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Does This Design Offend You?

It has been our privilege, as guided by the whisperings of thy Spirit, to build unto thee this temple, which we now present unto thee as another of thy holy houses. … We humbly pray that thou wilt accept this edifice and pour out thy blessings upon it as a house to which thou wilt come and in which thy Spirit will direct all that is done, that it may be acceptable unto thee.[1]

Fifty years ago today, the Ogden, Utah Temple was dedicated.  Its sister, the Provo, Utah Temple, followed a month later, on February 9.  I’ve lived in Weber County, Utah for a significant portion of my life, so in many ways, the Ogden Temple is my temple.  Yet, I’ve always had mixed feelings about the temple itself—the space-age appearance I grew up with was unique, but not terribly attractive.  At the same time, I found it a bit sad that the Church felt the need to change its appearance so drastically a few years ago and that we will soon see, as President Nelson announced in general conference, the “reconstruction of the Provo Utah Temple.”[2]  I’m caught between the side of me that has a strong preservationist urge (as discussed last spring with the pioneer temple murals) and the side of me that has an appreciation for the aesthetically pleasing update to the Ogden Temple.

I’m not alone in being caught in the crossfire of torn feelings on this subject, even from the very beginning.  When Emil Fetzer showed the First Presidency the proposal for the temples, the reaction was mixed.  As Fetzer recalled: “When I put it up, there was just a gasp! You could hear them suck in their breath. They were surprised and amazed at the design of the temple. After they took in their gasps, one of the counselors said to President McKay, ‘Does this design offend you?’”  Far from being offended, though, President David O. McKay responded: “No, I like it very much.”[3]  He had, after all, commissioned Emil Fetzer to design “an economical and functional temple for Ogden and for Provo,”[4] which Fetzer had delivered on by creating a temple with an elliptical layout that allowed it to have six endowment rooms feeding into one celestial room.

Still, the modernist façade was generally unpopular and occasionally mocked by Latter-day Saints. One writer recalled that upon seeing the Provo temple for the first time, his great-grandmother declared: “You call that a temple? What’s wrong; has the Church run out of money?”[5]  Mormon intellectual Sterling McMurren referred to the Ogden and Provo temples as outstanding examples of what he viewed as an overall “mediocrity in taste” expressed in Church architecture during that time period.[6]  Donald Bergsma also wrote that: “A photograph of one of them taken from the local newspaper, when circulated to young architects with the caption removed, was identified as almost every type of building other than a religious structure. … Mormonism has a proud tradition and a rich heritage. Where is this expressed in the new design? … The early pioneers would not have been so callous in their approach to housing the activities of their faith.”[7]  Over the years, various epithets were used for the two temples, such as a “birthday cake” or “cupcake with a candle,” “the mother space-ship,” or “toppled snowman with a carrot nose.”  When changes were made to the exterior in the early 2000s, a BYU publication referred to the plans as a “celestial makeover” with the express purpose of making the temple “a more popular destination for weddings” due to “the low volume of marriage ceremonies.”[8]  Not all agreed however. One Weber County resident recalled that: “We just thought it was beautiful. A lot of people made fun of it—they thought it looked like an upside-down birthday cake and they said all different kinds of, silly things, and they didn’t like the structure. But I thought it was beautiful. I couldn’t see anything wrong with it.”[9]

I was, for a long time, in the category of people who didn’t appreciate the design.  I remember praying once as a teenager, asking God to help me gain an appreciation for a temple that was so unattractive.  The response that came into my mind was that the important thing was the work done inside, not the appearance, and as long as the work was going on, it was beautiful to Him.  That helped me find peace with it.  (It was also, as it turned out, how the PR arm of the Church addressed the concern in the early days, writing that: “The temple’s modern design and materials focus our attention on the covenants made within rather than on monumentality or pioneer origins many think of with nineteenth-century temples.”[10])  Still, I continued make fun of “the spaceship” afterwards, even drawing a scene on a whiteboard during my mission where the temple was in the middle of a Star Wars space battle.  Immature and somewhat blasphemous, I know, but that was how I felt.

Like I said, not my finest moment in respecting sacred temples

Over time, however, I was won over.  Part of this was pondering on the uniqueness of the temple and the amount of experiences I had with it during my formative years.  Part of it came from pondering on the design of the temple.  Local lore suggests that the architect intended the design to be symbolic of the pillar of fire (the spire) and cloud of smoke (the base) that the Lord was in when He led the Camp of Israel out of Egypt (see Exodus 12:21-22) and which Isaiah referenced when he wrote that:

It shall come to pass, that he that is left in Zion, and he that remaineth in Jerusalem shall be called holy, even every one that it written among the living in Jerusalem:… and the Lord will create upon every dwelling place of mount Zion, and upon her assemblies, a cloud and a smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night: for upon all the glory shall be a defence. And there shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the daytime from the heat, and for a place of refuge, and for a covert from storm and from rain (Isaiah 4:3-6).

