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Plans announced to renovate six major Kirtland structures

KIRTLAND, Ohio — When Joseph Smith arrived in Kirtland in February 1831, he stopped at the Newel K. Whitney and Co. store and sprang up the steps.

Kirtland Temple, on hill overlooking historic sites, glistens in morning sunlight.
Kirtland Temple, on hill overlooking historic sites, glistens in morning sunlight. Photo: Photo by Shaun Stahle

"Newel K. Whitney! Thou art the man," he said to a young man standing in front of the counter as he extended his hand. The junior partner looked at the smiling stranger and stammered, "You have the advantage of me. . . . I could not call you by name as you have me."

"I am Joseph the Prophet. You have prayed me here, now what do you want of me?"

Joseph had come to Kirtland from Fayette, N.Y., by sleigh with his wife, Emma, and Sidney Rigdon after being directed by the Lord to move to northern Ohio. Here he found converts striving to do the will of the Lord as far as their meager understanding permitted. (Joseph Smith and the Restoration, Ivan J. Barrett, p. 165.)

In a press conference here with 55 townspeople and elected officials on April 17, Elder Loren C. Dunn of the Seventy announced the Church's plans to restore or reconstruct six facilities that were prominent in Church history during the 1830s.

"We have fond feelings for Kirtland and all that took place there," said Elder Dunn, who is president of the North America East Area and executive director of the Church Historical Department.

"The Kirtland era was a sacred time in the history of the Church. The first temple of this dispensation was dedicated there, ushering in a time of holiness and happiness. It was also a time of great organizing for the Church, and a time of schooling and restoration of keys and doctrine."

The Newel K. Whitney store, site of the school of the prophets, has been restored. And the John Johnson farm in Hiram, where the Prophet lived for a year and received Doctrine and Covenants Section 76, among other revelations, is currently under physical restoration.

This new project calls for improvement of other historic sites within an 18-acre area near the general store. Among those facilities is the construction of a new visitors center resembling a 19th century grist mill used by Samuel Whitney. It will contain a 120-seat main theater and two smaller theaters. Facilities will also house a family history center. The grist mill's appearance will reinforce Kirtland's frontier reputation as a mill town.

Plans also include the restoration of the Whitney home to its original state, and a replica of the John Johnson Inn to be built on the original foundation of the inn across the street from the Whitney home, said Elder Jay E. Jensen of the Seventy and assistant executive director of the Historical Department. In addition, a tannery, ashery and school house will be restored.

The challenge to this project, explained Steven Olsen, manager of historic sites, has been the heavy traffic from two roads that dissect this area. The Chillicothe Road and the Kirtland-Chardon Road will be relocated because of the danger they present to the approximately 32,000 visitors who dart across traffic each year moving from site to site. Both roads intersect at a four-way stop where an estimated 30,000 vehicles cross daily.

Rerouting traffic has been an on-going project for more than 20 years. Local officials expressed their pleasure with the plan, saying the new route will redirect current traffic patterns. Motorists are currently forced to drive at a dangerous angle against traffic moving fast down a steep hill.

Road work began in early April and is slated for completion in mid-2001, Brother Olsen said. Restoration of historic sites will begin in 2001 with completion expected by the end of 2002. Dedication ceremonies are projected for the spring of 2003.

Plans to reconstruct and improve historic sites in Kirtland come at a fortunate time, says Bishop Elwin Robison of the Rootstown Ward, Akron Ohio Stake. "The timing is very good. Kirtland is poised to grow. Situated in an area of major traffic, these buildings could have been torn down for commercial development. We have a window of opportunity to develop these historic sites that we may not have in a few more years," he said.

As a professor of architectural history at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, Bishop Robison heads a team of historic builders and local restoration architects assigned to peel back the layers of history to authenticate the structures as they were in the 1830s.

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"It will take careful, tedious work of comparing what we know with what we find," he said, explaining that he has already "been in some muddy areas crawling through buildings while taking off bits and pieces to discover how things were."

"Once completed, there will be enough of the original setting to get a sense of the Kirtland that Newel K. Whitney knew," Bishop Robison said.

Local reaction to the plans have been supportive, said President Timothy J. Headrick of the Kirtland Ohio Stake. "We have a great relationship with the RLDS Church. As one who was born and raised here, I've seen missionaries serve two years without ever baptizing. But generations have passed and now the Church is growing. The Lord has His own agenda for Kirtland. I suspect this visitors center is part of that."

Kirtland Mayor Ed Podojil noted that the Church's restoration plans are in keeping with a sign posted at the entrance to the city that states, "A City of Faith and Beauty."

"This is certainly going to accentuate that," he said.

The Kirtland era is characterized as a time of great blessings that followed great sacrifice, as highlighted by the construction of the temple that came during a time of intense poverty among the early members.

During these seven years from 1831 to 1838 when it served as headquarters of the Church, Kirtland was the site of unparalleled spiritual manifestations. Visions of the Father and His Son took place in the log school house on the Isaac Morley farm during the ordination of High Priests, at the John Johnson farm home during the revelation known as Section 76 and during the dedication of the temple.

"I've always said that Kirtland was the best kept secret in the Church," President Headrick said.

You can reach Shaun Stahle by E-mail at [email protected]