Latter-Day Fortresses

The spooky charisma of Mormon temples.

Every recent Olympics has had its architectural icon: In Nagano ‘98 it was the 1,400-year-old Zenkoji Buddhist shrine. In Sydney 2000 it was Jorn Utzon’s Opera House. In Salt Lake City 2002 it’s the Mormon Temple, which can be glimpsed in nearly every one of NBC’s shots of the city—including the studio backdrop showing downtown, where it hovers just over Bob Costas’ right shoulder.

Sure, the network will try to give equal time to non-denominational attractions like the Wasatch Mountains and Salt Lake’s City and County Building. But the temple is going to be hard to beat for visibility over the next 10 days, especially since the Olympic medal stand has been set up practically at its feet. And with its dramatic lighting, the building is even more prominent at night, when American TV audiences are at their biggest and the mountains slip into un-telegenic darkness.

As church lore has it, Brigham Young himself picked the spot for the temple in the summer of 1847 after the Mormons, fleeing persecution in the Midwest, finally came to rest on the cracked floor of the Salt Lake Valley. The building, finished in 1893, was designed by Young’s brother-in-law, the sublimely named Truman O. Angell. About 225 feet at its highest point, it features a solidly American frame cloaked in flowing Gothic and Romanesque ornament and topped off by a half-dozen spires and a golden statue of the angel Moroni. The temple looks like the sort of handsome, broad-shouldered late-19th-century building you can find in any number of American downtowns—but on its tiptoes, reaching up to the heavens.

The Mormon Temple is not the tallest building in Salt Lake City (that honor goes to the bland, 28-story office tower nearby, which holds the church offices). But it’s easily among the most architecturally striking in town, and in that quality it resembles nearly every one of the Mormons’$2 107 temples around the world. I wouldn’t know a Baptist church from a Lutheran one if they were standing side by side, but like most people I can spot a Mormon temple a good three or four miles away.

What is it about the design of these buildings that allows them to stand out so unmistakably from their neighbors? The first answer is the easiest: Mormon temples don’t usually have any neighbors at all. Their sites are carefully selected, usually for a combination of remoteness and high visibility. Often this means a point on the crest of a hill near—even directly adjacent to—a freeway on the edge of a metropolitan area. This is the case with the huge temples in Oakland (finished in 1964) and near Washington, D.C. (1974), among others. When D.C. traffic reporters talk about a backup on the Beltway by “the temple,” listeners know the spot right away.

Stylistically, Mormon temples have spanned pretty much the whole architectural spectrum, from Neoclassicism to the Prairie Style to strip-mall Postmodernism. In Mexico City the LDS temple is an updated version of a Mayan design. Lately, in a kind of architectural paradigm shift, the church has begun building smaller temples in the suburbs rather than flagships in and around big cities.

But the temples continue to possess a singular architectural presence, and the best-known group of them, the postwar behemoths in places like Ogden, Utah, and D.C., are remarkably consistent examples of a grandiose if tight-lipped late Modernist style. As Paul Anderson, the curator of a show on Mormon architecture now running at the Brigham Young University Art Museum, notes, the temples have always aimed for a delicate harmony between the church’s desire to appear reassuringly Christian—to help dismiss the air of clannishness and peculiarity that’s always hovered over Mormonism—while at the same time proudly advertising its separation from Catholic and Protestant dogma. The result, as Anderson puts it, are buildings that want “to appear distinctive without seeming strange.” Indeed, Mormon temple architecture is most remarkable for its contradictions. The temples are severe but sugary-sweet, traditional but shiny-new-looking, prominent but guarded.

In fact, the temples are closed to non-members—even practicing Mormons are required to present a small card, signed by a bishop and known as a “recommend,” to get in. This gives the buildings a secretive, sanctified cast. Accordingly, many of them have blank, windowless façades that allow no glimpse of what goes on inside. The temples are not used for Sunday services, as many non-Mormons believe; those are held in the smaller and more numerous meetinghouses. Instead the temples host ceremonies binding members to one another or to God, including weddings, baptisms, and “sealings” and “endowments,” whose details remain murky to outsiders.

Why would Mormons, who are so well-known for their polite but persistent evangelism, create buildings that are not just opaque but often intimidating? Wouldn’t it make more sense to let potential converts peer at the glories within? On the other hand, this opacity fosters a sense of suspense and allure, of perks reserved for insiders. After all, if you can wander into a house of worship at will, you don’t have much incentive to make a permanent commitment.

The forbidding look of the temples has some historical roots, too. The church’s earliest buildings were frequent targets of anti-Mormon sentiment; a temple in Nauvoo, Ill., that the Mormons abandoned as they moved west, was burned nearly to the ground in 1848. (It is now being rebuilt.) “With the painful experience of Nauvoo still fresh in their minds,” the LDS Web site reports, “Church leaders determined that the Salt Lake Temple would be almost fortress-like in its design and construction.” That quality has been passed along from temple to temple over the years.

The temples play on the subconscious and dredge up no small number of associations, from the religious to the pop-cultural. When I was a kid, I lived near the Mormon temple in the Oakland hills. The building has a spooky charisma at night, with a lighting scheme that’s the architectural equivalent of holding a flashlight under your chin. Every once in while it would show up in my nightmares.

Other connections are less dark. Mormons sometimes say their temples allow them to step “out of the world” for a few hours. Mostly, of course, that means they consider the buildings a refuge from a chaotic, godless society. But the temples do look a little as though they came from “out of the world”—if not from another planet, then at least from some distant or imagined landscape. Non-Mormons tend to feel the same way. After the temple outside Washington was finished in the mid-’70s, somebody climbed onto a Beltway overpass with a can of spray paint and scrawled a message reading, “Surrender Dorothy!”