LDS Tabernacles

The Montpelier (ID) Tabernacle, 1918

A total of 75 tabernacles were built by the latter-day saints according to Richard L. Jackson’s survey of church architecture, Places of Worship. Jackson concedes that this number is somewhat subjective given that locals sometimes described their meetinghouses as tabernacles even when they were not officially designated as such. Of these 75 tabernacles, only 37 survive. Included in the casualties are masterpieces such as the Summit Stake Tabernacle in Coalville. Fortunately, the church has been meticulously restoring the remaining tabernacles in its possession so that they can be enjoyed for generations to come.

In the gallery below, the sketches (by Richard L. Jackson) denote tabernacles that have been torn down while the photographs highlight those that still stand. Some of these have been sold to other organizations and some are still used by the LDS church. Each thumbnail links to a separate webpage with more photographs and details, either my own posts, wikipedia, Jackson’s survey, or other bloggers who’ve done research on tabernacles like Willhite, Historic LDS Architecture, and LDS Architecture. I intend to visit and photograph all of the remaining tabernacles in due course. I hope you enjoy and please let me know if I’ve made any mistakes. (If anyone knows anything about the St. Anthony, Boise, and Twin Falls Tabernacles, I have been unable to find any current information on their status.)

Return to Traditionalism: LDS Architecture 1977-Present

1280 Walden Ln, Draper, UT

The modern period of LDS architecture (1958-1977) represented a complete rejection of the classical architectural tradition. Gone were the arches, pilasters, and columns that had adorned churches for generations. A pure and disciplined modernism reigned supreme. However, in 1977 and 79, the church introduced two new standard plans that marked the end of the modern period and pointed LDS architecture in a new direction, one that would soon return to the classical tradition.

The Brower and Cody Standard Plans (1977-79)

The Brower Standard Plan, Richard W. Jackson, Places of Worship, pg. 374
The Cody Standard Plan, Richard W. Jackson, Places of Worship, pg. 373

It is hard to overstate the influence that the Brower and Cody standard plans had on LDS meetinghouse architecture. Their overall format is very similar to the format of most meetinghouses built today. Richard L. Jackson’s survey of LDS architecture Places of Worship had this to say about the introduction of the 1977 Brower Standard Plan: “The building became an experimental model and was monitored closely for function, heating, ventilating, air-conditioning, and electrical parts. The results of this monitoring were incorporated in subsequent designs. The success of this Brower plan was such that a short moratorium was called on new ward meetinghouses in order that the Brower could be used instead of the earlier standard plans.”

The Brower plan placed the entire meetinghouse under a single gabled roof structure which greatly increased the affordibility and efficiency of the building. The Cody plan (first built in Cody, WY in 1979) economized even further by eliminating the facade of the meetinghouse entirely and replacing it with a hipped roof which descended to a first floor bank of windows (see illustration above).

The End of Modernism

What the Brower and Cody plans gained in efficiency, they sacrificed in silhouette. The modernist motto “form follows function” dictates that a building’s function should be apparent in its form. During the 60s and 70s one could always tell from the outside that an LDS meetinghouse consisted of a central chapel surrounded by shorter wings for classrooms and offices. It was a pleasing combination of abstract forms: squares, gables, and rectangles, punctuated by a modern spire. The form of these buildings matched their function. However, in the new Brower and Cody standard plans, it was not obvious from the form of the building what the function was. The Cody was particularly problematic because the chapel facade was missing entirely. What kind of building was it supposed to be?

The Cody. A missing facade. (1395 S 200 E Farmington, UT)

In the Brower plan, the facade was retained. However, it was decorated with a stylized, post-modern design devoid of any apparent religious or architectural value. Again, the question could be asked, is this actually a house of worship? How could a careful and conservative church have approved such a design? A possible answer to this question can be found in examining architectural trends in the 70s and 80s more broadly. The 70s were a traumatic decade, both for American society, and for architecture in general. Post-modernism was the response, with its sometimes playful, sometimes cynical mixture of old and new ides. During this period the LDS church was also experiencing explosive growth and needed to find more economic ways of serving its growing membership. In the midst of this social and religious transformation, the modernist architectural vision had been lost.

