Episode 86: Mormon Meeting House Architecture

Mormon Chapel

John Larsen, Glenn Ostlund and Tierza discuss the issues surrounding the architecture of Mormon meeting houses.

Episode 86

27 comments on “Episode 86: Mormon Meeting House Architecture”

  1. BL Reply

    I go to church at the “Pagoda” chapel in Salt Lake City. While not as old as some of the best examples in the church it is still pretty classic–and definitely mid-century modern. When first built in the ’60s, its copper roof was visible throughout the valley and many ward members were involved in laying the crooked bricks in the chapel. 10 years ago the stake president wanted to update the building, plaster over the walls, remove the mid-century modern built-in foyer seating and install a bunch of schlocky Simon Dewey art. A letter-writing campaign by ward members saved the chapel interior.

    I love it because it’s one of the few un-correlated buildings left. I hate going to new buildings. They suck.

  2. Tahadden Reply

    If you want a bigger Mothers Room just start brestfeeding in Sacrament meeting.

  3. Scottie Reply

    As for sacrament meeting, have you ever seen just how much wasted space there is in the pews?? If the members would squish together a tiny bit more, there would be ample room.

    Plus, I remember when I was attending, I would purposefully sit in the overflow, even though there was plenty of pew space, just so my kids could run around a bit.

  4. Eric Reply

    I think it’s funny that trumpets can’t be played in the chapel but what is Moroni playing up on top of the temple. Or maybe it’s ok since Moroni is outside.

  5. Dan M. Reply

    Wow, ya’ll are really cranking these things out. I hope you don’t get burnt out because I love listening. I look forward to this one.

  6. Dave Lee Reply

    There are some vintage chapels left in northern Arizona. Some are still in use. Snowflake has a chapel made of sandstone brick. The church also owned a movie theater in Snowflake. On a sad note a vintage two story church in Taylor, AZ was abandoned for a new building. Over the years it has been used and abused. It was once used as a teen grunge club called “The Cave.” Many teens got wasted had sex in the same hallowed halls where the sacrament was administered. The cops shut it down after several drug bust. A family member almost bought it and wanted to turn it into a bed and breakfast. It is now used as a studio for a publishing company and author.

  7. Swearing Elder Reply

    I wish I hadn’t given away my collection of Utah Historical Quarterly issues before moving out of Utah. There is one particular article that was one of my favorites that is relevant here. If you can get a copy and can post some pictures from it (or others that you can find on the Google Machine of old LDS chapels), it really illustrates how completely different today’s meetinghouses (there’s a “Mormon expression” for you) are from yesteryear’s. Here’s the reference: Janell Brimhall, “Diversities of Gifts”: The Eclectic Architecture of Early LDS Churches, Vol. 68 (No. 2), Spring 2000, pp. 157-71.

    There were a lot of great lines from this episode; this was one of my favorites: “Reverence is measured in decibels.”

    This episode really brought back a surge of memories–some great ones, in fact, some of which were later soured by the correlated church. My first memory of church is in the Millcreek ward on 3900 South and about 600 East in Salt Lake. I remember the beautiful stained glass window that was front and center for all to admire during church. Directly behind and above the audience was perched a glassed-in mother’s room. You had to climb some stairs to get to it, and you had a bird’s-eye view of the congregation. It was like a luxury sky box for moms — the full chapel experience, but sound-proofed so you could take your crying kids up there or nurse in privacy. I remember playing up there. I can still taste the oranges that Santa Claus gave me when I was five at the ward Christmas party at that building.

    I drove past it several years ago when I was in Salt Lake and they had taken down the stained glass window, which used to face 39th South for all to admire as they drove by. I understand that chapel has since been completely torn down.

    We then moved to Davis County and had a cool pre-correlated building with a cool Scout room (wood paneling, lots of flags and such from camps hanging on the walls), a full-size basketball court, and a softball field out back. I have great memories in that building–my baptism, ward basketbrawl games, kissing my girlfriend at the stake dance on New Year’s Eve, and so on. Then the boundaries were realigned in the early ’80s and we got sent to a brand-spankin’ new correlated building. It had the a carpeted gym, carpeted walls, and absolutely no personality. Each room looked exactly like the next.

    Then we moved back East and were in another pre-correlated building. It actually fit in with the New England aesthetic. I was sitting next to my friend in the foyer and made an ill-advised comment about the ugliness of the couch we were sitting on.

    “It used to be in our living room.”


    “Yeah, it was our family’s. We donated it when they built the church.”

    (Open mouth, insert foot.)

    Surely that building had greater meaning to some of the long-standing members in that “mission field” ward who had sacrificed time, money, and couches to make the building happen.

