The Mormon Greek Revival: Early Latter-Day Saint Architecture

The Mormon Greek Revival: Early Latter-Day Saint Architecture

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

by Tiffany Taylor

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have always been an industrious people, faithfully constructing buildings in even the remotest of areas. Though resources were often scarce, early Church members still managed to find quality materials and provide the finest workmanship to produce buildings that adequately expressed the depth of their religious convictions. Many church buildings, such as the Kirtland Temple, were designed through divine inspiration and specially crafted to meet the spiritual needs of Church members. Though plans for early Latter-day Saint structures came from a higher, more unconventional source than the popular architectural books of their day, the buildings always maintained a certain practicality. Church leaders utilized local materials and architectural styles while still maintaining a distinct structural uniqueness. As an example of the Church’s efforts in this regard, we focus our attention on one area—Nauvoo, Illinois—as we look at Mormon in its larger American context.

Early Church building construction took place in an era of architectural experimentation, Greek Revival, also known as the “National Style,” was the “dominant style of American domestic architecture” from 1830 through 1860.1 The Greek Revival style was, according to one architectural historian, “primarily an American idea, the first great outpouring of our architectural energies.”2 Western New York, birthplace of the LDS Church, was described in an architectural narrative as a country of experiment, of striving for the new—a restless, utopian country,” The narrative continues, “And something of this quality seems to have permeated its architecture, given it vitality, made it eager to seize and to use the new Greek forms and to use them and modify them in new and experimental ways.”3 Architectural styles and techniques utilized in the Eastern states slowly made their way across the country. According to another architectural discourse, Greek Revival “moved with the settlers from the older states as they crossed into Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Old Northwest Territory (todays Midwest).”4

The Church’s first major construction project took place in Kirtland, Ohio, as the Saints were commanded by God to build a “a house of God” (D&C 88:119). The Kirtland Temple, built at great sacrifice by the Saints, was described as “a simple rectangular structure with a pointed roof and single tower at the eastern end, in detail a mixture of Federal, Gothic and Greek Revival elements.”5 In his book Greek Revival Architecture in America author Talbot Hamlin describes the “Mormon Temple at Kirtland” as being “unusual in its late use of extraordinarily rich Late-Colonial-type detail, especially in the interior.6

After struggles in Kirtland and then Missouri, the Church finally found peace, though temporary, in Illinois. Here, according to Hamlin, “the Greek element came in early and rapidly dominated the architectural scene.”7 The Church’s City of Nauvoo became one of the earliest, largest, and most well-planned settlements on what was then the frontier of the United States. During the early 1840s, the Church was able to develop itself spiritually and culturally. The Saints seem to have incorporated various architectural methods into the construction of their Nauvoo homes. According to Robert M. Lilli bridge, in an article published by The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Many architectural design dements from the Colonial, Federal, and Greek Revival modes are evidenced in several of the more pretentious residential structures [in Nauvoo].”8 Yet, their buildings still maintained a distinct practicality. Mainstream styles had to be adapted to fit the harsh conditions faced by the Saints in Illinois. Lillibridge states, “These architectural results were tempered likewise by the practicalities and vicissitudes of the frontier experienced.9 Hamlin explains, “People were building houses to fit themselves, their families, their sites, and their climate.”10

The Mormon Greek Revival: Early Latter-Day Saint Architecture The Almon W Babbit House (more commonly known as the John Taylor House) is described by Lillibridge as “one of the largest and architecturally most distinguished residences in Nauvoo”.11 Sandwiched between the Nauvoo Printing and Post Offices (pictured lower far right), the building features a Greek-Revival-style doorway “with sidelights and transom,” as well as “windows on the facade [that] recall most clearly Greek Revival work prevalent throughout the country at this time.”12 The front door of the John Taylor home bears a strong resemblance to other Greek Revival homes throughout the country. In Natchez, Mississippi, another Mississippi River town approximately 750 miles south of Nauvoo, similar characteristics were exhibited on a larger scale in a number of the city’s antebellum mansions. Doorways at the Melrose estate, one of the country’s most well-preserved Greek Revival homes, strongly resemble the front doorway of the John Taylor home. According to one architectural historian, the Mississippi River was a “carrier of architectural ideas. Before the days of railroads, architectural materials and notions traveled largely by water—rivers and canals”.13 With Nauvoo’s location on the Mississippi River, it is not surprising that the city adopted architectural styles similar to those found elsewhere in the United States.

