By Alan Barnett
Or, right-click here to download the audio file: Lessons in Mormon Modernism: Or, How I Learned to Love the Ogden and Provo Temples
In 1892, the long task of completing the exterior of the Salt Lake Temple culminated as workmen placed the round capstone on the central east tower and hoisted the gold-leafed Moroni up to sound his trumpet from atop the spire. My great-grandmother, eight years old at the time, queued with hundreds of other people and climbed the scaffolding with her father. When they reached the top, he held her up to touch the capstone, an experience that pressed itself indelibly onto her memory. She told and retold the story later in life until it became part of the family lore I grew up with.
I also was about eight years old when a new temple began to make an impression in my psyche. In 1971, my father took a sabbatical from teaching at BYU and we moved to Washington, D.C. for a year. I first became aware of the newly completed Provo Temple upon our return. I remember having a spectacular view of it from our house. As we drove up our street at night, the flood-lit white drum and gold-orange spire hovered above the dark pear orchard at the end of the street. The glowing spectacle inspired such awe and pride in me that I remember being confident that the sight could convert any non-believer. When the Missionary Training Center was constructed, we lost our view of the temple, but the building remained luminous in my consciousness.
From a young age, I had taken an interest in buildings, bearing a particular affinity for sacred structures. During a family trip to Nauvoo, the wonder of the grand temple—vanished save its four cornerstones—haunted my imagination. When I received a new set of building blocks, I attempted repeatedly to recreate the lost temple in miniature. Over time, I collected a variety of building sets and advanced to constructing entire cities. My downtown had streets, sidewalks, stores, office buildings, and civic structures. The residential district included houses, schools, and a ward meetinghouse. And on a table above each town would stand a temple presiding over the whole of my creation. Mormonism was part of the air I breathed as a child, so a temple was a given for any proper miniature city.
Looking back, I can see that while Nauvoo had sparked my initial interest in temples, my inspiration shifted over time toward something closer to home. My building blocks lent themselves well to solid reconstructions of the Nauvoo Temple, but the Provo Temple began to push my imagination toward the dramatic and abstract. The temples in my building-set cities shifted from traditional designs to looser, more ethereal forms, usually with a single central spire. I was trying, in my own way, to capture the essence of what I thought a temple represented.
Sheer proximity fixed the Provo Temple as a part of my childhood world, but that connection made me aware of the Ogden Temple as well. The two were, after all, twin temples. Whenever I saw temple pictures in Primary, at visitors’ centers, or in Church publications, I strained to determine if the single-spired temple was “our” temple or that other temple, and in time learned to differentiate between the two at a glance. A loyal son of Provo, I always felt slightly out-done by Ogden, which was still the larger town at the time. The fact that Ogden and Provo had matching temples seemed to underscore the competition between them. The insecurity of my hometown pride was magnified by the gnawing feeling that Ogden had somehow gotten the better temple. I liked the Provo Temple, but the slightly more modern, edgy character of the Ogden building appealed to me more. However, time would alter my young attitude toward the two temples.
When my great-grandmother was nearly 90 years old, my grandparents took her on a drive down to Provo to see one of the two brand new temples—the first to be built in Utah since she had touched the Salt Lake Temple capstone as a child. Upon seeing the Provo Temple, she reportedly declared, “You call that a temple? What’s wrong; has the Church run out of money?” For my great-grandmother, the Salt Lake Temple was the standard of what a temple should look like, and Provo’s did not measure up. She wasn’t alone in her feelings. Many people regarded the Ogden and Provo Temples as odd and architecturally sub-par.
By the time I was in high school, my sympathies were also shifting as I became familiar with jokes about the “mother spaceship,” the “cupcake with the candle,” and the “toppled snowman with the carrot nose.” The temple began to feel like something of a hometown embarrassment. While Salt Lake, Logan, Manti, and St. George boasted stately, historic temples, Provo and Ogden had ended up with a pair of quirky substitutes. I thought that a city as important in the LDS world as Provo deserved something more dignified.
