William Harrison Folsom: Pioneer Architect

William Harrison Folsom: Pioneer Architect

William Harrison Folsom: Pioneer ArchitectWhen William Harrison Folsom peacefully died at midnight on Mar. 19, 1901, just six days short of his 86th birthday, he brought to a close a lifetime that had been anything but uneventful. A New England–born convert to the Latter-day Saint church, he left a record of experience that reads like a summary of early Mormon history. He received baptism in an icy river, became personally acquainted with Joseph Smith, assisted in the building of the Nauvoo Temple, preached and electioneered for the church, fought in the Battle of Nauvoo and suffered with the expelled Saints in Iowa in the winter of 1864. Although hanged by an anti-Mormon mob, he lived to take part in the California rush, cross the plains to Utah, assume positions of leadership in the church, take three wives and raise 23 children, one of whom became a prominent wife of Brigham Young. His most important contributions, however, were his accomplishments as an and builder. He was a talented architect—perhaps the most skilled designer of his generation in Utah—and he used his considerable abilities in a long and prolific career that included most of the significant buildings of the period. However, although his contributions to the history of Utah were substantial and some of his best buildings are still standing today, Folsom’s name has been almost forgotten.1 

William Harrison Folsom was born Mar. 25, 1815, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the third child of a carpenter. William learned the trade of carpentry from his father and by the time he married Zerviah Eliza Clark at the age of 22, he was already an accredited joiner.2 

When they first heard about the Latter-day Saints, they became believers in the new faith, and on Feb. 17, 1842, they were baptized in the Niagara River in a hole cut through 28 inches of ice.3 In the fall of 1843 William went to Nauvoo, became personally acquainted with Joseph and Hyrum Smith and began working as a carpenter on the temple. Here he met and worked with other skilled artisans and craftsmen who had joined the church: William Weeks, Truman O. Angell, Elijah Fordham, Miles Romney and others. 

When the main body of the church began to leave Nauvoo in Feb. 1846, Folsom was asked to remain behind to help complete the interior of the Nauvoo Temple. He was one of the small group present at the dedication of the building in May. In September, violence erupted as a force of over fifteen hundred men descended on the city.4 The Folsom family left without provisions and camped in the open for nearly three weeks on the Iowa shore of the Mississippi River awaiting the arrival of relief wagons from the main body of the church in Winter Quarters. When rescue wagons arrived, Folsom and his family did not return with them to Winter Quarters. Instead, they walked to Farmington, Iowa, where they shared a vacant house on the outskirts of town with another Mormon family. Anti-Mormon feeling was also present in this area. The Folsoms’ house was occasionally stoned. Early in 1847, Folsom was surrounded by an unfriendly and intoxicated group of men. The group recognized him as a Mormon, tied a rope around his neck, threw it over the awning of a store and lifted him off his feet three times. The third time he was left hanging. He was saved when an acquaintance arrived on the scene and released him.5 

In 1849 Folsom left his wife and five children in Iowa while he departed for the gold fields of California. He stayed in California for nearly two years, mining and doing construction work. He helped to organize the Deer Creek Water Company and supervised the construction of a canal nine miles long. The following year he headed home with his earnings of $10,000 in cash and gold. For his return trip, he took the longer but safer route, stopping in Hawaii, passing around Cape Horn and arriving in Philadelphia in the fall.6 Warned by a mysterious voice not to board a boat bound for Cleveland, he delayed his departure and escaped a disastrous collision that took the lives of nearly all the passengers.7 

In 1854, Folsom took his family to Council Bluffs for the winter. Folsom stayed [there] for the next six years, operating a successful construction business and serving as branch president for the church. His most notable professional achievement during this time was his work on the territorial capitol in Omaha. Folsom contracted with the architects of the capitol to build the colonnade for this two-story classical building. 


On Oct. 3, 1860, , at the age of 45, and his family finally arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. 

When Folsom arrived on the scene in Salt Lake City, he brought with him experience and skills that were unique in the territory. He had traveled extensively in the United States. In addition, he had lived in the Midwest for more than a decade longer than many of the pioneers. During this time, he had gained experience and confidence as a builder, and he had profited from the opportunity to learn about the newer styles of architecture that had become popular since the departure of most of the Mormons. As a result, the buildings he designed in the next few years reflected a greater sophistication and a better understanding of architectural styles than those of most of his Utah contemporaries. Folsom’s abilities were recognized quickly. He was appointed assistant church architect within a few months of his arrival, and he was soon entrusted with the design and supervision of important projects. 

