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Mormon Moderne: Buildings built with sacrifice, faith

PROVO, Utah — Bishop H. David Burton looks at the eclectic architectural styles of, say, the Montpelier Idaho Tabernacle or the old Washington D.C. Chapel and recognizes a similar theme: Sacrifice.

An exhibit photo and competition drawing of Cardston Alberta Temple.
An exhibit photo and competition drawing of Cardston Alberta Temple. Photo: Courtesy LDS Church Archives

The designs of LDS meetinghouses, tabernacles and temples during the first half of the 20th Century ranged from Gothic to Art Deco — yet each stand as testaments to the sweat, finances and faith of their respective worshippers, said Bishop Burton, the Presiding Bishop of the Church.

Now an exhibit at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art illustrates this remarkable element of Church history.

"Mormon Moderne: New Directions in Latter-day Saint Architecture, 1890-1955" is a celebration of LDS worship houses — an excursion through holy buildings stretching from Canada to Arizona, from Hawaii to Switzerland.

The new exhibit "is a reflection of the sacrifices that have gone into each of these buildings," said Bishop Burton.

The exhibit is a collection of original architectural drawings, historic and contemporary photographs, stonework, art-glass windows and woodwork from many of these historic buildings. "Mormon Moderne" is free to the public and will run through Sept. 15, 2001.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to encourage our community to remember our architectural history," said exhibit curator and designer Paul L. Anderson.

The opening panel at the entrance of the exhibit defines the term "Mormon Moderne": In the 1920s and 1930s, the French term Moderne (Moh-DARE-n) was used to describe a wide range of modern architectural approaches. Since many of the most original and interesting LDS buildings of the time fit into this broad category, they can appropriately be call "Mormon Moderne."

"It's wonderful to reflect on a time when the architecture of the Church was so rich," said Campbell B. Gray, museum director.

Indeed, many of the buildings featured in the exhibit — such as the Art Deco-style Idaho Falls Idaho Temple and the Honolulu (Hawaii) Tabernacle — may be familiar to LDS visitors. Others are more obscure. Many buildings are still being used for worship, serving as community landmarks. A few have been razed.

The interior of Montpelier Tabernacle in Idaho
The interior of Montpelier Tabernacle in Idaho Photo: Courtesy Paul L. Anderson, BYU Museum of Art

After walking through the exhibit on March 16, Bishop Burton called the collection "priceless".

Beneath this roof our fathers built

To keep the tempest out.

May we find refuge from the storms

Of hate and fear and doubt.

And as they open'd windows here Through which the sun could shine,

May we receive with open hearts

The light of grace divine.

The 1893 dedication of the Salt Lake Temple ushered in an innovative period of Church architecture. Members were looking to step out of the geographical and social isolation that sometimes marked their pioneer past. Their restlessness was demonstrated in their buildings.

Many early 20th century LDS architects were clearly inspired by designs of religious buildings. The Classical stye of the Riverton Ward Meetinghouse (which was completed in 1899 and torn down decades ago) was built in a manner widely used by other religious faiths. The Riverton hall was capped by a large dome and designed by Richard K. A. Kletting, the architect of the Utah State Capitol and the original Saltair building on the banks of the Great Salt Lake.

The architectural influence of Frank Lloyd Wright and his renowned "Prairie Style" reached Church architects between 1910 and 1920. Although Wright is known to have built only one religious building, his style is found in some of the Church's most remarkable halls. Exhibit organizers say Wright's influence is evident in the Cardston Alberta and Laie Hawaii temples, along with beloved meetinghouses such as the Salt Lake First Ward, the Parowan Third Ward and the interior of the Montpelier Tabernacle in Idaho.

The Depression years of 1925-1940 signaled a shift in LDS architecture. Despite the era's dire economic climate, Church architecture seemed progressive and hopeful of a better future.

Post card illustration of the Riverton Ward Meetinghouse in Utah.
Post card illustration of the Riverton Ward Meetinghouse in Utah. Photo: Courtesy Riverton Historical Society

"Some of the largest and most impressive buildings were built during the Depression," Brother Anderson said.

The Idaho Falls Idaho Temple is among the period's jewels. The temple was built in the Art Deco-stye, a rarity among American religious buildings. The temple's interior is also innovative, with its colorful murals and a baptismal font that enlists a modern, almost cubist design.

LDS architecture in the years after World War II reflected a period of growth, as hundreds of standardized meetinghouses in American Colonial style appeared in suburbs across America, according to exhibit organizers.

As stewards of this legacy

From parents hearts and hands

May we preserve our heritage

As gratitude demands;

That these impressive testaments

Of all that they held true,

May stand to shelter and inspire

Our children's children too.

The buildings featured in "Mormon Moderne" belong to a time when LDS houses of worship were, to a large extent, customized, built and financed by local congregations.

"It's probably a day long gone. . . but I'm a little tearful," Bishop Burton said.

Today, new LDS buildings are generally constructed and administered in a central manner — perhaps a byproduct of the Church's remarkable growth. There were about 1,000 buildings constructed during the period highlighted in "Mormon Moderne." A similar number will be built just this year, Bishop Burton said.

Still, each new building — like those of early generations — reclaims a slice of soil from Satan. It's a lesson, Brother Gray said, from which worshippers can learn.

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