“In the end, the character of a civilization is encased in its structures,” stated Frank Gehry—an important contemporary architect. One of the more interesting episodes in the treatment of historic Utah structures has been the decision to tear both the Ogden and Provo temples down to their frames and rebuild them with completely new façades. Back in 2010, preservationists Steve Cornell and Kirk Huffaker related this structure to the character or nature of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by stating that: “Architectural preservationists should be up in arms about the planned changes. The Ogden temple with its counterpart [in Provo], represent a paradigmatic shift in the way Mormons conceived and interpreted the temple, transitioning from a sacred abode to a sacred machine.” While the Ogden and Provo temples have an important place in history, it should not be assumed that they represent a worldview change in Latter-day Saint temple doctrine.
The shift that Cornell and Huffaker are referencing is the streamlined organization of the buildings that allowed them to house six endowment rooms, which allowed an endowment session to begin every twenty minutes in each temple, while older temples usually were only able to begin a session every hour at best. Temple architect Emil Fetzer was commissioned to design a temple that was economical and functional that “the membership can use to do efficient temple work.” Fetzer described the experience of creating the interior design that was used in the temples as a vision during a conversation with Fred Baker. In this vision, “the most important thing was on the floor above the sealing rooms. There was a central room surrounded by a cluster of six ordinance rooms… I knew exactly how it was functioning, from the way I saw it. This was a very intriguing thing, a central Celestial Room surrounded by a cluster of six ordinance rooms. The idea was that the whole ceremony would be in one room, instead of going from room to room like the Salt Lake Temple.”
Fetzer drew inspiration for his design from what he called a Danish ellipse. He had read about a new park being designed in Copenhagen that was completely surrounded by a roadway in the shape of an elongated ellipse. The outline of the upper two floors of the temple was really a modification of this park, with a corridor running completely around the outside wall that had entrances to the ordinance rooms. This also proved extremely efficient in accomplishing its purposes—both the Ogden and Provo temples topped the Salt Lake Temple as far putting out the most endowment sessions per month shortly after going into operation, passing up the pioneer temple’s 50,000 endowments a month at about 75,000 endowments per month each. Taking pride in this as well, Emil Fetzer noted, “Basically, everything that has been built since that time has a kernel of the Ogden and Provo Temples.”
That being said, my specific qualm with the preservationists’ statement is that they argued that the Ogden and Provo temples marked a shift from a “sacred abode to a sacred machine.” This seems to imply that temples existed primarily as a place for meditation and communion with God and that the focus on performing ordinances only started with the Ogden and Provo temples. The performance of ordinances for the living and the dead, however, was among the primary purposes given for temple construction for over a hundred years before the Ogden temple was announced. This created an increased pressure on temples throughout the 20th century that led to a need for a more efficient ways to perform ordinances, signifying that there was a focus on ordinance work long before the six endowment room plan was created. The architecture of older temples demonstrates this evolution for efficiency.
As early as 1841, “Joseph said the Lord said that we should build our house to his Name that we might be Baptized for the Dead,” indicating that even the Nauvoo temple (the second temple built by the Latter Day Saints) was constructed at least partially with ordinances for the dead in mind. After the Latter-day Saint community moved to Utah and began construction on four temples there, the performance of ordinances for the living and the dead was again stated as an important purpose for constructing temples. For example, in 1877 President John Taylor—the leader of the Church at that time—stated: “Why do we want to build these temples?… The Lord has shown us that we must build Temples in which to officiate for [all men who have lived and died without knowledge of the Gospel].” Thus, the performances of ordinances was listed as a central purpose in constructing temples long before the Ogden and Provo temples were even conceived, indicating that temples were intended to be “sacred machines” before the plans were laid out for those two temples in the 1960s.
The emphasis placed on performing ordinance work for the dead led to an increase in genealogical work and temple attendance in the Latter-day Saint community, showing an interest in performing ordinances decades before the Ogden and Provo temples were built. As indicated one study, the amount of endowments for the dead performed per year saw a dramatic increase between 1910 and 1970, even when measured against the growing Church membership. With this growth, existing temples had to find ways to deal with the mounting pressure. The Salt Lake temple went from one endowment session three days a week in 1911 to three sessions four days a week in the 1920s. To further relieve pressure, the endowment ceremony was codified during the 1920s and reduced from six to nine hours long to about two to three hours in length, close to the length of the ceremony today. Pressure still mounted and it was a 1967 report that “traffic in the Manti and Logan Temples is becoming so acute that it becomes necessary either to remodel those Temples or build new ones” that prompted the decision to construct the Ogden and Provo temples. In this light, the efficiency in the design for these twin Space-age temples was not born of a shift in belief but an increasing need for the ability to perform endowments in more effective ways.
