioneer heritage.”

Here are excerpts from the podcast interview with Grow and Utt.

When did negotiations with the Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, begin for the purchase of the Kirtland Temple and historic properties in Nauvoo? And what was your role in them?

Grow • The two churches very much wanted this to be seen as a joint effort. [The joint statement] says that the negotiations that led to the transaction began in June 2021. Over the past months, I helped guide the historical discussions about the buildings and the artifacts and things like that. … We’re really excited in the church’s History Department about the opportunity to interpret these buildings, as well as to assume the sacred stewardship of them. That’s the terminology that was used in that joint statement that we’re assuming a “stewardship.”

Do you have any personal connection to Kirtland?

Utt • I have a family relationship with the Kirtland Temple. My ancestors joined the church in the Kirtland era, helped build the building, worshipped in it and attended the school of the elders. One of my ancestors took Hebrew lessons inside the Kirtland Temple. I went to school in Cleveland so I was a member of the Kirtland Stake [a cluster of congregations] and attended meetings in that building. I’ve played “The Spirit of God” on the piano in that building. So when I go there, it’s that kind of personal testimony place for me, but also a realization of my ancestors’ connection and my desire to do right by them. Every time I’ve gone to Kirtland for preservation of other structures in the city for the last 15 years, I stopped by the temple. … But my relationship really has been as a professional.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Emily Utt, curator of church historic sites, speaks at the rededication ceremony for the Brigham Young Family Cemetery in Salt Lake City in 2022. Utt has been key in the church's work at the Kirtland and Manti temples.

Has the Kirtland Temple been altered in the past century?

Grow • One of the amazing things about the Kirtland Temple is that it appears much as it did in 1836. There’s never been extensive renovations to the temple. There was never an elevator [added] or another wing put on the temple, which would be very common in the building of this age. … Our intent will be to continue to allow it to appear that way, in a stable structure moving forward.

What will Latter-day Saint guides in Kirtland tell visitors about the Community of Christ caretaking on the temple?

Grow • They will tell visitors that the Community of Christ did a marvelous job for well over a century in taking care of it, in preserving and making it accessible. So the tour itself in Kirtland will focus on the 1830s on the building of the temple, and particularly on what Latter-day Saints view as the marvelous spiritual manifestations that accompanied the temple’s dedication, and then the week thereafter, when Latter-day Saints believe that Jesus Christ and ancient prophets appeared to [church founder] Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. The tour will focus on those events, but not to the exclusion of everything else. They will certainly acknowledge and celebrate what the Community of Christ has done over time and also note a little bit of the history after 1836, because every building has a life of its own.

Will guides tell visitors about the Community of Christ’s theology of the reported visitations of Jesus and biblical prophets versus the Latter-day Saint theology?

Grow • The intent will be to share those spiritual manifestations from the perspective of the individuals who experienced them. So [Latter-day Saint] missionaries will be looking at the primary sources that Joseph Smith and others created at the time or shortly thereafter. And talking about those events, primarily from that perspective.

What do you say to Community of Christ members and historians who are heartbroken by the sale of the temple and these Nauvoo properties in Illinois?

Grow • We know these Community of Christ historians and archivists, so as we’ve assumed stewardship of the buildings, for me, there have been three primary emotions. First, excitement to take stewardship. The second has been a deep sense of responsibility, a deep sense of a sacred trust that’s been passed to us. And the third emotion has been the real sense that as Latter-day Saints — from a scripture that we share — is that we’re called “to mourn with those who mourn.” ... We understand this as a hard time [for them], and we’ll do everything we can to help it not be quite as hard, although mourning is always a process. We hope to walk with them a bit in that process.

Utt • We want to be good neighbors at all of the historic sites we own around the country and around the world. Being a good neighbor means that you welcome your community partners in and you make sure that the building is used and open and available, and we want to take good care of it. And I take that responsibility very seriously.

The contract, according to the joint statement, calls for the Kirtland Temple and the Nauvoo properties to remain open to the public for 15 years. The Community of Christ says after that, the Utah-based church has agreed that it “intends” to keep it open. That seemed to be language that could lead to the Kirtland Temple being closed, maybe turned into a fully functioning temple. What is the Utah-based church’s intent on that?

Grow • The church’s intent is that it remains a historic building … accessible to the public. … That is very much the intent of everyone I’ve talked to at the church and everyone who was involved in the transaction. … So, for me, I have no concerns that the church would turn it into a functioning temple that would be only accessible to members of the church.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Matthew J. Grow, managing director of the church's History Department, speaks at a news conference in 2018. Grow has played a key role in the Utah-based faith's acquisition of the Kirtland Temple.

What did you think when it was initially announced that the Manti Temple was slated for gutting?

Grow • We understand that there are lots of complicated issues at play in these questions of historic preservation. Historic preservation is really, really expensive. And we understand that temples have a living purpose, and that sometimes those living purposes take precedence over historic preservation. But, of course, we wanted to be a voice for historic preservation, always understanding those complicated dynamics.