Part way through my years at BYU, my view began to shift again. In an architectural history class, the professor talked about how the grandeur of an ancient Egyptian temple was accentuated by the echoed massing of the cliffs behind it. He may have flashed a slide of the Provo Temple to bring his point home, because I don’t know that I would have made the connection on my own. For the first time, I began to appreciate the grand setting of the Provo Temple and how its stepped form and orange-gold spire were set off by the backdrop of Squaw Peak and Rock Canyon. The temple seemed like a jewel box set delicately in the middle of its rugged natural setting. This revelation opened the door to a long re-examination of the temple as I watched for other overlooked qualities.
First, I found that the stepped wedding-cake layers of the building had distracted me from its overall implied pyramidal shape. When I saw it as a tapering whole rather than as a stacking of pieces, I found elegance to its form. But over time I realized that the greatest beauty of the building was in its subtler details. I noticed the streamlined pointed arches cascading in layers up the sides of the drum’s cast stone panels, the gentle outward swell at the top of the panels, and the fountain-like flourish at the top of each diminishing section of the spire.
The entire exterior of the building is a play between understated simplicity and ornamental flourish. The flat, unadorned walls of the first floor flare out to a narrow band of geometric, dentil-like trim. Above this first-floor base is a recessed band of smooth, gold glass that acts as a kind of fluid platform upon which the great curved drum floats. The drum is made up of sculptural arched panels separated by narrow, plain gold windows. The alternating decorative panels and flat windows create a visual rhythm that leads the eye around the drum. The interplay of simplicity and ornamentation continues up through the spire where the plainness of the vertical segments is complimented by the small flourish at the top of each step.
Unlike my great-grandmother, who found the building foreign to her idea of a temple, as a child I had no reason to think that it wasn’t as proper a manifestation of a temple as any other. As a teenager, I went there to do baptisms for the dead. I went there for my endowment just before leaving on a mission, attended countless temple sessions after my mission, and saw friends and family members married there. It certainly felt like “our” temple, but it wasn’t until well into my adult life that I began to appreciate it as a work of architecture and as a part of our Mormon cultural heritage.
When I did finally see the beauty in the structure, I felt a bit relieved that we Provoans had the nice temple with the subtle details, rather than the plain and slightly outlandish one in Ogden. I felt that way for years. When I heard the announcement that the Ogden Temple was to be dramatically remodeled, I realized that while I had driven by it a number of times, I had never actually stepped inside the grounds to view the building up close. I knew if I ever wanted to examine the Provo Temple’s twin, I needed to do it soon.
As I walked through the gates, I was taken aback by what I found. Looking at photos and driving by the temple at 40 miles an hour had given me the impression that the Ogden Temple was generally featureless except for the strange flared spire on top. When I got close, I saw that it was actually very much like its Provo sister in its play of plain surfaces against detailed accents. The two buildings shared an almost identical base and recessed band of gold glass separating the base from the drum. The surprise was in the rounded drum.
The reason the building had seemed so plain to me was because the panels of the drum were mostly unadorned. Up close, I saw that, in contrast to the Provo Temple with its ornamented panels and flat windows, Ogden’s panels were plain while the windows were surrounded by elaborate ornamentation. The edge of each panel had a dentil pattern echoing the detail at the top of the building’s base. The windows between the panels were screened by bronze grills of overlapping parabolas creating the illusion that the panels were recessed and the windows were projecting—the opposite of the pattern on the Provo version. Nevertheless, the alternating panels and window grills created the same kind of rhythm, leading the eye around the drum.
As my gaze continued up to the spire, the whole design began to make more sense. While the top of each spire section on the Provo Temple has a curled flourish, each layer of the Ogden spire exhibited parabolic scoops echoing the parabolas in the window grills below. The flared shape of the spire lent a feeling of exuberance and heavenward thrust harmonious with the rest of the building. I realized that while the Provo Temple looked decidedly space-aged, the Ogden Temple looked assertively so.
As I left the temple grounds, I was a little chagrined to admit that I really liked the Ogden Temple. There was no doubt that the setting of the Provo Temple is more dramatic, but as far as the building itself goes, the Ogden Temple’s unabashed modernity had won me over a second time.