The Brower. A post-modern design featured on the facade. (540 N 1200 E, Bountiful, UT)

The interior of the Brower and Cody plans also departed dramatically from the other standard plans. Previous chapel interiors had an “enclosed” feel about them. They often featured organic materials like brick and darkly stained wood paneling, which gave the enclosure a warm, comforting quality. The Brower and Cody chapels have the opposite effect. They are broad, open, and filled with light. The cove lighting surrounding the chapel is set lower than in the other standard plans, which makes the ceiling feel open and expansive. Additionally, the ceiling has a sculptural quality reminiscent of abstracted clouds, enhancing its sky-like qualities. Long courses of wood paneling emphasize horizontal rather than vertical lines. The Brower and Cody standard plans would change the nature of LDS chapel design going forward. To this day, LDS chapels all have a wide, bright, and open feel to them.

The Return to Traditionalism

1475 N 50 E Centerville, UT

It didn’t take long before architects started decorating the Brower and Cody plans with classical and colonial motifs. The utilitarian rain gutters were redesigned with long courses of aluminum dentils. Porticos with columns were added to side entrances. Arched windows were also added. The steeple was replaced with an ornate, colonial style bell-tower, complete with a balustrade. This was a radical departure from the modernist period of the 60s and 70s. It may have been precipitated by social changes in the United States during the late 70s which saw the emergence of a new, consolidated conservative movement which idealized America’s founding fathers and colonial religions they belonged to.

However, it is also possible that LDS architects saw traditionalism as a way to solve the aesthetic problems that the Brower and Cody models created due to the rejection of the modernist silhouette. Their consolidated, rectangular design could be reimagined in two traditional ways: as a cruciform design reminiscent of a cathedral, or as an expanded version of the colonial American church house.

A Cruciform “Cathedral”

3010 Lower Saddleback Rd, Park City, UT

The Brower and Cody plans were rectangular structures with two gabled entrances on their sides. These entrances could be expanded upward and outward to create a cruciform structure reminiscent of a small medieval cathedral. LDS architects sometimes highlighted the medieval connection by decorating these entrances with round windows reminiscent of the rose windows of French gothic cathedrals. A gothic version of this cruciform structure was built near Park City (shown above).

An Expanded Colonial Church House

2110 N Main St. Centerville, UT

Ultimately, the most successful revision of the Brower model was its reconfiguration to resemble a colonial American church house. Historically, colonial churches featured a classical facade topped by an ornate bell tower. This sometimes made the churches look “top-heavy.” Classical facades were designed for ancient Greek temples with no steeples or bell towers. Church architects in the colonial period like Charles Bulfinch had to go to great lengths to mitigate the problems that arose from adding bell towers, for example, by adding large porticos to the facades to create a more pleasing sense of proportion.

LDS architects stumbled on a unique solution to this old architectural problem. The Brower model had a wide gabled roof that descended from the two-story apex down to the first story roofline. This meant that the entire structure was grounded, well balanced, and easily able to support a bell tower without looking top-heavy. The result was a masterpiece of proportionality. To get a sense of just how perfectly the design works, imagine the circle of the Mercedes Benz logo superimposed on the image below. You can see how the structure divides the circle into perfect thirds.

1478 W 2175 S, Woods Cross, UT

Classical Interiors

954 W 1100 N, North Salt Lake, UT

With the exterior changes to the Brower and Cody models, modernist elements in the chapel were stripped away and replaced with classical motifs. The bright, open aesthetic was retained and in some cases enhanced with lighter wood stains, brighter lights, and soft pastel coloring. The result was a new kind of chapel experience, one that felt particularly welcoming, bright, and comfortable. This sense of comfort is enhanced by the traditionalism that is associated with classical architectural motifs.

A Modernist Revival?

