Art Deco might seem an odd design choice for church architecture. Emerging during the roaring 20s, the Art Deco style has an exuberant cosmopolitan flavor perhaps better suited to skyscrapers than houses of worship. Nevertheless the Art Deco style has been source of perennial inspiration for LDS architects. While the Idaho Falls Temple is the most famous example of LDS Art Deco architecture, the Idaho Falls 5th Ward Chapel is perhaps the best and most inventive example of the style.
The Idaho Falls 5th Ward Chapel
Hidden away in a quiet tree lined neighborhood, this meetinghouse was built in 1937 by the firm Sundberg and Sundberg. The exterior contains a number of Art Deco features: rounded sets of pilasters, pyramid-like designs, and an asymmetrical silhouette highlighting each of the building’s three stories. An Art Deco building of this kind might typically have been painted in flashy golds, reds or blues. But this church is entirely covered in white plaster, which softens the exuberance of the design. The building still feels exciting, but exciting in a way that might also be called spiritual.
There are no traditional religious motifs that set this building apart as a church. But it could not be mistaken for an institution or theater. It might possibly be mistaken for a museum, but it certainly works admirably as a church. Unfortunately the chapel’s interior is more prosaic, although this may be because it has been remodeled with a conventional rostrum and pews.
Ogden 21st Ward Chapel
Ogden High School (1937) is one of Utah’s finest Art Deco structures. The architect Leslie Hodgeson also built Ogden’s 21st Ward Chapel in 1943 which looks rather like Ogden High School on a budget. Paul L. Anderson in Mormon Moderne makes note of the unique inscription over the entrance, “…as exuberant an inscription panel as one is likely to find on a Mormon building.”
Springville 5th Ward Chapel
This Springville chapel contains a unique, sculpted ceiling and an organ housed within a pyramid-like frame. Art Deco theater ceilings sometimes featured sculptural wave motifs, like the famous one at Radio City Music Hall, where a series of rounded arches surround the stage, evoking the idea of sound waves. In the Springville chapel’s ceiling, the waves span out horizontally across the length of the chapel.
Like the Idaho Falls 5th Ward Chapel, the Yalecrest Ward building in Salt Lake is decorated in white plaster with Art Deco motifs. It seems to be an architectural attempt to balance Art Deco exoticism (mainly in the tower) with the discipline of International Style modernism (in the more restrained window settings).
Copperton Utah is a planned community filled with Tudor revival homes built in the 1930s by the Salt Lake firm Scott & Welsh. It also contains an eccentric looking LDS chapel with Art Deco motifs. (I’ve included a few photographs from the Copperton historic district in the gallery below.)
The University Ward Chapel
The University Ward Chapel (Pope and Burton, 1924) is usually categorized as an Art Deco building. However it has so many other exotic features that it deserves a category all its own. The church’s most arresting and beautiful feature is the tiled mural of Christ preaching directly above the main entrance. The sky behind Christ is made of blue-green tiles that perfectly compliment the golden stonework of the dome within which the mural is set. The design is vaguely Byzantine, an appropriate style choice given the importance that visual representations of Christ have within Orthodox Christianity.
The entrance is set high above the street level and accessed via a set of stairs. The symbolism is clear: worshipers are invited to attend a “sermon on the mount.” Once inside, viewers are greeted with a set of scriptural admonitions embossed on the trusses of the chapel ceiling, further enhancing the pedagogical symbolism. At the front of the chapel is a stylishly designed organ whose pipes are arranged in a typical Art Deco pyramid style. (The interior is not currently open to the public, so the photo is not mine but comes from ldsarchitecture.wordpress.com)
Art Deco Temples
Paul L. Anderson in Mormon Moderne notes striking similarities between the Idaho Falls Temple and the tops of Art Deco skyscrapers in New York City such as 70 Pine Street. Since its construction, the Idaho Falls temple’s pyramid-like design has been used as a template for dozens of other temples, notably the Jordan River Temple (1981), which features another popular Art Deco motif: wing-like structures surrounding the central tower. Wing designs were often used in Art Deco buildings as symbols of the soaring ambitions of predatory capitalists. While the Art Deco skyscraper is often seen as a symbol of capitalist power competing within clusters of other skyscrapers, these temples show that the design can be repurposed as a spiritual symbol of the LDS church’s orientation towards God.
An Art Deco Future?
Most Utah meetinghouses of the past 40 years conform to a repeated set of standard plans. Occasionally I stumble upon subtle variations in the ornamentation of these plans. The three modern chapels in the gallery below conform to the standard meetinghouse plan but have been decorated with Art Deco-like motifs. One has a skyscraper theme on the facade. Another ornamental design resembles a Native American dream catcher. And the one I find the most interesting has been decorated with a series of Art Deco style mini towers. These are refreshing variations and remind us that LDS worship transcends traditionalism.