The Salt Lake Theatre, via utah.gov

Folsom was assigned to make plans for his first major building, the Salt Lake Theatre (see Pioneer magazine Winter, 2003). This project was carried out under the personal direction and patronage of Brigham Young.8 When completed, the structure was 80 by 144 feet at the foundation and stood 90 feet high, making it the largest building in the city. It was built with local materials, even the huge roof trusses being constructed with locally produced nails and wooden pegs. The walls, constructed of cut stone and adobe block, were plastered and decorated with proper classical pilasters, blank windows and a decorative frieze. 

In contrast with the rather austere exterior, the interior of the building was finished in elaborate fashion. According to one contemporary account, the elaborate chandelier was the work of another designer—it was constructed from a cart-wheel after designs created by Brigham Young.9 

That the completed theatre was impressive is confirmed by the reports of non-Mormon visitors of the period. Samuel Bowles, who saw it in 1865, wrote, “It ranks, alike in capacity and elegance of structure and finish, along with the opera houses and academies of music in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cincinnati.”10 

In October conference of 1861, Folsom was officially sustained [as church architect]. The following year he was ordained a high priest and sustained as a member of the high council of the Salt Lake Stake. In this capacity he spoke frequently at church meetings and occasionally accompanied Brigham Young and other church leaders on their tours of outlying settlements. His standing among the leaders of the church was further enhanced in January 1863 when—with the marriage of his daughter Amelia to Brigham Young—he became a father-in-law to the Mormon leader who was 14 years his senior. 

In his new calling as church architect, Folsom had a major role in the construction of several important buildings in the city. The foundations of the Salt Lake Temple had been buried during the preparations to defend the valley from Johnston’s army in 1858 and no work had been done on the building since that time. Folsom supervised the re-excavation. 

Folsom also figured in the construction of the Salt Lake Tabernacle (see Nathan Grow, “One Masterpiece, Four Masters,” Pioneer magazine 54, #2 [2007]: 24–32). Folsom’s work on the building seems to have been limited to the preparation of general plans. Only a few months after the commencement of the new tabernacle, preparations were made for the erection of a new city hall on First South just east of State Street. Folsom submitted plans for the new building in January 1864. The building was a handsome and substantial structure, an impressive achievement for the time and place.11 

During his tenure as church architect, Folsom also participated in a variety of other activities. Besides his supervision of the theatre, city hall, tabernacle and temple, he consulted in the design of other church buildings, including the beautiful tabernacle in St. George.12 He participated in the organization of the short-lived Deseret Academy of Art in 1863 with such other notables as E.L.T. Harrison, C.R. Savage, George M. Ottinger and Daniel Weggeland. Folsom’s personal life during this time was also eventful. His wife died in the summer of 1863, and he remarried in December of the same year. Two years later, he took a second wife. 

Much of Folsom’s attention in the next few years was directed toward private construction projects that included some of the more important buildings of the city. Together with George Romney, he built several large commercial buildings, including the much-admired Amussen Building on Main Street, a fireproof structure [and] one of the first local buildings to have indoor plumbing. A large porch on the second floor extended over the sidewalk providing a place for Sunday band concerts. In another venture, Folsom and Romney combined with Thomas Latimer and George Taylor to set up the first steam-driven planing mill in the valley.13 Folsom’s interest also extended to the construction of various types of vehicles, and he served for a time as secretary to a local group of carriage, wagon and sleigh makers.14

In Oct. 1869 Folsom was called on a short-term mission for the church in Buffalo.15 In October of the following year, Folsom was called on another mission during which he visited Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia and other eastern states, preaching and observing architecture in these areas. He returned to Utah the following spring. 

