History and renovations of Salt Lake Temple and other temples

Apr 18, 2019, 5:52 PM | Updated: May 18, 2020, 8:51 am
The Salt Lake Temple (Courtesy: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)...
The Salt Lake Temple (Courtesy: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)
(Courtesy: Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

The Salt Lake Temple is going to be closed and renovated, adding to the long history of the building. And other temples around the world for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have also gone under renovations at different times, for different reasons.


Between 3 and 5 million people visit Temple Square every year. But it was once disguised as a plowed field.

“During the so-called Utah War, when Federal troops were sent to quell word of a rebellion, [the Saints] covered it up so no one disturbed it,” says Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, an emeritus Church History and Doctrine professor at BYU and current area authority for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

When they uncovered it in 1858, they found problems that needed to be fixed. That was already four years into the building process.

“You had three Church presidents – Brigham Young, John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff – all working on this building. It took 40 years,” said Holzapfel.

Brigham Young said he saw a vision of the Salt Lake Temple within days of reaching the Salt Lake valley in 1847.

“I think the design of the Salt Lake Temple is a symbol widely known and identified with the Church,” said Richard O. Cowan, also a retired BYU Church History and Doctrine professor. “There are other temples that have symbolic elements, but nothing to the extent of the Salt Lake Temple.”

Cowan and Holzapfel have both written extensively about the history of the building and its symbolism.

“Every stone, every window tells a story,” said Holzapfel.

There are 50 buttresses around the building, and at the base of each is an earth stone. Halfway up are moonstones, going in phases around the building. Cowan says if you assign dates to those phases, the right hand buttress on the main tower would be April 6, and the left hand buttress on the same tower coincides with Easter.

“Those two buttresses of the east center tower are witnesses directing our attention to the Savior, one to his birth and the other to his resurrection,” said Cowan.

Go further up and see sun stones, and finally, stars on the towers, including Polaris.

“This temple was the North Star for them. ‘How do I return to God, what kind of person should I be,'” said Holzapfel.

Cowan says the builders wanted to teach lessons and doctrine on the outside of the temple, as well as the inside.

President Woodruff felt the need to really get the Salt Lake Temple finished. The outside was done in April 1892 with great fanfare. Then they hurried over the next year to finish the inside.

It took a lot of time and care to finish. Author and temple illustrator Chad Hawkins says it’s that way all over the world.

“The term you have to understand is ‘Temple Quality,’” says Hawkins, explaining how it’s a step even above the best quality or work someone could do on a building.

“It’s not your average building,” he said.

Holzapfel agrees: “The Salt Lake Temple was this gift to God, it had to be above average.”

It was dedicated April 6, 1893, after what was the first temple open house if you will for the Church — President Woodruff invited visitors to go inside and see. It’s become a tradition today.

Construction impacts

Cowan says he thinks of all the sacrifice from the early settlers in the valley to build such a magnificent building – sacrifice from men and women.

“Women participated equally. They sewed clothing for the workmen and taught their children in schools and gave up costly jewelry to be able to contribute to the building,” he said.

His second great-grandfather James T. Wilson gave one of his oxen to the Church in tithing, and later saw it hauling equipment around the construction site.

“This temple was built by real people, who worshiped God and tried to do their best,” said Holzapfel.

And it wasn’t just for religious reasons. Holzapfel says the construction was the Church investing in resources to pay people and buy goods.

It boosted the building of the railroad in the valley. They built a spur southeast toward the foothills to get the huge granite blocks from the quarry to Temple Square. That route is now the Blue Line of Trax.

“You are riding along the same path of history today,” said Cowan.

The construction unified people coming to the United States from a divided Europe. The temple building lifted the economy, which had times of struggle over the time period.

And it’s that way today in temple construction around the world, going back to that idea of “Temple Quality” explained by illustrator Chad Hawkins. He says building temples changes the worker’s lives.

“In order to build them, they have to receive extra training to do so. Their skills are increased and built upon, so when they leave a temple project, they now have a new skillset they can use in their career,” said Hawkins.

He says temple construction has raised the bar of construction for entire nations in South America and elsewhere.

Other renovations

Hawkins says throughout history, when people have built a temple, they have used the best materials available and the greatest skill at that time.

Therefore temples are updated, renovated, modernized, expanded, or beautified.  Hawkins has illustrated about 175 Latter-day Saint temples around the world, after traveling to the sites.

“One temple had sections done and redone 3 times. It is being built to be a house of the Lord, and must be maintained as such,” he said.

Some temples are renovated for the purpose of modernization, others are expanded.

“The Boise, Idaho Temple was dedicated and it was already too small. The Dallas, Texas Temple was also expanded to twice its size,” and the Chicago Temple and Buenos Aires Temple had square footage added, said Hawkins.

Others get updates to technology. Others get a new outside look, like Boston, Massachusetts and Anchorage, Alaska.

“Often they are improved or beautified in a simple manner,” said Hawkins.

Some have been given an angel Moroni years after they were finished. Ten of the earlier temples without him have now had it added, said Cowan.

Another reason for renovation is because of damage, from floods, fires or hurricanes. The Apia, Samoa Temple had a fire spark during renovation and it was leveled. But it was redesigned and rebuilt to serve those Saints even better, said Hawkins.

Impact of closure

The Salt Lake Temple has been closed before. In the early 1960s, Cowan says it was closed for a thorough upgrading of mechanical and air conditioning systems. And in 1982, it was closed for several months for further renovations and refurbishing. But now there are several other temples in Utah for members to attend.

One of the unique features of the Salt Lake Temple is a floor for rooms for General authorities. It is the heart of the headquarters of the worldwide Church.

“This is where the brethren meet each Thursday, but it is there where they ponder some of the most significant matters affecting the Church,” said Cowan.

“They are ministering in a sacred space, and it’s special,” said Holzapfel.

And tens of thousands have received their temple blessings or been married in this one temple. When it closes for renovation, Hawkins says it can be a spiritual blessing.

“When temples are closed, I hope it’s a time of reflection about how often do you go, and what does it mean for you to have a recommend,” he said. “It can be a time of commitment and reflection, so when it is re-dedicated, you can go with a new commitment and vigor to serve.”

You can listen to the radio versions of this story by clicking on the two indepths below.

Part One

Part Two




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