The stately columns, arches, and domes of classical architecture were first used to adorn temples dedicated to the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece. In spite of these polytheistic origins, versions of the classical style have been in almost continual use ever since, including LDS meetinghouses and temples today. Because of its historic dominance, the classical style evokes a strong sense of authority and tradition. It’s no surprise that classicism made a resurgence in LDS architecture during the 1980s, which also saw a renewal of religious conservatism in US culture more broadly. However classical architecture hasn’t always been associated with conservatism and tradition. Earlier in church history, there were other forms of classicism that evoked different sets of values.
Federalism in Early LDS Architecture
The LDS church was formed in the early 19th century when federalism was all the rage. Federalism emphasized classical symmetry and orderliness. It evoked Enlightenment values that America had been founded upon. Almost all the churches of colonial New England were built in a similar style called colonial. The Kirkland Temple is a typical example: a rectangular box with symmetrical rows of windows, adorned with a bell tower and balustrade. Throughout the 19th century, most of the temples and tabernacles kept to this symmetrical rectangular form, even when they were decorated in Gothic, Romanesque, or Second Empire motifs. Perhaps the finest example of a pure colonial church building style is the St. George Tabernacle, which is a masterpiece of federalist restraint and grace.
Even though federal and colonial styles endured throughout the 19th century, a new style of architecture emerged called “the picturesque.” It resurrected ancient and evocative styles for emotive and aesthetic purposes. The picturesque style first championed a gothic revival, then a romanesque revival, and finally, a Greek revival in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like federal and colonial architecture, Greek revival was a form of classical architecture, but different in spirit. Federalism emphasized principles of balance and order drawn from classical ideals, but without the explicit details. Greek revival architecture emphasized the sometimes flamboyant details drawn from original Greek and Roman examples. Archeology was beginning to come into its own as a serious field of study, and cultures around the world were flooded with photographs and drawings from antiquities explorers in Greece and Rome.
LDS chapels in the Greek Revival style are evocative reflections on this ancient past. Architects from this period attempted to follow rules laid down by the Roman architect Vitruvius, who first categorized the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders. While most LDS examples were built in the restrained Doric style, there is an abandoned chapel in Ogden which features a magnificent Corinthian capitol, as well as the beautiful Forest Dale Ward shown above.
Post-World War I Classicism
In the 20s and 30s, the LDS church formed a new architecture Bureau to help meet the needs of an expanding church that was also experiencing financial difficulties. The Bureau thought seriously about meetinghouse design and how it could more efficiently meet the spiritual and cultural needs of their communities. Gothic and Greek revival designs were abandoned. Floor plans began to expand and meetinghouses started looking less like traditional churches. In many of these meetinghouses, simplified classical details continued to be used but in increasingly perfunctory or superficial ways. It would take some time for church architects to find a vision that could match that of the early pioneer architects.
International Style with Classical Detailing
In the 1949 movie The Fountainhead, a brilliant architect named Howard Roark is hired to design a new office building. He submits a daring modern design which impresses the client, but who insists it must be softened with subtle classical details. This exact scene likely played out many times within the LDS Architectural Bureau from the 1930 through the 1950s. Architects of the time were enamored with the International Style, an ornament-free modernist style that emphasized purity of form. Hundreds of LDS churches were built in the International Style. Yet they are frequently overlaid with subtle classical details.
Even though the International Style has its own kind of restrained beauty, the traditionalists within the church bureau were right to assert that a church should “look like a church.” International style churches often looked too much like institutions such as hospitals or schools. When classical detailing was added, it did indeed soften the severity of the style and created a more welcoming spirit.
1980s Colonial Revival
In the 1960s, the LDS church abandoned classical motifs and embarked on a two-decade building spree featuring completely modern, standardized designs. Then in the 80s and 90s, classical motifs forcefully reasserted themselves. Meetinghouses were suddenly garbed in columns, courses of dentils, and ornate faux bell towers. In the broader culture, architecture of the 1980s was characterized as post-modern because it often used traditional architectural motifs in playful or ironic ways. However, I find it hard to characterize these meetinghouses as post-modern. I would classify many of them as being part of some kind of Colonial Revival.
The 1980s saw an intense revival of religious conservatism. While the rest of the country had became progressively more secular during the 60s and 70s, religious believers increasingly identified with America’s early religious culture, particularly the colonial era of the founding fathers. Additionally, the LDS church became anxious to correct misconceptions among mainstream denominations that Mormons were not actually Christians. While they didn’t share all of the same beliefs as these other denominations, LDS church members began to identify more broadly with a religiously conservative Christianity seeking to stem the tide of moral decline in America. These cultural trends could explain why ornate colonial bell towers suddenly appeared on standardized meetinghouse designs that had not seen classical motifs for over two decades.
In the 90s and early 2000s, LDS meetinghouse design started to evolve in ways that might be called post-modern. Ornamental details were abandoned, leaving minimalist arches and simplified towers that merely suggested the “idea” of a church. Entryways were often enclosed in wide, half-circle arches. One design features a bold set of faux Doric columns framed by a tall steeple with two descending rooflines perfectly matched in length, a uniquely balanced and pleasing composition. (If a circle is superimposed on the photo below, the church’s architecture divides the circle perfectly into thirds, like the Mercedes Benz logo. The beauty of this proportionality is enhanced symbolically by the presence of the ancient Greek Doric order and its association with mathematical perfection. LDS chapels usually prioritize function over form, but this composition manages to align both functionality and form.)
Interior chapel design has became increasingly standardized and simplified. In many chapels built in the 21st century, three large arches decorate the wall behind the rostrum, painted in soothing pastels or subtle beiges. The lighting is bright and the wooden pews are stained in lighter tones. These details create a welcoming feeling of openness, transparency, and tradition. However, there seems to be a growing chorus of church members griping that this model has overstayed its welcome. Some of the newer models feature gothic or craftsman style motifs, replacing the classical and colonial ones. These are refreshing changes and it will be interesting to see what the future holds. Utah is experiencing a building boom that is expected to continue for decades to come. Hundreds of new chapels will be built in the years ahead. Will the church continue in its conservative, classical vein, or is a modernist revival on the horizon?