January 12, 2009

Partial Restoration of the Nauvoo Temple

Joseph F. Smith’s 1905 trip to Vermont began an era of monument building for the LDS Church. Kathleen Flake described these “Progressive-Era efforts to change and remain the same” as symbolizing the church’s “project of collective memory.” Monuments and celebrations were designed to remember specific aspects of the past while at the same time forgetting others.1 The 1905 group traveled through Vermont, Palmyra and Kirtland, but significantly not through Nauvoo. While the Church began acquiring land in New York, Ohio and Missouri, monuments for Nauvoo would have to wait.

In 1954 J. LeRoy Kimball purchased the Nauvoo home of his great-grandfather Heber C. Kimball, restored it, and attracted the attention of tourists. Elder Spencer W. Kimball was invited to rededicate the home. Soon LeRoy Kimball would be commissioned by the First Presidency to create plans to restore other parts of Nauvoo.2 The church’s presence there was steadily growing (a branch opened in 1956) and the Church purchased the vacant temple site in 1960.3

In January 1962 Kimball presented his plans for restoring Nauvoo to the First Presidency (Pres. David O. McKay and counselors Hugh B. Brown and Henry D. Moyle). In light of the Washington D.C. temple President McKay wondered if building a temple in nearby Illinois was justified. They decided to table plans to rebuild the temple but McKay noted in his diary that—if it would be done at all—the temple “should be restored as near to what it was as can be.”4

As restoration plans progressed and the temple site was excavated interest in Nauvoo increased. NRI assumed more responsibility for the restoration projects and the Church transferred title of the temple site to it on December 13, 1963.5 Despite McKay’s desire to eventually rebuild the temple as near to the original as possible, by 1967 NRI was considering a partial restoration as described by Kimball in an article he wrote for the Improvement Era:

One suggestion is to partially restore [temple square], perhaps rebuilding only a corner of the building to the tower base. This will allow people to get an idea of the temple’s grandeur and permit them to climb to the top and see the beautiful view of the Mississippi River and the countryside about which so many visitors as well as the saints wrote.6
The October 1968 Improvement Era featured a cover story projecting a partial restoration of the Nauvoo Temple to begin in 1970. Jay M. Todd’s article described the plan:

A partial restoration of the Nauvoo Temple, to be built on the original Illinois temple site, is projected by the Nauvoo Restoration, Incorporated (NRI)…The purpose of the restoration is to create a center where the story of the Church can be told to the millions of tourists and nearby residents who travel through the Midwest...It is estimated that by 1974 nearly half a million visitors yearly will visit the Nauvoo center.

Construction on the partial restoration of the Nauvoo Temple is expected to begin in 1970. A two-year construction period is anticipated. Preceding the restoration there will be an exhaustive program of archaeological and historical research, which will near completion the latter part of 1969. The archaeological work has already unearthed numerous artifacts, including portions of the wall that surrounded the original temple plot, part of the bricked basement floor, segments of the stone oxen statuary that sustained the baptismal font, workmen's tools, and many other related items...

The artifacts will be displayed in a museum and visitors' center to be located on the temple block. The information center will feature numerous displays, artwork, and rooms for the presentation of films designed to tell the temple story.
Near the information center and inside the walled temple grounds will be appropriate statuary of the two martyrs, the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, and of Brigham Young, president of the Council of the Twelve and successor to the Prophet Joseph Smith as head of the Church. Other statuary will represent scenes of the Nauvoo period. The temple block itself will be beautifully landscaped.

The main exhibit, however, will be the restored portion of the Nauvoo Temple. The temple's footings and floor will be built over the exact spot where once stood the original temple, and will follow the exact measurements of the original building. Indeed, some of the original stonework, including some of the original footings, will be used in the reconstruction. The brick basement floor will also contain some of the original basement bricks. Portions of the legs of the original 12 oxen that surrounded the font will be used in the font restoration. Nearby will be the temple well, which provided water for the font.

The front facade of the temple is to be rebuilt to the original height of the upper pediment, so that tourists may ascend the stairway and obtain a glimpse of the view that so enchanted early-day Nauvoo visitors.