Rather than ordinance work being the primary purpose for earlier temples, Cornell and Huffaker argue that temples were meant to be sacred abodes prior to the construction of the Ogden and Provo temples. Seeing that form follows function, the architecture of the earliest temples does indicate that this was one of their purposes. The first Latter Day Saint temple, built in Kirtland, Ohio, was constructed as a “meetinghouse temple” primarily consisting of two large meeting rooms placed one on top of the other, showing that meetings were among the most important functions of this temple. Further, this temple was referred to as “The House of the Lord” more often than “the temple,” and Church members were promised the chance to see the face of God when it would be complete, indicating that it was also thought of as a sacred abode of divine presence. Later Church leaders also indicated that a purpose of attending temples was to draw closer to God. For example, Apostle John A. Widtsoe said that “the pure in heart who go into the temples, may, there by the Spirit of God, always have a wonderfully rich communion with God…. In this way, the temples are always places where God manifests himself to man and increases his intelligence.” Thus, the idea of the temple as a sacred abode where people can draw closer to God does fit in among the purposes for constructing temples, particularly among the earlier sanctuaries constructed in the Church, though as we’ll see, it is not the primary purpose.
Continuing with the idea that form follows function, however, we see a change in the pattern of temple construction arise around 1877. The St. George temple was the only Utah temple to be completed at that point, and to effectively perform the endowment ceremony, the lower assembly hall of that temple was divided into several rooms by screens, allowing the endowment to be presented in a series of rooms. This allowed new endowment sessions to start while previous ones moved into the next room, increasing the number of ordinances that could be performed. Realizing the changing needs of the times, the designs for the interiors of the three Utah temples still under construction were modified to included progressive endowment rooms instead of a lower assembly hall. The next temple to be constructed—the Cardston, Alberta temple—had no assembly halls whatsoever; favoring a structure designed entirely around the endowment ordinance rooms. The next few temples (Laie, Hawaii; Mesa, Arizona; Idaho Falls, Idaho; and Los Angeles, California) followed the same basic design. During the 1950s the Church recorded the endowment using motion picture technology, allowing the ordinance to be presented in a single, small room with minimal staff. This meant that the temples could be built on a smaller, less expensive scale and paved the way for further innovations. The Oakland, California temple—completed in 1964—took advantage of this by utilizing two large endowment rooms to present the film simultaneously, allowing up to two hundred people to begin the ceremony every hour. The Ogden and Provo temples—announced three years later—merely took this one step further with six ordinance rooms, allowing a session to begin every 20 minutes. This innovation was the result of a continual process of seeking to construct economical temples focused on the presentation of the endowment, indicating that ceremonial presentations were a main purpose of their construction as far back as the late 1800s.
To return to Frank Gehry’s statement that the character of a civilization (or, in this situation a religious group) is displayed in its structures, we can tell whether the Ogden and Provo temples represented a worldview shift in the Latter-day Saint conception of the temple from a “sacred abode” to a “sacred machine” by observing the history and architecture of other temples built by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In this light, the twin space-age temples of Utah do not represent a new ideology within the Latter-day Saint community, but rather one part of a series of innovations to meet the needs that traditional Latter-day Saint theology created. Thus, while architectural preservationists have reason to be upset about the loss of the old Ogden and Provo temples, it is not for the specific reason that Steve Cornell and Kirk Huffaker gave. It’s more accurate to state it along the lines of what David Amott wrote: “The Provo Temple created a prototype for all temples that came after it (in the LDS Church’s effort to take the temple experience to the four corners of the world), and for that reason alone it deserves to stand.” Even with that being the case, however, the key innovation of six endowment rooms in an ellipse remains intact, since, as was noted when the renovations were underway for the Ogden Temple years ago: “When the decision was made by the First Presidency to do the renovation, there was obvious respect for [President David O.] McKay and other considered, and it is being built on the footprint of the first temple.”
