The Building of Zion

This article originally appeared in Vol.53, No.1 (2006) of Pioneer Magazine.

by Richard W. Jackson

On July 25, , a Sunday, the Saints held their first worship services in the Salt Lake Valley with meetings in the morning and afternoon. By the following Wednesday, Brigham Young and the General Authorities in the party had located the site.

Part of the Mormon Battalion who had been mustered out at Sante Fe for illness . . . [on July 31] began building a bowery 40 by 28 feet on the southeast corner of the selected Temple Square . . . [and] finished the structure in two days [This] first public “building” in the Salt Lake Valley [was described] as “a temporary affair of upright posts, supporting a roof of cross-pieces covered with leafy boughs; but it was to serve as the central meeting place of the Saints for two years, and was to be the focal point of their religious and social life”1 Sabbath sacrament services were held every Sunday there and in its successors, weather permitting, until the “Old Tabernacle” was completed in 1852.2

Almost two thousand Saints came into the valley from late September to early October 1847 and immediately began building winter shelters [resulting] in many small log and/or adobe structures—mostly adobe. Meetinghouse-schoolhouses, which followed promptly, were for the most part quickly constructed and without embellishment. Soon the foundation of agrarian villages was solidly in place.

Between 1847 and 1859 the Latter-day Saints founded about 133 settlements—507 by 1900. Most meetinghouses, commercial buildings, and homes constructed between 1847 and 186L .. were adobes.

“Adobe was cheap—half as costly as wood—and fireproof but of poor quality in the first Utah years before gained experience in selecting and mixing the soil. Bricks made with too much clay shrank and cracked; with too much sand they tell apart. In a heavy rainstorm bricks left to dry on the ground melted into puddles, and if these were at the bottom of the stack, the entire pile fell over into the mud. In February [1849] a number of adobe houses in the fort fell down from the effects of snow’3 but Mormon men soon became as expert in adobe making as they had become at driving ox teams, for early Salt Lake City was an adobe town.”4

The city was divided roughly into five wards in 1847 . . . [and at] a council meeting held in Great Salt Lake City, Feb. 14, 1849, attended by the First Presidency, the Church, most of the Apostles and other leading men, Salt Lake City was divided into 19 wards. The numbering of the wards of the city proper began in the southeast corner of the settled area and proceeded westward.5

A newspaper announcement of comments made at the April of 1852 states:

“President Young then gave notice that from henceforth we should hold meetings regularly each Sabbath at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m, and in the evening, the several quorums of the priesthood would assemble to receive instruction. On Thursdays the brethren and sisters would come together at 2 p.m. for prayer and supplication; and on the first Thursday in each month, at 10 a.m. for the purpose of fasting and prayer, calling on the saints to observe that day.”6

The exact type of meetinghouse a ward built depended on four factors: finances, number of ward members, available materials, and local abilities. The Saints built simply but to the limits of their capabilities, using available materials and familiar methods. They made little or no attempt to standardize buildings. Money was scarce; members contributed labor, materials, teams with drivers, and many other usable commodities and services.

The years between 1860 . . . and 1877, the year of Brigham Young’s death, were relatively peaceful times of growth and expansion. Three developments characterize meetinghouses in the Great Basin during this time. First, the population continued to increase at the average rate of 2,407 Saints per year, providing larger labor and monetary bases. Second, brick came into general use starting in 1863 and made larger, more decorative, and better buildings affordable. Third, the speaker s rostrum, or “stand,” which had been a part of stake tabernacles since their inception, was introduced into the ordinary meetinghouse, though greatly simplified. Toward the end of this period, two-story buildings also became standard. A few tabernacles, including the Great Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, were built.

During the 1860s and particularly in the 1870s, the buildings were constructed with more care, and carpenters provided respectable finish work on cornices, rakes, and gables. Because these buildings often replaced an existing structure, there was less urgency to get into the new building. This allowed more time for architectural embellishments; style and fashion became more important.

Between I860 and 1877, 100 more settlements were established, only 29 outside Utah, bringing the total to about 236. The economy of the Utah Territory was based on commodities; cash flow was negligible. As the settlements grew, so did their need for meetinghouses.

[The] architectural styles of various buildings that appeared in the west during the nineteenth century [typically included] an innovative style [appearing] first in a tabernacle, while ward holdings remained essentially vernacular. Vernacular style is the term applied to a basic building built with no particular inclusion of ornament, window, or door arrangement, or decorative element (eaves, rakes, fronts cornices, or towers). Generally, this style provided only walls, windows, doors and a roof Tabernacles appeared repeatedly during this period [1860-77] and were built in many of the larger settlements. Not only were they usually larger than the meetinghouses, but they were also more architecturally stylish. Many also had galleries (balconies), grand towers of some sort [and] were architecturally unique in some way. [On November 9, 1872], an announcement from the First Presidency appeared in the . . . Deseret News that advised the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley to discontinue their attendance of the Tabernacle sacrament meetings. It included the following paragraph:

“There are many persons who . . have been in the habit for years of going regularly to the Tabernacle, and the thought of separating from the great body of worshippers who have gone there, and confining themselves to their ward meetings is not altogether pleasing; because it breaks into their habits. But to the bulk of the people the change will be a convenient and an agreeable one. It is a long distance to walk to the Tabernacle from some parts of the city on winter days. Many persons, in consequence, cannot attend meetings there. It is hoped that attendance at the Ward meetings will now be more general. Each should take pains to make his meetings interesting and attractive to his own people.”