The view, noted as "magnificent" and "beyond description," was described by one visitor, J. H. Buckingham: "The whole valley of the Mississippi for miles and miles lay exposed to view on the north and south, where the prairie lands of Illinois, and Iowa, and Missouri, were to he seen to the east and west, overlooking the few hills lying near to the shore in the latter state, and showing the tortuous course of the Des Moines River for some distance."7

Artist’s depictions of the plan show what might have been, but it remains to be seen why it never came to fruition.

Jay M. Todd explained that after writing the article he lost touch with the story and could only speculate why the facade was never built:
“I do remember that later I had probed, or it came up in a conversation that the brethren had changed their mind or decision on what to do with the property for the time being. Of course, all kinds of things happened in the 60s and 70s with protests and things happening relative to the priesthood, it was a darker public relations time for the church and they may well have tabled it for a variety of reasons. I suppose they felt it was not timely to move forward in that arena; they had things of much greater significance to handle. This is just a memory, more of a guess.”8 
Greg Prince noted that President McKay died in January 1970 “at which time (I presume) the project was still anticipated to go forward. Nothing in the research I did hinted at putting the brakes on it. Clearly, something happened after McKay's death that deep-sixed the project, but I don't know what, who or when.9

It remains to be seen exactly why the project fell through. Richard I. Kimball, associate professor in the Department of History at BYU and grandson of J. LeRoy Kimball, said Kimball's papers are not gathered in any library collection for research.10 President Gordon B. Hinckley announced the rebuilding of the Nauvoo Temple in the April 1999 General Conference.

Flake, “Re-placing Memory: Latter-day Saint Use. of Historical Monuments and Narrative,” [.pdf]. This paper later became a chapter in Flake's The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.

See James L. Kimball, Jr., “J. Leroy Kimball, Nauvoo Restoration Pioneer: A Tribute,” BYU Studies 32, nos. 1, 2 (1992), pp. 5-12 [.pdf]; Lisle G. Brown “Nauvoo’s Temple Square,” BYU Studies 41, no. 4 (2002).

David O. McKay Diary, Jan. 4, 1962, cited in Greg Prince, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, p. 272.


Brown, opt. cit., p. 27.

J. Leroy Kimball, "About Nauvoo Restoration," Improvement Era, July 1967, p. 14).

Jay M. Todd, “Nauvoo Temple Restoration,” Improvement Era, October 1968, pp.10-16.

Jay M. Todd, personal interview, Dec. 9, 2008 (notes in my possession). In 1968 Dennis Lythgoe (then a Teaching Assistant in the Dept. of History, University of Utah) detailed “the drastic change in the image of Mormonism as seen through popular periodical articles from 1950 to the present [1968]” in his article “The Changing Image of Mormonism” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 3, Num. 4 - Winter 1968, pp. 45-58). Ironically he opened his article with a “devastating indictment of Mormonism” from the New York Review of Books: “The ultimate fate of American minorities is to become tourist attractions…But the tourist boom means the same thing in Utah that it means in Vermont, the same thing it means wherever the past has been piously “restored,” roped off, and put on display—not vitality but the decadence of a way of life.” The article goes on to show how bad publicity regarding the priesthood restriction brought much condemnation onto the Church from the national press.

Greg Prince, author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, personal email of Dec. 15, 2008 in my possession.

Richard I. Kimball, personal email, Jan. 7, 2009.


ben said...

Interesting stuff. Thanks for digging up the magazine article.

J. Stapley said...

Very nice. I checked Virginia S. and J. C. Harrington, Rediscovery of the Nauvoo Temple: Report on the Archaeological Excavations (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1971), and there was no mention of any halt in the intro by Kimball. As an aside, that volume is worth checking out.

BHodges said...

Thanks for the tip, J. I'll check it out. So it appears at least when that book went to press the plan was still going forward.

Christopher said...

Nice work, Blair. I was not familiar with this early effort, and find it quite interesting.

S.Faux said...

I am just speculating, but one reason the Church might not have proceeded at full speed on this nice project was concern for how the residents of Nauvoo might have reacted. The dramatic nature of the project would have had a significant impact on the limited resources and infrastructure of this small town.

I know these concerns were issues in the building of the fully restored Nauvoo temple. I also know that the Church contributed to the city's road funds, etc. for that project.

My real point is that there could have been many subtle non-obvious reasons for the failure to proceed.

BHodges said...

I think it was a combination of different circumstances, as well, but I also believe at some point there was a definite decision made, "ok, we are halting the project."