The Brower and Cody models marked the beginning of a triumphant return to traditional architectural forms in the LDS church. Their influence has never been surpassed and is likely to endure for some time to come. However, it is also worth considering what was lost when Brower and Cody took over, particularly the beautiful modernist silhouettes of the chapels from the 60s and 70s. I’ve noted elsewhere, the new chapel built in downtown Salt Lake City in 2022. Could this point towards a modernist revival in the future?

110 Social Hall Ave, Salt Lake City, UT

LDS Standard Plans: 1958-78

The Stephens Standard Plan (780 W 500 S, Payson, UT)

In the late 50s and 60s, the LDS church began seriously introducing standardized building plans for its meetinghouses. Although the church had been selectively issuing standard plans since the 1920s, it had always hired independent architects who were given wide latitude in creative design. All that changed in the late 50s when standard plans took over most building projects and contract architects were instructed to follow the specifications much more closely. This change corresponded to the rapid growth of the church during this period as well as the increasingly correlated approach to church operation.

Complaints about the “cloning of mormon architecture” are not uncommon in the church. Yet the achievements of this period shouldn’t be overlooked. Not only are these buildings highly resilient and functional (almost all of them are still in use), they are also a testament to the talent and vision the church’s architectural department, which was able to solve problems that had beset LDS architecture for decades. For example, they perfected the silhouette of the meetinghouse, making it look like a church even with a completely modern style. They removed kitschy ornamentation and created more subtle and pleasing design features. They also used organic materials like interior brick and craftsman style woodwork to create warm and welcoming chapels. LDS architecture in this period achieved a good balance between pragmatic concerns on the one hand, and transcendent ideals on the other, a balance that is central to LDS living in general. These churches are “human” in scale: functional, inviting, and comfortable. Yet they are also “set apart,” inviting reverence and worship.

While there were hundreds of plans introduced by the church in the 60s and 70s, the vast majority of Utah meetinghouses were built on a short list of about a dozen of these standard plans. This post will take a closer look at ten of them. My guide will be Richard L. Jackson’s Places of Worship, an excellent and comprehensive account of this period in LDS architecture. Jackson was a church architect for decades and the blueprints highlighted in this post are taken from his drawings. (If you suspect that your meetinghouse might be one of these standard plans, you can easily check google maps to see if the satellite image matches one of these blueprints.)

The Baker, Alta, and Linden Standard Plans (1958-71)

Richard W. Jackson, Places of Worship, pg. 331

The Baker, Alta and Linden were smaller A-framed meetinghouses. Altogether, they were built 230 times. I cover A-frame churches more comprehensively in this post.

The Fairmont Standard Plan (1962-75)

Richard W. Jackson, Places of Worship, pg. 279

The Fairmont (and its predecessor, the Garfield) was a large stake center that was built 177 times. From above it looks a bit like a turtle. The earlier versions of the Fairmont had a flat roof, which was a popular midcentury design feature.

The Dalton Standard Plan (1963-68)

Richard W. Jackson, Places of Worship, pg. 288

The Dalton (and its predecessor, the Freeman) was a popular mid-sized ward plan which was built 136 times. It is rectangular in shape which enabled it to be built on more narrow lots. Unlike the later rectangular models of the 80s to the present, the Dalton separated the roofs of the classrooms from roof of the central gabled chapel, thus helping the building retain its mid-century modern character.

The Youngberg Stake Center (1963-1966)

Richard W. Jackson, Places of Worship, pg. 275

The Youngberg Stake Center was designed by an independent architect named Alv Youngberg. It proved so popular that it was reused 22 times and became one of the church’s standard plans. It was later taken over by the Stephens. The Youngberg contains a particularly beautiful rostrum.

The Carter Standard Plan (1965-77)

Richard W. Jackson, Places of Worship, pg. 324

The Carter (and its smaller version, Liberty) was a popular mid-sized ward plan which was built 298 times. From above, the Carter looks a bit like an airplane with a single set of wings and a squarish nose.

