The Romanesque Spirit in LDS Architecture

1903, Granite LDS Ward Chapel (9795 S 3100 E, Sandy, UT)

The fall of the Roman Empire ushered in a period sometimes known as the Dark Ages. Much Roman learning and culture was lost after the empire’s collapse, but corrupted ideas about classical architecture remained. The result was Romanesque: a heavy, muscular style of architecture featuring round arches, thick pillars, and tall sturdy towers.  This style dominated church architecture for centuries until the more transcendent gothic style took over in the 11th century.

In the late 19th century, the romanesque style was resurrected as a popular alternative to the overused gothic revival style. Romanesque revival is different in spirit than the original romanesque of the dark ages. It is a picturesque continuation of the 19th century gothic revival, with its evocative explorations of the forgotten past. Romanesque revival added a new repertoire of motifs to the gothic revival style, including polychromatic stone or brickwork and an emphasis on multiple arches.

While most early LDS architecture was built in gothic or classical styles, there are a few notable romanesque revival chapels. These include the Provo Third Ward Chapel and the Bear Lake Stake Tabernacle in Paris Idaho.

Provo 3rd Ward Chapel

470 W 100 N, Provo, UT

The 3rd Ward Chapel is dominated by an enormous tower, still impressive today as it stands near Provo’s business district with its multistory office buildings. The tower is decorated with eight large polychromatic brick arches topped by a gothic steeple. It also includes a romanesque portico to the side of the building and a mixture of gothic and arched windows around the ground floor. The chapel was built in 1903 by Richard Watkins, who also designed the Spring City Tabernacle, another romanesque structure. The building was sold in 1976 and today is the home of the Discovery Academy. The building has been so thoroughly remodeled and added to over the years that it is difficult to get a sense of its original interior. 

It is interesting to contrast the romanesque style of the 3rd Ward Chapel to the gothic style of Provo Tabernacle (now the Provo City Center Temple). The Provo Tabernacle’s windows and spires point to the heavens and give the building a sense of worshipful transcendence and grace. Conversely, the 3rd Ward Chapel’s massive tower and thick arches seem to give an impression of ecclesiastical authority and power.

Bear Lake Stake Tabernacle

109 S Main St, Paris, ID

The 1889 Bear Lake Stake Tabernacle is one of the most beautiful LDS tabernacles still standing. Although it is also in the romanesque style, it has a very different feel than the Provo 3rd Ward Chapel, one that is altogether more evocative and mysterious.

The facade features three towers of differing height. Each of the three towers contains pleasing arrangements of romanesque arches in various lengths and sizes. The towers also feature small round windows which seem to evoke the idea of an “eye.” It’s an unsettling and curious feature, but one that gives the building an otherworldly quality. Once inside the towers, one discovers that these little windows were built to resemble the porthole of a ship. Clearly they were included to celebrate the craftsmanship of the shipbuilders who participated in the construction of the building.

The shipbuilding theme continues in the tabernacle’s ceiling, which resembles the upside-down hull of a ship. It has elaborate arrangements of long, narrow planks which are combined in unique ways to create an interesting design. The remainder of the building is notable for its simple but fine woodwork in the gothic style.

At the back of the tabernacle, there is a rounded vestry, a very common feature in romanesque chapels. Vestries are unnecessary in LDS worship as there is no need for the priest to change clothing. However, the architect Joseph Don Carlos Young (son of Brigham Young) had studied early Romanesque chapels in Europe, and included the vestry as a tribute to the historical style.

Like the Provo 3rd Ward Chapel, the Bear Lake Stake Tabernacle features colorful, polychromatic brickwork, but rougher in style than the cleanly constructed 3rd Ward Chapel. The cheaper quality of the masonry enhances the romanesque feel of the building, giving the whole a more tactile, organic appearance. This unique structure, miles away from any larger city center is a remarkable testament to the vision and sacrifice of these rural LDS pioneers.

Romanesque Today?

Romanesque is an uncommon choice in 21st century architecture. When arches are used, they are generally built in a refined classical style. And if one wants to evoke a medieval connection, the gothic style is generally chosen. I did however stumble across this Centerville Utah meetinghouse which seems to play upon the romanesque tradition. Its arches are built in a layered style that was common in ancient romanesque. This connection is enhanced by the odd choice of steeple. Most recent LDS meetinghouses feature a colonial style steeple, but this one clearly departs from the norm. It has what appears to be a long, narrow romanesque bell tower topped by a medieval-looking aluminum spire. A belfry of this kind is quite anachronistic in the romanesque style, especially with its faux shutters. Additionally, the side entryways are decorated with large circular windows reminiscent of French style rose windows, which also would have graced the transepts, or side entrances of medieval cathedrals. The result is a meetinghouse that is more austere than usual, a welcome change from the colonial revival meetinghouses of our day.

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