How do you restore murals like those by artist Minerva Teichert?

Utt • You hire people that are very skilled, that have decades of experience, and then give them the resources they need to do it. In the case of the Manti Temple murals, we found a firm out of Chicago that had been doing this for 25 years. They came out and spent weeks with us in the temple, studying the murals, analyzing the challenges we had with them, and trying different compounds to get the varnish off. They spent 10 months in the building, removing varnish, cleaning, making repairs, in some cases, inch by inch through the building. It is a very detailed and very slow and a very arduous process. If you are not patient, you should not become an art conservator.

Do you paint over the murals or try to match the colors?

Utt • Conservation (and preservation in general) is about making visible the original work. So on the [exterior] stone, you want it to look and act like it did when it was installed in 1888. Really, it’s about reversing previous changes, especially in the creation room in Manti. Over the last 130 years, lots of people have tried to help. A little crack would form, and they would fill it in with spackle and plaster mud, and then wax resin, and then spray paint and just gunk. So the job really was removing all of that and revealing C.C.A. Christensen’s original magnificent work, and then doing the repairs that we needed to do without touching that mural. The painting that you do is with a very specialized kind of paint, and it’s almost a pin-drop-size paintbrush. Nothing touches the original.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Ordinance room in the renovated Manti Temple displays the restored and brightened Minerva Teichert murals.

There have been some objections to Minerva Teichert’s interpretation of human history, even claiming that it celebrated European colonizers. What do you say to that?

Grow • Every artist exists within a context. And Minerva is painting in the 1940s with certain ideas about the progress of civilization. And, of course, you could find similar ideas at art galleries across the country and across the world. And what Minerva is trying to do with that room is to tell the story of the gathering of Israel. So on the back wall you have the Tower of Babel, the scattering of God’s people. Then along one wall, you have scenes from the Old Testament, Moses and Abraham. And then on the other wall, you have what Minerva would have said is the gathering of the Gentiles or the gathering of people who are not Israel. And along that wall you do have the sense of a progress of civilization in a way that would make us uncomfortable today, seeming to be progressing from Eastern civilizations to Western civilizations. And so when we’re looking at art, of course, as we walk through it, there’d be things there that we would do differently or think about differently today, whether it’s race or gender or ethnicity. But at the same time, I think if we can step back and say, “OK, well, what was Minerva’s vision? What is the grand story that she was trying to tell then?” Would we change details? Sure. But this grand story about God’s gathering of his people from the scriptures, that’s really Minerva’s textbook.

Utt • It’s a part of a bigger conversation happening in professional history in the United States in general. Every generation is going to interpret it differently. And the entire preservation community and in the entire historical community in the United States is really wrestling with these issues. What do you do with statues that are maybe interpreted differently today? What do we do with buildings themselves that were built to convey certain messages about society that we don’t agree with today? And there’s not a good answer. I think the beautiful opportunity is the debate, the discussion. And, as historians, and as people in general, the more we can talk about it, the more we can wrestle with the problems, we’ll find, I think, not only clearer understanding and appreciation for the way that people lived in the past, but lessons about how we maybe don’t want to repeat some of those lessons moving forward.

What other kinds of restorations did you have to do?

Utt • The project was actually really limited to behind-the-scenes — walls and a new mechanical system in parts of the building that really desperately needed it. … The big other part of the preservation was the east wall. Over the last 100 years, we’ve been watering that wall, that side of the building. All of that water has found its way through the stone [and] into the interior spaces, some of the “sealing” rooms especially. So we dug a 40- foot-deep hole to the bottom of the footings on that side of the building and waterproofed it. Now that building is dry. That’s a huge preservation thing — keeping water out of a building means it can be open for 50 years.

What’s your favorite part of the Manti Temple?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A staircase in the Manti Temple.

Utt • There are billions of things I love about that building. I love the sight of that temple, the way that it kind of sits in that valley, and is just this light on this hill, this grand building in the middle of nowhere that’s graceful and solid and sacred. I love the sight of it. I also love the floor plan of that building. The way that the rooms progress [upward] for me creates a really powerful physical reminder of some of the messages and the stories that we learn when we’re in temples.

Grow • I love the murals — the jewel of the temple. In the first room — in what we would call “the Creation Room” — the mural is by a 19th-century Latter-day Saint artist named C.C.A. Christensen. It’s just this beautiful room. He’s using textbooks of his own time to think about how dinosaurs fit into the creation. He depicts the different periods of creation. Of course, Minerva Teichert’s World Room is just amazing. If you’ve seen pictures of it, you don’t understand the scale. The walls are so tall, the space that she’s working with is so big, and what she’s able to do with that space — it’s really a remarkable story.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) An ordinance room in the Manti Temple.

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