The Stephens Standard Plan (1965-78)

Richard W. Jackson, Places of Worship, pg. 334

The Stephens was another large stake center and was built 187 times. Like the Carter it is shaped like an airplane with two sets of wings spanning out from a central chapel. However, unlike the Carter, the “nose” on the airplane is tapered. 

The Bountiful Standard Plan (1969-72)

Richard W. Jackson, Places of Worship, pg. 345

Originally developed by the architectural firm Carpenter and Strigham, this model was used 6 times, mostly in and around Bountiful. It is notable for its diamond shaped chapel. I was told by the former Young Women’s President Ardeth Kapp that her husband Heber Kapp had been bishop during the construction of the Canyon Park Ward meetinghouse. He made a special request to church leadership that the sacrament table be placed in the center, directly below the pulpit. It was his belief that, given the importance the sacramental ordinance, it ought to be in the center and not at the side where it is usually located.

The Inland Standard Plan (1962)

Richard W. Jackson, Places of Worship, pg. 281

The Inland was only built 10 times. It contains some unique features, including Art Deco styling throughout, as well as an odd, contemporary design on the front (one that has some similarities to the Brower design that would come 15 years later.)

The modern period of LDS church architecture was exceptional in many ways. For over two decades, there were no traditional architectural motifs, not even the hint of an arch or a pilaster. This had never happened before, and it likely will never happen again. Yet, despite abandoning all traditional motifs, this period was nevertheless marked by a careful conservatism. Church architects didn’t indulge in the modernistic “space-age” style that was common among other Christian denominations of the time. They crafted a uniquely LDS style of modernism that is immediately recognizable and that has aged well. The chapel interiors of many of these standard plans have a sacred quality to them, one that succeed at balancing both the transcendent and practical ideals of the communities they serve.

The Modern Spirit in LDS Architecture

Salt Lake 12th Ward, 1940, A. B. Paulson, Architect (630 E 100 S
Salt Lake City, UT)

The LDS church is not a modern church. It isn’t a traditional church either. Rather it is a restored church revealing eternal truths to a modern world. What kind of architecture best reflects the values of a restored church as opposed to a traditional church? Would it be a classical tradition stemming from ancient Greece and Rome? Or would it be the gothic style originating in medieval catholicism? Or might it be modernism, which is unencumbered by motifs associated with traditional Christianity? Modernism emphasizes abstract forms that reflect eternal principles: order, balance, efficiency, utility, tranquility, etc. It is an architecture of rationality, ideal for a church that claims “the glory of God is intelligence.”

Modern architecture however risks alienating members who complain that their church doesn’t feel or “look like a church.” Proponents of traditional architecture argue that classical or gothic motifs are powerful religious symbols that evoke spiritual feelings. Traditional motifs set spaces apart as sacred. Modernism can’t hope to compete with this rich symbolic history. In the end, a modern church may have trouble distinguishing itself as a sacred space.

At times LDS architects have embraced modernism and at other times they have revived traditional styles. Modernism first emerged in LDS architecture in the 1920s. Paul L. Anderson has written an excellent treatment of prewar modern LDS architecture in his 1982 article Mormon Moderne. He focuses on three early types of LDS modernism: Art Deco, Prairie, and the International Style. I’ve covered Art Deco and Prairie styles in previous posts. For this post, I will focus on the International Style and the midcentury modern period that came after it. 

The International Style 

The Ivins Ward Building, 1942, Lowell Parrish, Architect (1860 S 300 E, Salt Lake City, UT)

To get a sense of just how radical the International Style was, consider its three slogans: “ornament is crime,” “truth to materials,” and “form follows function.” Le Corbusier, a leading International Style architect had said, “A house is a machine to live in.” As inhuman as such ideals may seem to us today, they nevertheless captivated the attention of many LDS architects of the time. Lowell Parrish, a leading LDS architect wrote in 1941: “We should employ the principals of this progressive new architecture which are the results of all the technical, economic, intellectual, and social advances of our times. To work in an historical style, to copy or adapt an archeological art form is inconsistent with our present way of living and believing.” Such progressive ideals were at odds with traditionalists in the church. In the end, the church only commissioned a few buildings in a completely pure version of the International Style. This includes the 1942 Ivins Ward Building designed by Lowell Parrish. As one can see from the photograph above, it is a fine building, and an excellent specimen of modernist discipline. However it does not look like a church.