The reason I don't know that local opposition would have played such a factor is that the Church appeared to be welcomed by the community at the time (see the articles in the paper at the time) and many buildings were being constructed. Tourist numbers were increasing throughout the decade, etc.

cinepro said...

Interesting article. Have you ever checked out the conspiracy theory about Brigham Young instigating the fire that burned the Nauvoo Temple so it wouldn't be received by non (or anti) Mormons? There's an interesting write up here.

Justin said...

I'm away from my files, but Pykles' dissertation on the restoration of Nauvoo might have some info. Or you could contact him at SUNY-Potsdam.


Justin said...

Does Todd mention the temple restoration project in his July 1970 Improvement Era article on Nauvoo (I don't have access to the article)?

BHodges said...

cinepro: I haven't heard of it; interesting.

Justin: I haven't checked July 1970 yet.

Don Kauffman said...

Do you know how far President Hinckley's Dad's efforts got toward the same goal in the 1930's? Did his idea's ever make it into the planning stage, or was it refered to at all during this process?

BHodges said...

Don: I am certain Hinckley did not get as close as Kimball. I don't have the BYU Studies articles that talk about that time frame with me at the moment, though.

Ardis Parshall said...

Totally apart from any interference an existing tourist construction might have caused in building the new Nauvoo Temple, I'm pretty glad they never built this artificial ruin. We have such a problem in this generation with the Disneyfication/Susan Easton Blackening of our historical sites, and I think this one would have been especially pernicious. It is fun to speculate on their plans, though, and the cancellation. Great post.

I love the Harrington book -- I own two copies, picked up at Nauvoo in the early 1970s. /boast

BHodges said...

Thanks, Ardis. I am glad you added your comment about the Disneyfication aspect. I think it is interesting that the early talks with McKay stated the importance of rebuilding the temple as close to the orig. as possible.

Ardis Parshall said...

but B, it wouldn't have been at all "close to the original" had it been merely an observation deck/staircase enclosed in a corner tower, with the walls tapering off to a plaza as pictured! No matter how perfectly the pilasters and their sun/moon/star stones of that corner tower were mimicked in concrete, such a monstrosity would have been artificial, a pretense, a sham, a false front just like the sham Western towns or Victorian mansions used as skins to tourist rides at amusement parks. Ugh!

Not that I have an opinion or anything. {g}

BHodges said...

I agree. I get the feeling President McKay wanted the temple rebuilt as a temple. I am almost certain HD Moyle wanted it that way. That was one of the early "objections" if it can be called that to rebuilding. They were concerned that the Washington D.C. temple would make a Nauvoo temple too luxurious [can't think of the right word] given the cost, and the concern to get temples built for those who did not presently have access.

Hans said...

Ardis, I agree about not making the temple look like Disneyland but what do you mean about the SE Blackification? I know who she is and some of her work (even took a class), but being in Texas I might have missed something along the way.

Ardis Parshall said...

Hans, that may be an unfair statement on my part, but I've heard repeatedly that SEB is to be blamed for all those little signposts and markers scattered throughout Nauvoo and at other LDS sites, with little snippets of quotations from diaries or talks or reminiscences. I hate them. They're all so cheesy and sentimental and overwrought and out of context, and they hit you over the head with orders to "SHED TEARS HERE!!!"

In the past when I was going to Nauvoo every few years, I could walk down the road toward the ferry landing and imagine, as far as a 20th century visitor could, what it might have meant to me had I been a 19th century resident of Nauvoo. I can't do that anymore, because every few feet one of those manipulative markers screams its interference with my experience of place and time.

The littering of the landscape, together with the inevitable focus on a single moment in time, distorts the history represented by our historical sites. What about all the times people headed joyfully down that road because they expected a loved one to arrive by that day's ferry? What about the hopes and determination of elders who headed down that road on their way toward the missionfield, and the pride of family members who saw them off? All of that, and even the possibility of imagining it, is blocked by the incessant pounding of the drum calling this a "trail of tears."

If SEB isn't responsible for all that manipulative clutter, then I'll have to change my term for it -- in the meantime, I use "SEBlackening" as shorthand for that kind of interference with historical sites.

BHodges said...

Maybe "blackening" is safer? Or maybe not, that could be seen as loaded as well, I guess. You make some good points, Ardis, I like what you've said quite a bit.

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