Steven Cornell and Kirk Huffaker wrote that: “The Ogden and Provo temples evoke a space-age symbolism, a streamlined Saturn V rocket propelling the Apollo module beyond the terrestrial frontiers and into the great void of space,” leading people to turn upwards, towards heaven.  They added that: ”The intended symbol, a Hebraic pillar of fire atop the cloud God employed to stifle the Egyptian army as Israel made her miraculous escape was similar to the modern Saturn V imagery.”[11]  There is no primary documentation to support the assertion of the Hebraic imagery, though, with some later, secondary recollections stating that Fetzer denied or even detested the idea that he had that symbolism in mind and others recalling Fetzer stating that this was indeed the intended symbolism. If it is true that this is the intended symbolism, this could be the greatest attempt to incorporate symbolism into temple design since the Salt Lake Temple itself, invoking the Old Testament symbolism of the presence of the Lord in its very form.  These musings led me to appreciate and embrace the unique look of the Ogden and Provo Temples.

Of course, as fate would have it, that change in my attitude happened just in time for the announcement that the Ogden Temple was being rebuilt in February 2010.  The extreme makeover of the temple changed the entire exterior of the structure, moving away from the industrial space-age look in favor of a more beautiful and standard temple look, with carved granite and beautiful stain-glass windows, frequently featuring wild rose and prairie grass motifs.  The Ogden Temple, version 2.0 was rededicated on 21 September 2014.  It was noted in the rededication prayer that: “This beautiful temple has been a haven of peace. It has served well. Showing the effects of such service, it became necessary to renovate and improve it. We are grateful for this long-awaited day of rededication, when the renovations have been completed. … Father, wilt Thou place Thy ratifying seal of approval upon this service of rededication and upon all we have done and will do in this, Thy holy house, which we now present to Thee.”[12]

Once again, appearance sat at the center of discussion about the temple, even though it was other needs that initially prompted the renovation (seismic upgrades and updates to utilities were key among them).  William R. Walker was cited in the Salt Lake Tribune as stating that the First Presidency decided to update the temple because “they thought it was somewhat dated,” also noting that it was a “huge investment” that was “basically… the same as building a new temple.” The article went on to cite Paul Anderson—a Mormon architect—who discussed why the old temple’s looks were controversial in the first place: “people found it uncomfortably unfamiliar.”[13]  Meanwhile, the official Church-released announcement sought to find a balance between discussion of the looks and functionality of the temple being important consideration for the renovation, citing presiding bishop Keith B. McMullin as stating that: “These improvements will not only help us meet the increased needs at a busy temple but will also be part of the enhancement and beautification of downtown Ogden,” pointing out that internal improvements and plans for an underground parking lot were other reasons for the renovation. It also, however, entitled the renovation as an “architectural facelift,” and declared that it was connected to Ogden “city’s downtown revitalization plan,” somewhat mitigating the focus on functionality in the work that would be performed.[14]

Since the project was extensive and expensive, there was a fair amount of negative backlash against the project that is reflected in reactions to the recent announcement that the same would be done to the Provo Temple.[15]  A friend of mine, feeling that the appearance of the temple was the main reason for the renovation project, stated that “it hurts me that they would tear down a temple just because it isn’t as pretty as the others.”  In a similar vein, Alan Barnett published a Sunstone article in which he discussed how he came to appreciate the unique architecture of the Ogden and Provo temples—initially seeing no problem with them as a child, to being embarrassed about them as a teenager, and finally coming to appreciate the temples as an adult. He lamented that he “felt a particular sense of loss as I watched the demolition of the Ogden Temple…. I’m sure many people will prefer the new Ogden Temple to the old, but in the long run it will likely be just one more among the many new temples.”[16]  Steve Cornell—a Salt Lake City architect and preservationist—wrote that the Ogden temple ushered in a new era of temple building and, as such, had deep historic value that the Church was trying to erase in the renovation. He would later state, “Whether you like or dislike the architecture of a building is a superficial way to look at it…. You need to look at the history, culture and context in which it was built.”[17]  Not all reactions to the project were negative, of course.  Many residents of Ogden and members of the Church that I spoke with at the time approved of the change or were indifferent to the project.

Some similar reactions have come in response to the announcement about the Provo Temple.  David Amott wrote that changing the temple “would destroy this unique, living record of how the LDS Church grew (grew up) in the middle of the 20th century and became the global institution it is today,” especially in the larger context of other Church buildings in the area from the same era, such as the Missionary Training Center. “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.”  He added that generations of “missionaries from all over the globe, BYU students, etc., have used this temple to receive their spiritual rites, perform rituals for others, etc.,” he added. “This is not just a local temple and a local issue.” [18]  On social media, Lauren Simpson said that: “I am sad to see it go! The old Provo temple is like your family dog.  We are allowed to complain about it but that doesn’t mean we want to replace it!  It’s an ugly dog but it’s OUR ugly dog.”  On the other hand, Jordan Rebecca wrote that: “Like, I get it, keeping the historical architecture alive should be important, but also with so many options in Utah, would any of you actually choose to get married here in the original?  Not that that’s the only purpose, but if no one goes there it makes the others busier.” [19]  There is some significant history that is being visibly erased and it is a well-loved temple among some locals, even with its abstract appearance.

