Millions of people are drawn to Salt Lake City's Temple Square for urban tranquility among green trees and grand architecture. As the original city center and the present headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Temple Square is alive with history and ongoing culture. All the more impressive is the fascinating story of its construction.
"Here we will build a Temple to our God," declared Brigham Young as he suddenly paused over a patch of bare ground at the base of the Wasatch Mountains. Mormon pioneers had just ventured into Salt Lake Valley during July of 1847 and found it to their liking. Young wasted no time in dedicating the spot to build a temple and a city surrounding it.
The new arrivals spent the next few years establishing themselves here near the secluded shores of the Great Salt Lake, and they began the construction of the temple in February 1853. The chief architect was Truman O. Angell, who studied in Europe and had the help of several expert artisans, many of whom were also trained overseas, to create a Gothic-inspired masterpiece in the American desert.
In search of perfect building material, settlers discovered a supply of granite in Little Cottonwood Canyon, some 20 miles southeast. Stone was blasted and hewn at the quarry then hauled by ox-drawn cart and later by train once a railway was built. Stones weighing up to 5,600 pounds would have to be transported to the site and then chiseled by master stonemasons and maneuvered into place with cranes. The pioneers were determined to make the most magnificent and long-standing temple known in America, so great care was taken to fit everything perfectly into place.
After 40 years of nearly continuous construction, the Salt Lake Temple was completed in April 1893, and it stands proudly to this day. Inside and out, it is laced with artistic symbolism in carved statues, hand-painted murals, ornamental stones, and six granite spires crowning the top. At the time of construction, it dominated the skyline of the valley against a mountain backdrop, and is still a defining feature of the city.
With the Temple as its central feature, the 35-acre Temple Square complex is the functional center of SLC. Where Main Street touches the south end of Temple Square, an unassuming statuette marks the point from which the street grid system originates. All downtown's streets are named according to distance and direction from this spot, known as the Base and Meridian.
The rest of the Square is no less impressive, with many more buildings added over time. The oldest building that still stands is the Beehive House, Brigham Young's residence beginning in 1854, which was also designed by the Truman O. Angell. Adjacent to this house is the Lion House, which Young's family started using in 1856. Both of these historical structures have been maintained over time and today host tours, restaurant guests and events.
As the Temple was being built in the late 19th century, the next major project was already underway. The The Great Tabernacle, completed in 1867, was made of stone pillars and a huge wooden dome over top. It was used as a meetinghouse and performance center, a purpose which it still serves today. It also boasts an 11,623-pipe organ and is home to the award-winning Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which holds rehearsals and concerts open freely to the public.
Another building with particularly impressive architecture is the Assembly Hall, notable because it was built out of scrap granite from the Salt Lake Temple. As irregularly shaped blocks and chips were discarded during the Temple's construction, they were transferred to the site of the Assembly Hall, where workers fit them together and skillfully filled the numerous cracks with mortar to make it all even. Completed in 1875, the Hall still serves as a center for ceremonies, lectures, and concerts. Visit on a weekend night to see free musical performances in this historic setting.
To accommodate visitors to Temple Square's many attractions, luxury lodging at the Hotel Utah opened in 1911. This marked the start of a new, more modern era of construction on Temple Square, as the hotel was built from steel and concrete, finally available after expansion of industry in the West. US presidents, foreign dignitaries, movie stars, and wealthy tourists stayed here during its 76 years of operation. After a few years of renovation, it reopened in 1993 as a multipurpose center and was renamed the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. It now has two restaurants, a cafe, theater, FamilySearch Center, and reservable banquet rooms.
Numerous other buildings were added throughout the 20th century. These include the Relief Society Building (1956), which is an international center for women's advancement, and the Church History Museum (1984). The tallest building on Temple Square is the Church Office Building (1972) with its 26th floor observation deck that is open to the public.
One of the most impressive modern buildings is the Conference Center, which was completed in 2000. Its 21,000-seat auditorium houses an international gathering of LDS members twice each year as well as other special events such as the annual Christmas concert of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. When not hosting special events, the center is open for public tours, including its pleasant rooftop garden with great views of Salt Lake Temple and the rest of the Square.
Today, Temple Square is as lively as ever. The newest building, the Church History Library, was just added in 2009, and older buildings are continually kept up and renovated. Educational exhibits are switched out, while concerts and other events are always varied for a different experience to each visit. Vibrant gardens throughout the complex are tended year round, and the entire area transforms into a winter wonderland with adornment of Christmas lights during the month of December.
No matter when you come to Temple Square, there is always something different to see and something new to learn. Understanding the story of this place can only enhance the fascination, and once you arrive the tours and displays make it easy to immerse in the history.
Originally written for Utah Office of Tourism.