The Orson Hyde home, one of the few surviving original wooden structures in Nauvoo, is another example of a simple Greek Revival structure. According to Lillibridge, the Orson Hyde home is the Nauvoo version of the wooden one-and-one-half story residential type frequently constructed in Ohio or New York” Lillibridge points out that the “Greek Revival elements are in full evidence complete with corner pilasters and windowed entablature.”14

Built as a home for the Prophet Joseph Smith and his family, the Mansion House received special architectural consideration. The home was also to function as a hotel while the larger Nauvoo House was being constructed. The Mansion House was described in the 1934 Historic Buildings Survey conducted by the National Park Service as a Two-Story Frame House, Fair Design, Greek Revival’.15 Architect Richard W Jackson describes the home as “a large, U-shaped, two-story frame house, in rather strict Federal style but with some Greek Revival style details”.16 The facade is broken into sections by four pilasters and features a Federal-style doorway with sidelight and transom elements, topped by a triple window and framed by columns. The Federal-styles visible on this home are described as part of the “late Federal” style, which is “akin to Greek Revival.17

Lillibridge explains that the use of Greek Revival and similar architectural styles by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo came as a result of the general “affinity with Greek and Roman republican .., architectural heritage” experienced throughout the country during the 1830s and 1840s, Lillibridge’s conclusion testing point: that Nauvoo architecture, though similar to other prevailing styles in the country, was unique.

“Probably the most decisive influence on architectural design in the communitarian settlements [such as Nauvoo] ” he stated, “was the intensity and duration of the group religious experience which caused the rejection of prevailing society with its emphasis on architectural modes.”18

An example of Lillibridge’s conclusion is the , of which one traveler said, “A more curious structure has never been erected in the Old Northwest.”19 The Nauvoo Temple was three times larger than the Kirtland Temple, but the two buildings were nearly identical in their proportions.20 The Nauvoo Temple was the culmination of efforts headed by the Prophet Joseph Smith to establish a place where Church members could worship God. After Joseph Smith’s martyrdom in 1844, work on the temple “faltered as grief uncertainty, and fear took their toll on the city.”21 Yet, at the beckoning call of Brigham Young, the work continued. “Stay here in Nauvoo and build up the Temple,” he said; “do not scatter; united we stand, divided we fall.”22 A private dedication service was held at the completed temple on April 30, 1846.

As stated by Lillibridge, “The Temple combined a distinctive architectural mass and original details to reflect fully the unique amalgam of the Mormon religious approach.”23 The Nauvoo era was one of growth for the Church. It was a time in which Mormonism established itself among other American religious traditions. The Saints constructed stately homes that conformed to architectural styles of their times; yet, their architectural practices also maintained a certain uniqueness that distinguished Nauvoo as a religiously founded city.

This concept was explained well in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, which stated,

“Throughout its history, Mormon architecture has been more functional than experimental, more temperate than ornate, more restrained than innovative…. Latter-day Saints’ concern for uniting heavenly principles with earthly practices has been adequately expressed in practical, durable, and extraordinarily well-maintained buildings and grounds,”24 As stated by Hamlin, The Mormons … left an architectural impress on Illinois.25




1 Virginia and Lee McAlester, A Field Guide to American Houses (New York; Knopf, 1984), 182.

2 Wilbur Zelinsky, “The Greek Revival House in G tot Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 13, no. 2 (May 1954); 9-12,

3 Talbot Hamlin, Greek Revival Architecture in America (New York; Dover Publications, 1964), 269,

4 McAlester, A Field Guide to American Houses, 182.

5 Rexford Newcomb, The Architecture of the Old Northwest Territory (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1950), 151, as cited in David S. Andrew and Laurel B, Blank, Tour Mormon Temples in Utah,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 30, no. 1 (March 1971): 54.

6 Hamlin, Greek Revival Architecture, 287.

7 Ibid., 303-4.

8 Robert M. Lillibridge, “Architectural Currents on the Mississippi River Frontier; Nauvoo, Illinois,1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12″Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 19, no, 3 (October 1960); 112.

9 Ibid, 114,

10 Talbot Hamlin, “The Greek Revival in America and Some of Its Critics,” Art Bulletin 24, no, 3 (September 1942): 247,

11 Lillibridge, “Architectural Currents on the Mississippi River From tier,” 113.

12 Ibid

13 Rexford Newcomb, “Studies in Regional Architecture,” College Art Journal 5, no. 2 (January 1946); 95.

14 Lillibridge, “Architectural Currents on the Mississippi River Frontier,” 113,

15 Index Number ILL 34-NAU 1, Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, Prints and Photograph Division, Washington, D.C.

16 Richard W. Jackson, Places of Worship: ISO Years of Latter-day Saint Architecture (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2003), 31.

17 Lillibridge, “Architectural Currents on the Mississippi River Frontier,” 113.

18 Ibid, 114

19 Newcomb, Architecture of the Old Northwest Territory, 153, as cited in Andrew and Blank, “The Four Mormon Temples of Utah,” 57.

20 Jackson, Places of Worship, 40.

21 Ibid., 41.

22 Ibid.

23 Lillibridge, “Architectural Currents on the Mississippi River Frontier,” 114.

24 Franklin T. Ferguson, in Encyclopedia of Mormonism (Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992),

25 Hamlin, Greek Revival Architecture in America, 307.

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