The Gardo House, Salt Lake City via wikipedia

Folsom’s business ventures continued to prosper in the next few years. During this time, in association with Joseph Ridges (the builder of the tabernacle organ), Folsom designed and constructed one of the most famous residences in the city, the Gardo House, Also called Amelia’s Palace, the residence was located on the southwest corner of South Temple and State Street and was intended by Brigham Young intended to use for entertaining important guests. It was designed in elaborate Second Empire style, with mansard roofs, arched dormer windows, elaborate bay windows, a tower and a porch. The style of the building reflected Folsom’s recent contact with the fashionable architecture of the East. The interior included fine wood and plaster details and a graceful staircase. Although begun in 1873, construction on the house progressed slowly and the building was not completed until after Brigham Young’s death.16 

In May 1874, Folsom was chosen to be a counselor in the presidency of the Salt Lake Stake, the presiding council for the church in all of the Salt Lake Valley and surrounding areas (see Pioneer magazine 54, #3 [2007]). In the fall of the same year, he was asked to go to St. George to direct the work on the temple there. The superintendent of construction, Miles Romney, had broken his leg in a fall. In 1875 Folsom began work on yet another important monument in the city, the handsome iron-fronted building for ZCMI, the church department store. The ZCMI building was the first example of the style in Utah.17

In 1875 William Folsom was appointed [to supervise the construction of the ]. Folsom was 62 years old at the time. During the decade he spent in this remote settlement, he produced some of the finest work of his career.18

The Manti Temple, 1914 via wikipedia

While the general form of the Manti Temple was probably worked out cooperatively with Angell and others, there were refinements and special features in the design at Manti that appear to be the work of only Folsom himself. The steeply sloping Manti site was difficult. Even after excavation, the difference in grade between the front and back of the building was more than two stories. Folsom solved this problem by terracing the site with a tall stone retaining wall. The east façade of the building was designed like a two-story building, while the west façade appeared to be a full four stories high.19

While working on the Manti Temple, Folsom also directed other projects that were to be among his most lasting contributions. In 1878, after lightning struck the tower of the St. George Temple, splitting the wooden cupola in half, Folsom designed the new cupola under the supervision of Truman O. Angell, the original architect of the building.20 Folsom’s design was considerably larger than the original and much richer and more refined in detail. 

While Folsom was living at Manti, local church leaders requested that he prepare designs for two tabernacles to be built in the area. The one in Moroni was the more modest of the two, a simple rectangular structure with a tower over the front entrance. The larger Manti Tabernacle, built of the same oölite stone as the temple, had a more elaborate design that included an interior gallery. 

In 1882 Folsom was chosen as architect for another important building, the Provo Tabernacle. Gothic Revival elements appeared in the pointed windows and steep roofs, while the interior of the tabernacle was in the tradition of New England architecture —a rectangular space with a gallery and flat ceiling. The woodwork of the rostrum was a truly remarkable piece of craftsmanship and design, mixing a variety of Victorian and Greek Revival elements in an elaborate composition of curved, horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines. Although somewhat lacking in unity between interior and exterior, the tabernacle demonstrated both the originality of Folsom’s compositional skills and the breadth of his eclecticism. 

The Deseret News reported [concerning the 1888 Manti temple dedication]:

“Elder W. H. Folsom felt that words were inadequate to express his joy at being present at the dedication of the Temple, a pleasure he did not expect, a few years since, to live to enjoy. Felt to praise and bless and thank the men who had labored upon the temple. Knew that the Temple had been accepted of the Lord and that His Spirit was present.”21

At the age of 75, Folsom was arrested for bigamy and fined by the court. [In his later years] he worked in the , served as a home missionary and became a familiar speaker in church meetings and firesides. In 1900, at the age of 85, he was ordained a patriarch, although his health prohibited him from actively officiating in this position. Folsom quietly died at home the following year, only six days short of his 86th birthday. The Deseret News eulogized him in an editorial:

“In the demise of Patriarch W. H. Folsom, Utah loses one of her old-time and most worthy citizens. He was identified with many of the finest structures in the State as their architect and builder, and was respected by all classes of the community. His excellent qualities of mind and heart endeared him to a host of friends, and his material works stand as monuments to his skill and accuracy in both design and execution.”22

William Harrison Folsom’s legacy to the people of Utah and the LDS church was generous. Although his name has not become familiar to most students of Mormon history, his work has not been forgotten. All of his remaining major buildings are listed on either the State Register or the National Register of Historic Places, and the Manti Temple has become one of the landmarks of the West.23 Even today, anyone who visits Manti, seeing the temple miles before reaching the town, watching the building grow larger and more impressive as it is approached, distinguishing the harmonious proportions and fine details and finally entering into the spirit of dedication and artistic sensitivity that fills the rooms of the structure, will come away convinced that Folsom’s contribution to Utah’s heritage is memorable and precious indeed. 

