The Salt Lake Temple’s evolving design and unchanging symbolism


Truman Angel’s cross section plan for two of the eastern spires of the Salt Lake Temple. (CHURCH HISTORY LIBRARY)

For three-and-a-half decades, the design, logistics and construction of the Salt Lake Temple were overseen by one Truman O. Angell.

The carpenter-turned-Church architect was known for his unceasing zeal, rather than his skill at the drafting table. But as Angell’s most important project, and his life, came to a close, the legendary Saint expressed disappointment.

“The (temple) was designed about 34 years ago,” Angell wrote in an 1885 letter to President John Taylor disapproving of a proposed modification to the temple’s interior. “It seems to me to alter the plans now would make a bad thing of the (temple).”

Despite his opposition, the alteration, which favored a series of small endowment rooms over the original, dual-assembly hall design, was approved — as was a subsequent proposal to construct the temple’s spires from the same stone as the rest of the building, instead of wood and tin.

Angell passed away shortly after his request for these decisions to be reversed was refused.

The history of the Salt Lake Temple’s design — as well as Angell’s discomfort in its modification — reveals the ever-evolving character of the building, which is currently undergoing extensive renovation as it celebrates its 130th anniversary, and the care that must be taken when changing what has become, and what was always meant to be, the Church’s symbolic center.

An inspired beginning

C. R. Savage photo of the temple nearing completion. The spires and detail work including the dedicatory inscription are not com- plete and glass has not been placed in all the windows. (L. Tom Perry Special Collections)

“They knew this (was) going to be the landmark, the center, temple,” said Bridger Talbot, who has run the Historic LDS architecture blog since 2014 and who works for Enrollment Services at ByU. “I think it’s this idea of almost this symbol of where God communicates with us as a Church.”

It seems fitting that such a symbol would begin with a revelation received by a prophet.

“Five years ago last July I was here, and saw in the Spirit the Temple not ten feet from where we have laid the Chief Corner Stone,” President Brigham young said at the april 6, 1853 cornerstone ceremony.

Decades later, William Ward, Angell’s primary assistant in the early design phases of the Temple, remembered the prophet’s initial description: “There will be three towers on the east…also three similar towers on the west…The center towers will be higher than those on the sides, and the west towers a little lower than those on the east end.”

While President young provided the general outline for the temple, it was Angell and Ward who were responsible for interpreting the prophet’s ideas and fleshing them out in full “Gothic Revival detail,” according to Josh Probert, the Church’s historic design consultant on pioneer-era temple renovations.

With defensive battlements, dramatic vertical proportions and

steep gabled spires, the temple designed by Angell and Ward can comfortably be called “castellated Gothic,” Probert said.

The design is no surprise considering young’s fascination with English cathedrals; Angell’s architectural pattern books, which include castellated Gothic man- sions; Ward’s training in the English Gothic School of architecture; and that the American Gothic Revival was in full swing in the mid-19th century, Probert said.

Though the construction of the Temple was part of a trend in which “many poor religious immigrants constructed massive monuments to their faith across the nation,” Probert said, the Salt Lake Temple stands alone as a unique expression of the Latter-day Saint belief system.

Exterior symbolism

“In a way, buildings are embodied ideologies,” Probert said. “The Salt Lake Temple embodies the strong belief in the priesthood, in particular, in the ordinances of the temple, and of the Restoration.”

This is most clearly visible in the exterior symbolism, as Richard Oman and John P. Snyder outlined in their 1996 ByU Studies article, “Exterior Symbolism of the Salt Lake Temple: Reflecting the Faith That Called the Place into Being.”

The most prominent symbols, Oman and Snyder write, are the six towers, three on the east and three on the west, with the towers in the east representing the pres- idency of the Melchizedek Priesthood and standing six feet taller than those in the west which represent the presidency of the aaronic Priesthood.

The majority of the remaining symbols on the Temple’s exterior represent heav- enly bodies, according to Oman and Snyder. These include earthstones at the tem- ple’s base, moonstones midway up the side, depicting various lunar phases, and sunstones ringing the top of the temple’s main body. For many Latter-day Saints, these clearly symbolize the three degrees of glory revealed to the faith’s founder Joseph Smith.