Studying these two temples, I have come to realize that beauty, meaning, and even sacredness do not exist in isolation, but rather in context. Time has allowed the buildings to become imbued with meaning and has set their particular beauty apart. The Washington, D. C. Temple, completed just a few years after those in Ogden and Provo, is a streamlined interpretation of the Salt Lake Temple. It is certainly modern but not abstract. Some of the temples that followed could be characterized as being stylistically modern, but the trend (as with much of mainstream American architecture) has been toward more traditional styles. These two temples were unique even when they were new, but over time as temple designs have become more conservative, they stand out even more. I think this conspicuousness is what makes some people uncomfortable with these two temples, but it is precisely the buildings’ singularity that makes them so valuable. They represent the apex of the Mormon effort to create a modern expression of a connecting point between heaven and earth and between God and Man.
It was only recently that I heard that the architect of the Provo and Ogden temples had intended the form of the buildings to symbolize a cloud and a pillar of fire. I’m not sure how to verify or disprove this story, but if it is true, this Old Testament reference would be the greatest attempt to incorporate symbolism into a temple design since stonemasons chiseled sunstones, moonstones, and the Big Dipper into the walls of the Salt Lake Temple. But with the Provo and Ogden temples, the symbolism isn’t merely chiseled into their decoration but embedded in their very form, making the two temples as much sculpture as architecture.
The temples were breaking new ground by representing the House of God in a modern, abstract way. In contrast to more traditional temple architecture (usually grander versions of buildings we are already familiar with), the other-worldly quality of the Provo and Ogden Temples seems to suggest that the realm of God is very different from the world we live in. As they challenge our expectations for architectural space and form, the temples represent a conduit lifting us from this world into a higher one.
Still, the other-worldly form was not enough by itself. The architect applied modern detailing in a way that suggests the religious nature of these unconventional buildings. The spires, pointing upward, are an age-old device for signifying sacred structures. On the Provo Temple, the pointed arches on the drum are a stylized modern version of a traditional Gothic arch which is repeated subtly on the spire. On the Ogden Temple, the architect took a more daring and abstract approach, using the parabola as a unifying motif. While the Gothic arch points unwaveringly toward God, the parabola seems at first glance to point downward. But the sweep of the parabolic curve also suggests inevitable and dynamic upward movement, thus functioning as a modern equivalent of the traditional pointed arch. Looking at the parabolas on the temple, I could envision arms raised toward heaven in supplication or praise. This dynamic parabola motif is repeated on the grills over the windows on the drum, on the spire sections, and on the grills in the entrance doors. Such streamlined modern elements are what make the twin buildings so compelling and exciting.
Just as the Salt Lake Temple represents the era in which it was built, the Provo and Ogden Temples mark a unique period in the history of the Church. When the two buildings were dedicated in 1972, they were modern and daring in their design. They represented the dramatic growth and change taking place in the Church. Built in Utah’s second and third largest cities long after much smaller towns had received temples of their own, the twins seemed to geographically and psychologically flank the great Salt Lake Temple to the north and south like sentinel bookends. Though virtually identical in form and floor plan, the variations on the exteriors created two distinct buildings, both attempts to express a modern sense of sacred space and evoke the presence of God.
There are other temples that share very similar designs, but none that have been so readily identified as “twin” or “sister” temples. The Provo and Ogden Temples were linked from their beginnings in a way no other temples have been.
Because of that link, I felt a particular sense of loss as I watched the demolition of the Ogden Temple, not only for the unique building I had just come to appreciate, but also for what its demise means for the Provo Temple. Since the Provo Temple always stood in paired contrast to Ogden’s, its identity is inevitably diminished by the loss of its sister. I’m sure many people will prefer the new Ogden Temple to the old, but in the long run it will likely be just one more among the many new temples.
As the lone survivor of the abstract modern 1960’s twin temples, the Provo Temple must now stand in for both buildings. While it feels somehow diminished by the loss of its mate, it also gains strength in its role as the single voice telling of an optimistic church, growing and searching for new ways to express a connection to God in the modern world. As a latecomer in appreciating the Ogden Temple, I feel the loss of its unique character. As a long-time fan of the Provo Temple, I find it more appealing and meaningful than ever. I couldn’t be more proud to have it in my home town. Not only is it a building of unique beauty, it has also become a landmark that is an integral part of Provo and Utah Valley. I will forever regard it fondly as “our temple.”