Utah: Temple Square, Salt Lake City

On this ten-acre city block stand three historic buildings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: the Temple, the Tabernacle, and the Assemble Hall. A much-visited tourist attraction, Temple Square is also home to two visitors’ centers.

Site Office

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

50 East North Temple Street

Salt Lake City, UT 84150-0002

ph.: (801) 240-2640

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known commonly as the Mormon Church, has a worldwide membership of some nine million people. While it is organized in more than one hundred thirty countries, the church is most commonly associated with the state of Utah and especially Salt Lake City, its international headquarters. Located at the heart of Salt Lake City is Temple Square, a ten-acre city block that takes its name from the fact that the most famous of the church’s temples stands there. Perhaps as well known as the Temple itself is the Salt Lake City Tabernacle, the original home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and located directly west of the Temple on Temple Square. The Assemble Hall, which is directly south of the Tabernacle, is another historic building on Temple Square, and there are two visitors’ centers also located at the site.

Origins of the Mormon Church

Although the Mormon Church is most closely associated with Utah, it had its origins in upstate New York in 1830, when Joseph Smith organized the church. Smith, regarded by church faithful as a modern-day prophet, had received a series of revelations including those that led him to translate a purportedly ancient text that he published as the Book of Mormon. The Mormon Church accepts the Book of Mormon, along with the Bible, as scripture.

The church was began with only six members but grew quickly, largely because of active missionary work by the early members. Missionary work has long been a hallmark of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and young men and women serve throughout the world as volunteer lay missionaries.

The growth of the church in those early years was accompanied by severe mistrust and misunderstanding of the Mormons throughout the eastern United States. After joining the church, members gathered to be with Smith and other members of the church but could not find a place where they could establish a community free of persecution. They were forced out of Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Their settlement known as Nauvoo, on the banks of the Mississippi River in Illinois, was the largest city in the state in the 1840’s. It was in Illinois in 1844 that Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were imprisoned and murdered by an angry mob. No longer able to remain in the state, Smith’s followers abandoned Nauvoo in 1847 and began the long journey across the plains to find a new home far away from their persecutors.

Led by Brigham Young, later Joseph Smith’s successor as prophet and president of the church, the first group of Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. Upon entering the valley, Brigham Young is said to have stated, “This is the place.” July 24 was later made a Utah state holiday.

Brigham Young Selects the Temple’s Site

Only four days after his arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young designated the place where the Temple should be built. A stake was driven into the ground, and that has become the traditional center of the Temple. It was not until six years later that ground was broken for the structure. On April 6, 1853, the cornerstone was laid. It took forty years for the Temple to be completed.

Young made the first rough sketches of the structure based on a building he had seen in a vision. The assignment to actually plan the Temple fell to Truman Angell, a church member who was sent to England to increase his skills as an architect. The design of the Temple includes six nonmatching spires, three on the east and three on the west, with a gold-leafed angel holding a trumpet mounted on the tallest eastern spire.

The Utah War

The foundations for the Temple were nearly in place by 1858, when the U.S. government sent troops against the Mormons. President James Buchanan had dispatched 2,500 men to the Salt Lake Valley to forcibly replace Young as governor of the territory. Upon learning of the government’s plans, the Mormons buried the foundation of the Temple to make it appear as a freshly plowed field and then fled Salt Lake City. After a diplomatic resolution to the confrontation, the Mormons returned to Salt Lake City but were unable to do any work on the Temple for another two years.

Finally in 1860, Young directed that the foundation be uncovered. That process lasted for two more years and when the task was finally completed large cracks were revealed in the foundation. The original foundation was completely removed and a new one was begun with better quality stones that would be cut to fit without mortar. Thus it was not until 1867 that the structure began to rise above the ground.

The Tabernacle

In the meantime just west of the Temple another structure was nearing completion. The Tabernacle, begun in 1864, was first used for meetings in 1867. With its characteristic domed roof, the Tabernacle is 250 feet long and 150 feet wide. The roof is 80 feet high and is the result of a latticework construction of timbers held together with wooden dowels and leather straps. There are no supporting columns in the interior. The building is famous for its outstanding acoustics and magnificent organ. It was long home to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which performed there regularly after 1867, although it had been formed twenty years earlier in the very year that the Mormons first arrived in Salt Lake City.

The Tabernacle is used twice each year for the general conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is the site of numerous meetings and recitals throughout the year. Visitors can enjoy daily tours and organ recitals and can hear the choir rehearse each week as well as perform every Sunday morning. The design of the Tabernacle has been attributed to Brigham Young but its construction was supervised by William Folsom and by a bridge builder named Henry Grow, who was responsible for the wooden lattice truss construction.

Building of the Temple

After the problems experienced with the first foundation of the Temple, it was decided that the structure should be built of the finest stone available in the region. Little Cottonwood Canyon, twenty miles from the construction site, was chosen as the quarry for the granite that was to be used for the Temple. Originally the large blocks were moved by oxen teams out of the canyon to the Temple site but the work was greatly accelerated after railroad tracks were laid in 1873, allowing the blocks to be moved by steam engine. Shortly thereafter, steam derricks were used to raise the blocks of granite into place on the structure, also increasing the speed and ease of construction.