    I think one of the things that bugs me about the McCorrelated buildings is that it just strips the church of personality. I have wonderful memories in some of those buildings (only a couple them mentioned here) and even though I don’t believe in the Corporate Church, I do believe in the people and in gathering together with people I care about, which was often done in those edifices. Memory is really tied to a place and time. When every Mormon space looks exactly like the next, it’s difficult to have an emotional tie to one of those places.

    And having served a mission in Latin America, David Knowlton was absolutely right about the chapels: They stick out like a sore thumb. One local adjustment that was always made was turning the outdoor basketball courts into “baby fútbol” fields.

    It’s like a favorite restaurant or coffee shop that you associate with special gatherings or events compared with a Outback Stake House (intentional misspelling) or Starbucks. They all look and feel the same, and thus not very special or unique.

    Just look for pictures of old chapels like the ones I mentioned in the article above and compare them with the McChapels. Night and Day.

  8. Kirk Reply

    The fibrous coating on the interior walls of modern meeting houses is primarily for sound reduction. It is a surface which easily absorbs distracting noises and helps contain high pitched sounds like crying babies, unruly children and lively conversations. The substance is available is various colors, but the most commonly used is a neutral earth tone. This covering is also highly durable, and reduces the amount of wall washing or painting required to keep church walls tidy and clean looking. I really appreciated the podcast. It was very interesting. I don’t agree with all of your perceptions, but I was highly entertained. Thanks again.

  9. Patrick Reply

    Best Closet Joke EVER!

    In Kaunas, Lithuania in the late nineties, the branch met in an upstairs space that the Church renovated with a HUGE door that cost more than any of the families earned in a year. I heard many a criticism of that purchase. However, the Senior Missionary loved to brag about how the seller guaranteed that it could withstand the blast from two grenades.

  10. Swearing Elder Reply

    One more thought: Why do they include stages in the new buildings? What was the last time you saw a road show or anything like it performed in a wardhouse?

  11. Swearing Elder Reply

    One more thought: Why do they include stages in the new buildings? What was the last time you saw a road show or anything like it performed in a wardhouse?

  12. BobJohn Reply

    Two comments / stories:

    1) If you think that mothers’ lounges are too small, think about what the (lack of) facilities provided for fathers. In the correlated, modern chapel where my ward meets, there are no changing tables in the men’s restroom. There is no convenient place for men to change their children’s diapers. Since I am on diaper duties on weekends, this makes things difficult. I have pointed this out to the bishop (who is too old to remember what it is like to have small children), and he did not seem to care at all. I now change all my son’s poopy diapers on the couch in foyer, in full view of everyone. And then I throw the poopy diapers in the trash can in the foyer. The message I am getting from the church is that childcare is a woman’s job, and therefore there is no need to provide facilities for fathers. One changing table in the men’s room couldn’t be THAT expensive. And yet they will probably never put one in.

    2) While living in DC, we went to a branch in a predominantly African-American part of town. The church owned (rented?) a small chapel that (I heard) used to be a baptist church. It was not very-well laid out (it didn’t have nearly enough classrooms), and things were very cramped for us. Another nearby branch met in a building the church had bought from Safeway Supermarket. The church was meeting in a converted grocery store!

    One day, my wife and I decided to walk home from church (about an hour’s walk). Halfway home, we passed a very beautiful and large church — its architectural style almost reminded me of earlier LDS temples. The stone work around the top of the church had this phrase written: “The glory of God is intelligence.” As we rounded the corner, it had another phrase written on the other side that also came from LDS scripture. My curiosity was piqued. The building was very obviously no longer owned by the LDS church. We went in to investigate. If I remember right, it still had LDS pictures showing BoM scenes. We finally found a sign somewhere giving the name of the church: Unification Church.

    The building used to be owned by the LDS church, but they had apparently sold this large, beautiful chapel to the Moonies, and so now we were stuck meeting instead in a small dysfunctional building! Someone later told me that the neighborhood in which the chapel was located had gotten more dangerous over time, and the church decided to sell the chapel. Also, apparently upkeep on the building had become too expensive, so the church sold it.

    Here is a picture and short history of the building: http://www.mormonhistoricsitesregistry.org/USA/washingtonDC/dcChapel/history.htm

    What a tragedy the church’s shortsightedness led to the loss of such a historic, beautiful, and useful building in the middle of our nation’s capital!

    • BobJohn Reply

      I should add the neighborhood in which that DC chapel is located is not dangerous anymore. It would be a prime location to have a chapel now, and there would be no reason to get rid of it anymore. When we lived there I heard rumors that the church had tried to buy it back, but the Moonies weren’t interested in selling.

  13. Zionssuburb Reply

    In my recent callings, I’ve been part of the planning for a new stake center. It is my experience that members of the church do have much input into the design, however it is typically the Stake Presidency and their wives. Because the design work is done prior to announcements it seems like nobody has input.