The meetinghouses built in Salt Lake during the 1870s resemble each other greatly. The First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, and Fourteenth wards all followed a similar plan. They were all simple halls, gable end to the street, with an entrance in the center of the front gable end. This was sometimes called the “Temple Form”. A row of chairs was placed on the end opposite the entrance, and a table functioned for a pulpit as well as for the sacrament service. The next development was noted in a raised platform under this row of chairs which was then called the stand.

[Bv 1877 a] . .. great decentralization . . . took place in the Church [and] was a clear signal that the wards and stakes were on their own in many ways, including providing their meetinghouses. During 1878-99. new wards were formed at a high average of 12.9 per year. This was a time of autonomy and refinement in meetinghouse design, with much more attention to architectural style. Expediency and necessity had been ruling factors for many years.

Now attractiveness became as important a consideration as serviceability.

During this period the Saints had the resources and the interest to make their meetinghouses architecturally creditable, and there was a great interest in current architectural designs. A few Utah architects were showing their professional expertise in public buildings throughout the Intermountain West . . . [including] William Allen in Kaysville, John Watkins in Provo, Reuben Broadbent in Farmington and Kanab, William Nicol Fife in Ogden, and, of course, Truman O. Angell and William H. Folsom in Salt Lake City.

Structurally, the shift from adobe to common brick became complete during this period, even in outlying areas. Face brick was available anywhere, as was common brick, which was even more cost-effective. Foundations were still of stone, which was generally plentiful, and roof structures remained wooden. Heavy timber trusses frequently showing great engineering skill on the part of the builders are found in the larger meetinghouses and tabernacles built in this period.

Aesthetically the buildings continued to improve. Plastered inside surfaces became more and more sophisticated with run moldings and cornices as well as plaster ornamentation ordered from catalog cuts. Coves at the intersections of wall and ceiling became commonplace. Interior trim continued to be painted softwood, grained to look like hardwood, in the finer buildings like the Tabernacle and Assembly Hall in Salt Lake City.

Larger buildings had higher sidewalls and were either thicker or had buttresses on the outside of the walls to stabilize them. Half of the buildings of this period had square-headed windows topped with stone lintels. Window sills were almost always made of stone, even when the upper part of the structure was brick. Late in this period, multi towered buildings, most often evident in the tabernacles, became popular. During remodeling, cupolas were often added to otherwise plain buildings. Newly designed buildings had towers ascending from the ground to the top with carefully designed steeples.

Styles were generally consistent, with less borrowing and mixing between styles than might be expected. The Gothic Revival style, popular in the East a bit earlier than in the Mountain West, was used on about one-fourth of the buildings. One-third of the buildings of this period had two with a chapel on the upper level and an amusement area underneath in a half-basement. The upper floor was supported on posts, and in the lower level curtains strung between posts and walls provided at least a visual barrier for classrooms. Depending upon the craftsmen available to do the work, eventually, Gothic forms appeared inside the buildings in the trim, doors, windows, transoms, and furniture, as well as on the exterior. During 1878-99, the construction of at least 186 new meetinghouses and four major additions to meetinghouses can be documented.

The first twenty years of the twentieth century is one of the most interesting periods in Church as it relates to the use of architectural styles in the design of meetinghouses. It is the longest, perhaps the only, period in the entire history of the Church during which there were few limits placed by the leadership of the Church as to size, style, decoration, materials, and architectural features in general.

These . . . were decades of relative peace and freedom from outside influences for the membership of the Church. The rigors of survival during the first fifty years of the Church in the valley had passed. The individual wards and stakes had stabilized in their respective communities. Outside influences were a minimum until World War I caused turmoil, It was a quiet period when the Church, still primarily a Wasatch Front movement, had an opportunity to develop a foundation that would constitute its anchor for the next periods of growth in the years to come. 

Notes

  1. Stewart L. Grow, A Tabernacle in the Desert (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1958),l4- see also Orson F. Whitney, History of the Church (Salt Lake City; George Q. Cannon, 1892), 343.
  2. Whitney, 344.
  3. Journal History, Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, February 25, 1849.
  4. Leonard J. Arrington, From Quaker to Latter-day Saint (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 229-30,
  5. Lynn M, Hilton, ed,s The Story of Salt Lake Stake (Salt Lake City: Salt Lake Stake and Utah Printing, 1972), 20. Hilton quoted from the unpublished Manuscript History of Salt Lake Stake in the Church Historians office.
  6. Deseret News Weekly, 17 April 1852: 2.

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