There are also starstones and cloudstones surrounding the towers, but only on the east side, and the constellation Ursa Major (the Big Dipper) on the west central tower, reminding viewers that the priesthood will help them find their way, Oman and Snyder write.

Finally, there are, in both the west and east central towers, engravings of the all-seeing eye, representing God’s omniscience; pairs of clasped hands, represent- ing covenant fellowship; and the inscription, “I am alpha and Omega.”

These latter symbols are found throughout the interior of the Temple as well. However, whereas the exterior of the Temple has remained relatively untouched since its completion, the interior design has been rearranged time and time again.

Evolution of the interior

The original layout of the temple’s interior – the one designed by Angell and approved by President young in the mid 1850s – was patterned after the Nauvoo Temple, containing two massive assembly halls stacked one on top of the other.

But Angell’s son, Truman Angell, Jr., insisted on changing that plan in 1885 shortly after being called to assist his father. Angell, Jr. introduced a radically new floor plan, similar to the one he had designed for the Logan Temple, which would include a series of five instruction rooms: the Creation, Garden, World, Terrestrial and Celestial rooms. Angell, Jr. insisted the changes would increase the efficiency and feeling of progression during the endowment.

One of President young’s sons, Joseph Don Carlos young, was selected to super- vise the completion of the Temple’s interior following the death of Truman, Sr. in 1887. Don Carlos refined Angell, Jr. ‘s design and added his own architectural flair, filling the interior, particularly the celestial room, with neo-classical and baroque forms, including fluted columns, corinthian capitals, pedimented windows and elaborate ornaments, Probert said, making the interior, which was designed thirty years after the exterior, a completely different architectural style.

In the years since the temple’s completion in 1893, the interior has undergone a number of cosmetic changes. During the 20th century, wall and ceiling murals were added to the Creation, Garden, and World rooms, original woodwork was covered with white paint, a new annex was constructed, and new sealing rooms were added onto the building’s north side.

alongside such additions were a few notable subtractions. an actual greenhouse, with live plants, which was attached to the Garden Room, was removed in the 1940s, followed soon after by the removal of a water-powered lift used as part of the endow- ment instruction.

But throughout the years some highlights have never changed. The Temple con- tinues to feature several beautiful Tiffany stained glass windows depicting the Temple, adam and Eve leaving the Garden of Eden, the angel Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith and the First Vision. also there are original paintings depicting the First Vision, adam-ondi-ahman and the Savior visiting the Nephites, and a statue of what appears to be a heavenly female figure above the veil in the celestial room.

Finally, the Holy of Holies on the second floor, accessible only by the President of the Church; the administrative rooms on the third floor, used weekly by the Quorum of the Twelve apostles and the First Presidency; and the massive assembly hall, on the fourth floor, have remained largely unchanged over the years and support the claim that the Church is indeed living and led by modern-day prophets, seers and revelators.

Current renovation

Talbot is cautiously optimistic about the Church’s latest effort to update and restore this important building. The renovation, which began in 2020 and will extend through 2026, seeks to increase mobility and translation capabilities within the temple, and to address seismic and safety concerns.

Unlike some past renovation projects, which painted over or removed original craftsmanship, Talbot hopes this time will be different.

“Now the Church is very sensitive to, ‘What would this have looked like at the time of its dedication? How can we make this temple functional and efficient, but also kind of honor what they were trying to create at the time of its construction and stick to that as much as possible,’” Talbot said.

There will be many notable changes to the interior, especially the first and second floors, as the Temple moves away from a live endowment, progressing through five rooms, to a stationary endowment, in which patrons move only twice, once from the instruction room to the veil room (previously the terrestrial room), and from the veil room to the celestial room.

This transition requires the removal of the baptistry (which will be moved to a new underground annex) to make room for two additional endowment instruction rooms, and the removal of original murals in the Creation, Garden and World rooms.

Talbot suspects that many other aspects of the Temple, including paintings and woodwork, will be restored, not removed.

“It looks like they’re doing very well in not only preserving pioneer features, but restoring ones that have been lost,” Talbot said.

The Temple will also undergo seismic upgrades which will reinforce the Temple’s exterior and old foundation, while also placing it on top of mobile base isolators connected to a new lower foundation.

After the completion of the renovation project, the Temple will be more accessible and durable than ever before, offering services in more than 86 different languages so that members from all over the world can experience the Church’s landmark Temple.

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