    I’ve NEVER been in a McCoorelated church building that didn’t have a changing station in the Men’s rooms. I’ve also never been in a pre-McCoorelated building without changing tables for men (at least 2).

    • BobJohn Reply

      I too have lived in wards with both correlated and non-correlated buildings. This is the first that I can remember which didn’t have changing tables. It is still frustrating that they neglected to put one in, and that no one in the last 10-20 years (which is my estimate of the chapel’s age) has bothered to do anything about it.

  14. karen Reply

    I think They stick out like a sore thumb. One local adjustment that was always made was turning the outdoor basketball courts into “baby fútbol” fields.

  15. Fred Reply

    Well as you all know I’m generally critical of modern Mormonism.

    However, the Church buildings is one area where I’m not. This is, and how to organize and manage social services for that matter, is an area where I think the mainstream Christian Church could learn a lot from the Mormons. I find their buildings – especially the older, pre-correlation buildings – to be exceptionally well done and surprisingly functional.

    And I’ll say this from this “outsider looking in” perspective. The two things that I hear people of faith kvetch about more than anything about their respective place of worship (not necessarily in this order) is parking, nursery, the building, and/or music.

    So you guys hit on all cylinders on this one – except for the parking, which I suspect was either an oversight or simply not an issue in non-metropolitan areas!
    (I wouldn’t know on the later one – never having done “urban”)

  16. Back Row Reply

    When my mom was our ward’s music director she came up with a creative way to get around the “no brass instruments in the chapel” rule during the Christmas program – she had the trumpeters stand outside the open chapel doors. How’s that for letter of the law? I remember the bishop thought it was hilarious.

  17. Joseph Reply

    My personal feeling is that socialist politics lead inevitably to cultural stagnation (as the central power flexes its muscles and makes people conform) and collapse (as the fringes finally rebel and recover from the stupor of corporate thought into which they have been thrust). The COB gained power over local wards and branches when it created the “one true church” (architecturally and decoratively determined); it also ensured its eventual demise (which may or may not play out as a major shake-up in LDS-dom: the church could manage a seamless transition by handing control over local buildings back to local people).

    • Joseph Reply

      Whoops, I made that comment before hearing John’s comment at the end of the episode. I think your allusion to the Politburo is very apt, John.

  18. Tkealamakia Reply

    Holy crap…is the picture of that church a church in Kaysville, UT? It looks exactly like my church (yes I know there are many like it but the surrounding house and mountain are very telling.

  19. Steve G. Reply

    Too bad you couldn’t find an architect to join the discussion. I’ve designed a few of the modern buildings over the last few years and can give you some insights.

    Stake Presidents choose the colors. They are given a palette to choose from which includes interior wood, carpet, and fabric colors. The local architect (not an employee of the church) comes up with more colors for the Stake President to choose from trying to match the palette already chosen including sisal (that scratchy stuff on the walls), brick color, EIFS color (stucco looking product above entries. Sometimes its a disaster giving that kind of decision to the SP, sometimes it comes out pretty good.

    The architect has some ability to make changes to meet local needs, but mostly must work off of the prototype drawings prepared at CHQ. When the project is finished the Church Architects and Engineers come for a visit, spend hours auditing the building. At the end they plug their individual scores into a laptop, spit out a grade, then give the architect, engineers, builder and anyone else invited a powerpoint presentation on what you did right and what you did wrong. Its an unnerving process to watch your work and decisions get critiqued in that way, but in the end they rarely request changes and then they go away. A poor score means you may not get hired again and a good score means you get a little pat on the back. The only really unfair part is that even though the SP gets to choose the colors, the architect gets docked in his score if it doesn’t meet with the CHQ architects approval. I quickly learned to just put together a palette with little or no choices and hope the SP though it looked good enough without feeling the need to meddle.

    One last thing about the prototypes. They save the church lots of money. Instead of paying for an architect to design the whole building they are mostly just paying the architect to make changes and handle construction administration. Any flaws in the design eventually work themselves out as the prototype is updated regularly.

  20. Fred W. Anson Reply

    “I have been struggling to find a word that defines the kind of people I hope my children will be.”

    That’s a great question!  Now I find myself struggling too.
    For me, I’m not sure that I can describe it in a single word. However, I like these doublets: 

    – Responsible yet Flexible
    – Autonomous yet Cooperative
    – Empowered yet Differential
    – Altruistic yet Self-Maintaining
    – Creative yet Disciplined
    – Critically Thinking yet Kind
    – Principled yet Tolerant
    – Loving yet Practical
    – Boundary Enforcing and Boundary Respecting

    How am I doing so far?

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