 Steve Cornell and Kirk Huffaker, “LDS Should Preserve Utah’s Space Age Temples,” Salt Lake Tribune 2 April 2010. Web. 28 Oct 2012.
 Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), 270.
 Prince and Wright, David O. McKay, 270.
 Doyle L. Green, “Two Temples to Be Dedicated,” Ensign January 1972.
 Prince and Wright, David O. McKay, 271.
 “Account of Meeting and Discourse, circa 2 February 1841,” p. , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 16, 2022, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/account-of-meeting-and-discourse-circa-2-february-1841/1
 John Taylor, “Discourse by President John Taylor, November 14, 1877.” Journal of Discourses. Ed. George D. Watt, et al. 26 vol. (Liverpool: F. D. Richards, et al., 1854-1886), 19:155-156.
 David John Buerger, “The Development of the Mormon Temple Endowment Ceremony,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 20 (Winter 1987): 57.
 Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986), 299-300.
 Prince and Wright 269-270.
 Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Vintage Books edition (New York City: Vintage Books, 2007), 308-19.
 John A. Widtsoe, “Temple Worship.” The Utah Genealogical and Historical Magazine. Vol. XII, 1921: 55-56.
 Richard O. Cowan, Temples to Dot the Earth (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 82-83, 138-139.
 Paul L. Anderson, “A Jewel in the Gardens of Paradise: The Art and Architecture of the Hawaii Temple.” BYU Studies 39, no. 4 (2000): 186.
 Cowan, 172-173.
 Cited in Peggy Fletcher Stack and Scott D. Pierce, “Goodbye, Space Age design. Now we know what the Provo Temple will look like,” Salt Lake Tribune, 24 November 2021, https://www.sltrib.com/news/2021/11/24/goodbye-space-age-design/
 Tom Christensen, “Ogden LDS Temple to reopen this year,” Standard Examiner, Jan 30, 2014. Online, accessed 26 April 2014: http://www.standard.net/stories/2014/01/29/ogden-lds-temple-reopen-year
I enjoyed your post and the historical review of the history of the temples. In the effort to make the endowment more available to the membership via building design and the use of film and video, have we lost something. I have many times gotten things from a live session that I have not gotten from a video session. I am not alone in that view. The design choices made in the design and construction of the temples do reflect the times in which they were built. Personally I like the like the old Ogden better than the new one. the same goes for the old Provo temple.
The Church continues to be willing to chuck its past. Destroying the interior of its historic temples, doing away with live sessions, demoting the angel Moroni, ditching the name Mormon and the initials LDS, and now abandoning the futuristic design of 2 temples. And there are numerous other destructive examples including murals, stainglass windows, etc. All in the name of efficiency and correlation. For me, the past is important. And should be preserved. Every new temple doesn’t have to look like every other temple.
Six working rooms that lead to a Sabbath space to rest and meditate on God. But any sense of sacred symbolism has been lost in the modern church.
Good gravy, 200 patrons in a single session? I won’t comment on details out of respect, but even if 200 people fit in the room I can’t imagine how long it took for them all to proceed into the celestial room. My last visit to the Philly temple had maybe 100 people, and it took close to an hour just to make that transition.
Unfortunately, they have phased out cafeterias, so gravy (good or otherwise) is no longer an option at temples. But, one thing to keep in mind is that with the ellipse, the transition space to go into the Celestial room is shared by three endowment rooms, so they are able to work with more people at the same time compared to temples that are more compact in size.
What makes you say that, Hogarth?
When I studied design/architecture one of the concepts of good design was that form followed function. That a well designed object did not try to look like something else. A teapot that looks like a house is not good design for example.
As I understand it these 2 temples have 6 endowment rooms around a celestial room in a circle. The circular form of the outside is caused by the function inside. If this is the case and because of convention of what a temple should look like this has to be replaced this is sad.
I liked the circular design, and if my understanding is correct it, then we are covering a pure design with a fake design because someone with enough power thinks temples should look square, even if they are round inside.
My stake has 8 units, and there is one 50 year old ward meeting house. There is not enough money to buy land for more chapels. Every time we find a suitable block of land we are told the church can’t afford it. The land is not going to be cheaper in the future so we will continue to travel to other stakes on Sunday, while the money goes to more important projects like the remodeling, and building of unnecessary temples in Utah.