Architecture is one of the more neglected corners of religion coverage, but occasionally a conflict about historic preservation revives the theme. National Public Radio’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty reported in 2008 about the battle between Third Church of Christ, Scientist, and city officials over the church’s desire to replace its Brutalist-style facility. (That battle rages on, and this website tracks the latest developments, from the perspective of church members.)
Godbeat veteran Peggy Fletcher Stack of The Salt Lake Tribune has written a brief but wonderful report on preservationists within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the lovely buildings they have saved — and tried without success to save. Be sure to watch the seven-minute multimedia presentation that accompanies her article.
These preservationists must negotiate with church leaders based in Salt Lake City, and the report makes clear that the church tries to be responsive, even while guarding its higher priorities:
Landmark LDS temples, tabernacles and meetinghouses could be maintained if they have “significant history, art or architecture,” says Steve Olson, a member of the church’s historic-site committee. “But the church is not in the preservation business. We don’t just preserve things because they’re pretty. Our buildings need to continue to facilitate the work of the church, which is saving souls.”
… In February 1971, LDS leaders decided to demolish the Coalville Tabernacle, a magnificent edifice rising like a cathedral from the Summit County farmland. Every day for a week, The New York Times reported the progress of a group of residents working furiously to win a restraining order against the church. When a judge overturned the order, Mormon officials didn’t hesitate. Two days later, a testament to the devotion of early Saints was reduced to rubble.
A generation of LDS preservationists was born that day. And the church learned that many people — in and outside the church — care about preserving physical evidence of LDS faith and faithfulness.
As Stack reports, the 1970s were just as brutal on historic LDS structures as on so many other landmarks. For anyone who has visited a nondescript LDS ward built in that decade, or in many of the years since then, Stack’s article documents the beauty that once was.
Photo: The former Coalville Tabernacle.