My MTC group at the Provo Temple

Despite my coming to appreciate the space age aesthetic of the old temple,  over the last eight years I have come to love the new Ogden Temple.  It is truly beautiful, inside and out. If it is less unique than the older version then that may still be a good thing. I have found that familiarity is comfortable and less distracting, allowing me to focus more fully on the ordinances and experiences of the temple. This is probably just my experience, but I really like how the Ogden Temple is these days.

In any case, as President Thomas S. Monson noted in his rededicatory prayer, the Ogden Temple “has been a haven of peace. It has served well.”  It has served as one of the most productive and efficient temples over the course of its 50 years.  And, as the voice of the Spirit whispered to me as a teenager, that is the important thing, not the appearance, and as long as the work was going on, it is beautiful to God.  If the leaders of the Church decide that an update to the exterior will help achieve that goal, then that’s okay with me.   And, frankly, the changes to the Ogden Temple exterior a few years ago definitely haven’t hurt its ability to be beautiful.

 

 

For further reading on the history of the Ogden Temple, visit an older post of mine called: “A Cloud of Smoke by Day, and the Shining of a Flaming Fire by Night”.  I once dreamed of writing a book called The Ogden Temple: The First 50 Years, but that’s not likely to happen at this point, so that’s the closest I’ve gotten.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Joseph Fielding Smith, “Ogden Temple Dedicatory Prayer,” Ensign, March 1972, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1972/03/ogden-temple-dedicatory-prayer?lang=eng. The same petition was included in the “Provo Temple Dedicatory Prayer” as well (Ensign, April 1972, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1972/04/provo-temple-dedicatory-prayer?lang=eng)

[2] Russell M. Nelson, “Make Time for the Lord,” CR October 2021, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2021/10/59nelson?lang=eng

[3] Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), 270-271.

[4] Cited in Prince and Wright, David O. McKay, 270.

[5] Alan Barnett, “Lessons in Mormon Modernism: Or, How I Learned to Love the Provo and Ogden Temples, Sunstone 20 September 2012.

[6] Blake T. Ostler, “An Interview with Sterling McMurrin,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17, no. 20, p. 40.

[7] Donald J. Bergsma, “The Temple as a Symbol,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Spring 1968), pp. 26-28, https://www.dialoguejournal.com/articles/mormon-architecture-today-the-temple-as-a-symbol/

[8] Moriah Robertson, “Ogden Temple receives celestial makeover,” NewsNet 18 September 2002, accessed 28 October 2012

[9] Roland and Myrna Hadley, interview by Chad L. Nielsen, 28 December 2012.

[10] “The Ogden Temple,” Ensign, February 1978, 80.

[11] Steve Cornell and Kirk Huffaker, “LDS should preserve Utah’s Space Age temples,” Salt Lake Tribune, 2 April 2010, https://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?itype=storyID&id=8591824.

[12] “Prayer Given at Rededication of Ogden Utah Temple,” Church News 1 October 2014, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/church/news/prayer-given-at-rededication-of-ogden-utah-temple?lang=eng.

[13] Peggy Fletcher Stack and Kristen Moulton, “’Somewhat dated’ LDS temple to get new look,” Salt Lake Tribune, 17 February 2010.

[14] “Ogden Temple to Get Architectural Facelift,” Mormon Newsroom, 17 February 2010. Online: http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/ogden-temple-to-get-architectural-facelift

[15] For the detailed announcement of the Provo Temple, see Scott Taylor, “The Provo Utah Temple will be redesigned.  Here’s what it will look like,” Church News 24 November 2021, https://www.thechurchnews.com/temples/2021-11-24/redesigned-provo-utah-temple-exterior-rendering-233985.

[16] Alan Barnett, “Lessons in Mormon Modernism: Or, How I Learned to Love the Provo and Ogden Temples,” Sunstone, 168. Online: https://www.sunstonemagazine.com/lessons-in-mormon-modernism-or-how-i-learned-to-love-the-provo-and-ogden-temples/

[17] Cited in “First of an era/Ogden ushered in a new direction of temple building for the LDS Church with an emphasis on ordinance work,” Standard Examiner, 3 April 2010. Online: http://www.standard.net/topics/general-conference/2010/04/01/first-era-ogden-ushered-new-direction-temple-building-lds-churc. Cornell’s original article was published in the Salt Lake Tribune: Steve Cornell and Kirk Huffaker, “LDS should preserve Utah’s Space Age temples,” Salt Lake Tribune, 2 April 2010.

[18] 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/

[19] https://twitter.com/BenWinslow/status/1463540056237379590?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1463661785840508928%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es4_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.sltrib.com%2Fnews%2F2021%2F11%2F24%2Fgoodbye-space-age-design%2F

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