By 1877 the walls of the Temple stood some forty feet high, but in that same year construction began on another structure, the Assemble Hall, also on Temple Square. Used for meetings, concerts, and other gatherings, the Assemble Hall stands directly south of the Tabernacle and was completed in 1882. Built of rough-cut granite with white spires, the structure was completely restored from 1979 to 1981. The Assemble Hall was designed by Obed Taylor.

During the 1880’s, work on the Temple continued, but it was frequently threatened as the Mormons came under increasing pressure from the federal government to abandon the practice of plural marriage. During this period three other temples of the church were completed and dedicated in other parts of Utah, but it was the “Great Temple” that had so consumed the early Mormon pioneers and it was still not finished. After the church abandoned polygamy in 1890, the threat to the Temple disappeared and by 1893 the capstone was laid.

Dedication of the Temple

On April 6, 1893, exactly forty years after the start of construction, the Temple was finally dedicated. The Temple is 186 feet long and 99 feet wide, and its tallest spire rises more than 222 feet. The walls of the building are 9 feet thick at the bottom and taper to a thickness of 6 feet at the top. The interior of the Temple is adorned with fine woodwork, plaster ornamentation, murals, paintings, and elegant furnishings. Shortly before its dedication, nonmember guests were invited to take a tour of the building since it would not be open to them once it had been dedicated. Reports concerning the Temple and its dedication appeared in newspapers throughout the country. On April 7, 1893, The New York Times reported: “Brigham Young conceived the design, presumably through inspiration of some unnatural power, for no such building is to be seen elsewhere in any quarter of the globe.”

On the same day, the Chicago Tribune reported the event of the Temple’s dedication and attempted to also explain something about the purpose and use of the edifice: “These temples are not, as might be supposed, analogous to the churches of other denominations, but are used for private rites or ceremonies, to which, of course, only the initiated are allowed admission.” Commenting on the structure itself the newspaper reported: “It is universally conceded that for general effect, both interior and exterior, there is no finer church edifice in the whole of America.”

These reports contrast with the cynical prognostication of a writer for Harper’s Weekly who visited Salt Lake City in 1857 and wrote concerning the Temple project: “quite a stupendous undertak- ing. . . . Its foundations, which are foolishly costly, are of solid rock. . . . [The Saints] have now resolved to erect it entirely of cut stone. Its plans are publicly exhibited, and, should it ever be completed, it will form a very magnificent pile.”

In celebration of its centennial, the Salt Lake Temple underwent a complete renovation and stands today as a symbol of the enormous sacrifice and faith of those early Mormon pioneers. It also remains a working temple that can only be entered by faithful members of the church. While entrance to the Temple is limited, the site is visited by thousands each year who come to see the magnificent exterior of the building and visit the other structures on this historic square.

Visitors’ Center

In addition to the Temple, the Tabernacle, and the Assemble Hall, there are also two visitors’ centers located on Temple Square, where presentations about the Mormon Church are given. Of particular interest is the Christus statue located in the rotunda of the north visitors’ center. The square is surrounded by a fifteen-foot wall and is beautifully landscaped with gigantic elms, seasonal plantings, and fountains. During the Christmas season the square is decorated with hundreds of thousands of lights.

Directly to the east of Temple Square is another entire city block housing administrative buildings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as historic Hotel Utah, recently renovated as another visitors’ center, and the Beehive House, which was a home for some of Brigham Young’s many wives. Across the street to the west of the square is the church’s museum of art, as well as its world-renowned genealogical library, which is open to all who are interested in researching their ancestry.

For more than one hundred years, Temple Square in Salt Lake City has been a sanctuary for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The beautifully manicured grounds and historic buildings make the square a top tourist destination as well. The towering spires of the Temple and the gleaming domed roof of the Tabernacle stand in quiet grandeur as a monument to the perserverance of the Utah Mormon pioneers and as a symbol of faith to the current members of a worldwide church.

For Further Information

  • Arrington, Leonard. Brigham Young: American Moses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. A complete account of the life of Brigham Young.
  • Arrington, Leonard, and Davis Britton. The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979. A more complete overview of Mormon history from the church’s foundation until the present.
  • Holzapfel, Richard N. Every Stone a Sermon: The Magnificent Story of the Construction and Dedication of the Salt Lake Temple. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1992. The most complete historical account of the construction of the Salt Lake Temple. Painstakingly researched, the book is rich in scholarly detail.
  • Nash, Carol Rust. The Mormon Trail and the Latter-Day Saints in American History. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow, 1999. Explores the founding of the Latter-day Saints by Joseph Smith, their persecution, the migration west led by Brigham Young, and the church’s legacy and its present role in society.
  • Ostling, Richard N., and Joan K. Ostling. Mormon America: The Power and the Promise. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999. Revealing look at church history and practices, with special attention given to the church’s rapid growth, worldwide missionary program, and accelerated temple-building program.