This article originally appeared in Vol.58 No.2 of Pioneer Magazine


Excerpts from Paul L. Anderson, “William Harrison Folsom: Pioneer Architect.” Utah Historical Quarterly 43 (Summer 1975): 240–59. Anderson is an architectural designer and historian, currently at BYU Museum of Art. 

1 Nina Folsom Moss, A History of William Harrison Folsom (Salt Lake City, 1973). This is the most complete source on Folsom’s life, containing family recollections and original research.

2 Moss, 17. A joiner is a carpenter skilled in such specialized tasks as building stairs and finishing interior woodwork. 

3 “Reminiscences of Church History,” Deseret Evening News, Oct. 3, 1910, p. 4. 

4 Journal History of the Church, Sept. 10–11, 1846. Folsom’s description of the Battle of Nauvoo as recorded by Andrew Jenson is the official Mormon account of the event. 

5 “Reminiscences of Church History,” p. 4. 

6 “Folsom William Harrison, 1815–1901,” dictation of William Folsom at Manti, Utah, 1886, ms, Bancroft Library, Univ. of Calif. at Berkeley. 

7 “Reminiscences of Church History,” p. 4.

8 Myrtle E. Henderson, A History of the Theatre in Salt Lake City (Evanston, Ill., 1934), 49.

9 F. H. Ludlow, The Heart of the Continent (London, 1870), 370–71. 

10 Samuel Bowles, Across the Continent (Springfield, Mass., 1865), 103. 

11 The city hall was moved from its original location to Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City between 1961 and 1963, commonly referred to as the Council House today. 

12 Hazel B. Bradshaw, “Our Early Meeting House (St. George),” in Kate B. Carter, comp., Heart Throbs of the West, 12 vols. (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1939–51), 3:64. Mrs. Bradshaw states, “Brother Folsom was Church architect at this time and lent considerable aid in planning and designing the building.” (See also Moss, 37.) 

13 “Our Industries and Industrial Men,” Tullidge’s Quarterly Magazine, 3 (Oct. 1883), 35. 

14 “Mechanics Meeting,” Deseret News, June 17, 1868, p. 149, and “Co-operative,” Deseret News, June 24, 1868, p. 157. 

15 Journal History, July 19, 1870, p. 1. 

16 The Gardo House was completed in 1881 and was used by John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff during their terms as presidents of the LDS church. Rented for a time, sold in 1901 and finally razed in 1921 to make way for the Federal Reserve Bank. 

17 Moss, 55–56. 

18 That plans of the temples were to be worked out under the direction of Brigham Young is shown in a note on a drawing of the basement floor of the Manti Temple signed by William Folsom but not dated. (See Manti Temple File, LDS Church History Library.) That the Manti Temple was to follow the lead of the Logan Temple is demonstrated in a letter from Folsom to John Taylor, May 24, 1878. (See Taylor Correspondence, LDS Church History Library.) The drawing of the Manti Temple on the ceiling of the Assembly Hall in Salt Lake City shows towers different in design from those finally constructed. Since the painting predates the completion of the Manti Temple, it is likely that the tower designs were finalized or changed during construction of the building. 

19 Laurel Brana Blank Andrew, “The Nineteenth- Century Temple Architecture of the Latter-day Saints” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Michigan, 1973), 257. 

20 Truman O. Angell, Sr., to John Taylor, Nov. 27, 1880, Taylor Correspondence. Angell wrote, “When Bro. Folsom was here to make a miniature drawing for topping out the St. George Temple tower, I stood by and counseled him until it suited my eye.” The specifications for the new cupola prepared by Folsom are preserved at the Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif. 

21 “The Dedication,” Deseret News, May 30, 1888, p. 311. 

22 “Patriarch W. H. Folsom,” Deseret Semi-Weekly News, Mar. 25, 1901, p. 4. 

23 The Manti Tabernacle is on the Utah State Register of Historic Sites; and the Provo Tabernacle, the Devereaux House, the Salt Lake Tabernacle, the Salt Lake City Hall, the ZCMI Cast-Iron Front, and the Manti Temple are on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Articles

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.