Modernists and Traditionalists Compromise

310 N State St, Preston, ID

Traditionalists in the church ended up compromising with the modernists. Most of the churches built in the 40s and 50s are modern in their overall form and construction materials. But they were often decorated with simplified traditional motifs, either classical, oriental, or eclectic. There is something unsatisfactory about this compromise. As traditional architecture, these churches often fail to “look like churches.” Apart from the steeples, the silhouettes of the meetinghouses have more in common with schools or hospitals. And as modern architecture, the traditional motifs sometimes make the structures look too stylized. However these meetinghouses dutifully served a generation of church members and are dearly beloved by those who grew up with them. As can be seen from the gallery below, they still have a certain vintage charm about them.

Midcentury Modern

4558 S 600 E Murray, UT

In the 1960s, the modernists finally won the battle against the traditionalists. Classical motifs were banished and the church embraced a new, progressive vision for its architecture. Culturally, the LDS church was a bit late to the party. By the 1950s most mainstream Christian churches had already abandoned classicism and gone whole hog modernist. The modernist embrace reflected the optimistic and progressive spirit of American Christianity in the 1950s.

Conservative Modernism vs “Modernistic”

Space-Age Architecture in Liberty, Idaho

Many non-LDS Christian churches from this period look somewhat dated and kitschy today. Their architecture is often described as “modernistic” or “space age.” The LDS church was more conservative and ultimately more successful in its modern period. There were however a few “modernistic” chapels built by the LDS church during this period. This includes a charming meetinghouse built in Liberty Idaho, shown above.

The Perfection of the Church Silhouette

951 E 3825 S, Millcreek, UT

A major accomplishment of the midcentury period was the perfection of the silhouette of the LDS meetinghouse. The modernist motto “form follows function” dictates that a building’s function should be apparent from its form. In the 40s and 50s, it wasn’t always obvious that LDS meetinghouses were actual places of worship. It wasn’t obvious where the chapel was located within the meetinghouse complex, and it wasn’t obvious what the nature of the rest of the building might be.

In the 60s, the overall form of the meetinghouse changed dramatically. It was suddenly obvious from the outside that these meetinghouses were built around a central chapel with extended wings made up of classrooms or offices. It was a pleasing arrangement of abstracted forms: squares, gables, and rectangles, punctuated by an impressive modern spire. These silhouettes stood out beautifully within their neighborhoods and they looked unmistakably like churches even though they contained no traditional religious motifs.

Organic Ornamentation

Midcentury churches also reengaged with ornamentation, but not in a superficial or compromised way. Ornamentation emerged organically out of the materials themselves, built into the design of the brick or woodwork.

Inspired Interiors

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the modern period were the many inspired designs that were created for chapel interiors. While completely devoid of crucifixes, icons, or traditional architecture, these chapels nevertheless feel like sacred spaces. Many chapels incorporated warm, organic materials like brick and used extensive wood paneling as opposed to plaster. Ceilings often featured inventive designs and sophisticated cove lighting, creating a “halo” effect. Unfortunately, these beautiful chapels languish in obscurity, known only to local congregations who may not appreciate just how unique they are. I hope that the gallery below will help spread a greater appreciation of this period of LDS architecture. (In addition to chapels from the 60s and 70s, the gallery below includes examples from what I call the “compromise” period of the 50s. While the exterior of the meetinghouses from this period were frequently compromised by traditional motifs, the interiors rarely contained any classical stylization.)

Standardization: The Youngberg Standard Plan

During the 60s and 70s, the church shifted almost exclusively to standard building plans. Standardization reflected a renewed focus on efficiency, affordability, and practicality. These are all virtues prized by modernism itself. According to modernist architectural theory, an emphasis on efficiency and affordability could actually can lead to more beautiful, pleasing forms, as suggested by the motto “form follows function.” The LDS church achieved a particularly beautiful balance between form and function in a standard plan called the Youngberg, designed by Alv Youngberg in 1963. Twenty two of these plans were built through 1966. Youngberg’s model is beautiful inside and out. Simple, efficient, and undeniably sacred in character. Richard L. Jackson’s Places of Worship provides an excellent survey of the various standard plans during this period.

The Twilight of Modernism: The Brower Standard Plan

2285 S 200 W, Bountiful, UT

Over time however, the standard plans began reflecting a greater emphasis on function over form. The vision perfected by Youngberg and other modernists began to falter. A standard plan called Brower was introduced in 1979. It put the entire meetinghouse under a single rectangular roof. This vastly expanded the design’s efficiency and affordability. Soon all the previous models were abandoned to focus on the new, consolidated design. What the Brower plan gained in efficiency, it sacrificed in silhouette. Gone was the beautiful arrangement of forms that had characterized the mid-century period. The Brower’s hipped roof structure completely obscured the nature of the building itself. Even the iconic chapel facade was missing. The Brower standard plan marked the end of the modern period of LDS architecture.

While the exterior of the Brower plan was perhaps disappointing, it still contained a remarkable interior design. Particularly interesting is the sculpted ceiling of the chapel, which could be taken as a symbolic abstraction of a cloud cover. It brings to mind some of the innovative designs of Eero Saarinen.

The Brower plan pointed LDS church architecture in a new direction, one that would soon make a dramatic return to traditionalism. With everything under one roof, the church could be redesigned with colonial motifs to look like an expanded version of the traditional American one-room church house.

A Modernist Revival?

Since the 1980s, LDS meetinghouse architecture has returned to classical or colonial motifs. Occasionally gothic or craftsman motifs are added. But modernist purity has been completely abandoned. It’s been over 40 years since this classical revival and it’s worth asking if a modernist revival might be on the horizon. In 2022, the LDS church built a new meetinghouse in downtown Salt Lake City as part of the 95 State office complex. It is entirely modern and even includes a new spire in the classic 1960s style. The interior of the chapel is refreshingly minimalist, with an open, airy quality unencumbered by classical motifs. Could this modern chapel be a sign of more to come?

Art Deco in LDS Architecture

The Idaho Falls Temple

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

395 2nd St, Idaho Falls, ID

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

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.

Yalecrest Ward

1936, Ashton and Evans, Architect (1035 S 1800 E, SLC)

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 Ward

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

160 S University St, SLC

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

Art Deco Temples

The Idaho Falls Temple

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.

The Jordan River Temple

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.

The Prairie Style in LDS Architecture

Ogden Deaf Branch, 1916, Leslie Hodgson, Architect (740 E 21st Street Ogden, UT)

The Prairie style is an American form of architecture pioneered by Frank Lloyd Wright. In the early 20th century, many LDS architects came under the spell of Mr. Wright’s genius. Nearly one hundred LDS buildings were designed in the Prairie style, including a few temples. The defining feature of the Prairie style is its emphasis on horizontal rather than vertical lines. This poses obvious problems from the point of view of church architecture. Typically churches are designed to orient the worshiper vertically, toward the heavens. Hence the traditional use of steeples, pointed gothic windows, lofty ceilings, etc. How does one accomplish this within the confines of the Prairie style, which, in the words of Frank Lloyd Wright, should be “married to the ground?”

Even though Prairie style buildings might not look like traditional churches, they contain a number of features that enhance the sacredness of worship. These include the sophisticated use of light, religiously evocative ornamentation, and an emphasis on craftsmanship. While Prairie style LDS churches were built exclusively in the 1910s and 20s, elements of the style returned later in the 20th century. Even when more modern styles were employed, LDS architects continued to use lighting, ornamentation, and craftsmanship in ways that echoed principles laid down by Frank Lloyd Wright during the Prairie style period.

Prairie Style LDS Chapels 

The photo gallery below showcases a number of Prairie style features: horizontality (extended lintels and eaves), geometric forms (clearly delineated rectangular shapes), heavily grounded construction, rows of multiple windows, and geometrically stylized ornamentation suggesting hanging vines or trees. In my opinion these chapels evoke the Near East, with echoes of King Solomon’s temple or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Unlike Frank Lloyd Wright’s rambling, asymmetrical Prairie style houses, these churches are highly symmetrical, a feature which seems to enhance the primitive religious flavor of the structures. (The Central Park Ward Chapel has been awkwardly topped with a thin steeple, illustrating the difficulty of reconciling the horizontality of Prairie style architecture with the verticality of traditional church architecture.)

LDS Architects Abandon Frank Lloyd Wright

760 N 1200 W, SLC

In the 1940s and 50s LDS architects moved towards the International Style and then embraced full blown modernism in the 60s. The International Style’s rationalist purity was anathema to Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic, human approach to architecture. He frequently decried it as “collectivist” and even “totalitarian.” In my previous post on the Classical Spirit in LDS Architecture, I noted that International Style LDS meetinghouses often included superficial motifs in the classical style, perhaps added as a compromise between traditionalists and modernists within the LDS architectural bureau. Frank Lloyd Wright would have hated this compromise. Not only was the International Style an assault on his ideals of organic architecture, adding unrelated classical motifs on top only made it worse. Wright said that ornamentation should be “of the thing, not on it.”

Ornamentation: “Of the Thing, Not On It” 

In the 50s and 60s, LDS architects started applying Frank Lloyd Wright’s principles of ornamentation. It is rare to find an LDS meetinghouse in the 60s that doesn’t have at least some ornamentation, often a subtly designed pattern in the outer brickwork. These designs emerge organically from the material of the building as Wright recommended, “of the thing, not on it.” They represent a clear departure from the superficial ornamentation tacked onto the earlier International Style meetinghouses. The ornamentation also distinguishes these meetinghouses from the abstract purity of the midcentury modern styles that inspired their overall structure. Sophisticated use of ornamentation continues on the inside, where vertical shafts of gold decorate organ lofts and segments of wood are arranged into designs that seamlessly emerge from the overall construction.

Craftsman Style Woodwork

The LDS chapels of the 50s and 60s also harken back to Frank Lloyd Wright in their use of craftsman style woodwork. The Craftsman style preceded and influenced Wright’s Prairie style and is notable for its interlocking use of horizontal and vertical beams. Even in standard, mass-produced plans, craftsman elements can be discerned in the design of pulpits, organ boxes, pews, and ceiling construction. Altogether these details evoke a sense of craftsmanship that is in harmony with LDS values of disciplined, conscientious living.

Light From Above

Frank Lloyd Wright believed that a Prairie Style home should blend in with its natural surroundings. He used windows and open floor plans to achieve a seamlessness between the outside and the inside. Additionally, Wright was an early adopter of cove lighting, a technique wherein hidden light sources provide ambient lighting from above. LDS chapels don’t usually have as many windows as the Prairie style would dictate, and when windows are included, they are often heavily draped. However, for many decades LDS chapels have been notable for the sophisticated use of cove lighting, sometimes in ways that reflected the ceiling designs of Frank Lloyd Wright (compare Wright’s Unity Temple to some of the more creative ceiling design in the gallery below.)

Prairie Style Today?

4440 High Grove Rd, Idaho Falls, ID

Home design in the last ten years has been dominated by a craftsman revival. The LDS church has a standard plan that utilizes horizontal lintels in ways reminiscent of the craftsman style. Currently these details are minor design elements. A true craftsman or prairie revival in LDS architecture still awaits in the future.

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.