Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The Mesa Arizona Temple Frieze

The Mesa Arizona Temple Frieze

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 20, 2009

The first three temples of the 20th century (Laie Hawaii, dedicated 1919; Cardston Alberta, dedicated 1923; and Mesa Arizona, dedicated 1927) share an architecture that is radically different from the spired, crenelated pioneer temples of the 19th century. Joseph F. Smith is said to have described their boxy, spireless shape as resembling Solomon’s temple; others have compared them to Herod’s temple, or as reminiscent of Mesoamerican buildings. The architecture was also inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style architecture.

Although resembling each other somewhat – perhaps more in contrast to other temples than in actual resemblance to each other – each of these three temples has unique architectural details and decoration. This post pictures one of the unique features of the Mesa Arizona Temple, the frieze that runs around the building under its cornice, just above the columns and deep-set windows of the facade. (The frieze – pronounced freeze – is a ribbon of carved decoration. This picture, taken just after completion and long before the landscaping had matured, shows well both the stark, geometric temple architecture and the placement of the frieze – carved human figures on the sides and corners, with a geometric design across the front above the columns and windows.)

Alma Brockerman Wright (known chiefly for his highly colored paintings and murals) designed the frieze; Torleif S. Knaphus (who modeled the oxen supporting several temple baptismal fonts, and is the sculptor of the Hill Cumorah monument, the handcart memorial on Temple Square, and the Angel Moroni atop the Washington D.C. Temple, among many other LDS works) translated those sketches into the terra cotta panels that we see today.

I have not been able to find the dimensions of the frieze, although if the temple’s parapet is four feet deep, as one source noted, then the frieze appears to be about six feet deep, the figures somewhat larger than life size. [See UPDATE at end of post for reliable measurements, thanks to Jonathan Kland.]

The frieze represents a grand parade of converts leaving their old homes and gathering to Zion. This is not a generic line of generic people, however; the figures represent specific nationalities, and the artists even conceived mini-stories for some of them.

The four figures to the left are Italians. The woman and the seated man upon whose shoulder her hands rests are a husband and wife; the wife is a convert, the husband is not, and the wife is attempting to convince the husband to join her in gathering to Zion. To their right is a group of French peasants, on their way to Holland to board a ship to America. Those in the rear of the French group are wearing climbing clothes, having just descended from the Alps.

This group of European Saints has reached the port in Holland from which they will embark. A group of Dutch Saints carry their bundles aboard ship, while the Germans who have already boarded are stowing their belongings.

The emigrant ship has arrived in America. The figure at the rear is a Scotsman in kilt and tam o’shanter; Irish converts are gathering their belongings aboard ship; an Englishman leads a Welsh family off the ship and toward Zion.

The Saints have crossed the plains and almost reached their destination. The group of three in the lead represents Norwegians; a Swedish family follows them; a group of Danes brings up the rear.

On the other side of the temple, we see a group of American pioneers, including a couple pulling a handcart, who have just arrived in the mountains visible at the left of this picture.

A large number of Mexican Saints, the men identified by their sombreros and with some of their goods packed on a donkey, have left their Missions in the Southwest and approach the Lord’s House.

Another large group, this time of Indians, is also coming to the temple. The man toward the back with his arm outstretched is their chief who urges them onward; he is followed by another chief carrying a peace pipe.

This last group represents the Hawaiian Saints. Because they have their own temple in Hawaii by this time, these Saints are not traveling, but are pursuing the ordinary occupations of life. We see fishermen, two men pounding poi, and a woman playing the ukelele.

Just think – if Wright and Knaphus were to design a frieze for a temple today, how much larger the building would have to be to accommodate all the nationalities they would want to show coming to the House of the Lord!


Jonathan Kland (see comment 17) contributes this section image and calculates that the panel with the figures is about 3′ 8″ high, with 10″ precast pieces at top and bottom, giving the overall height of 7′ shown here.  Ben Pratt (comment 14) has a good memory of the script he used to use when he recalls that as a guide he told visitors that the figures were about 4′  high.

Jonathan Kland, by the way, is an architect publishing one of my favorite new blogs, Salt Lake Architecture. Some of the buildings he features are modern, others historic, and I expect to link any posts that tie into Mormon history. Check it out.



  1. THis is fantastic! I never knew! And of course I love the peace pipe!

    Comment by Matt W. — April 20, 2009 @ 7:43 am

  2. I grew up in Chandler 8 miles away from the Mesa Temple and remember looking up at the Friezes when I was a little boy.

    I also remember that the Saints from Mexico would take long bus rides to attend the Temple. The would use an interstake center two blocks away from the Temple as a dormitory. Sister Allred of the Relief Society Presidency in her conference talk in October 2008 told of her and her husband taking saints from Central America on Temple Excursion to the Arizona Temple in the 1970’s before any Temples were built in Mexico and Central America.

    Now of course Mexico has more Temples than any other country in the world besides the United States.

    I sometimes think they ought to take down or cover up the Friezes as Saints do not physically gather to the United States anymore and can go to the Temple in their own countries.

    But the Friezes are still beautiful and convey an important message even if it is not exactly the same one that was intended in 1927.

    Comment by John Willis — April 20, 2009 @ 7:49 am

  3. The Mesa temple is important to me because that is where my parents were sealed.

    Like John Willis’ comment, I wonder what the message was in the frieze. At the time was it still taken more literal as a physical gathering even though the Church was beginning to encourage building Zion where you live?

    For some reason, I thought that Avard Fairbanks designed the Moroni stature on the DC temple.

    Comment by Steve C. — April 20, 2009 @ 9:09 am

  4. You’re right, Steve — further checking corrects my memory and confirms Fairbanks as the sculptor. (Knaphus did assist Malin in sculpting the L.A. Temple statue, as well as the one at Cumorah.)

    I’ll correct the post, including my spelling of Knaphus’s first name.

    (Memo to self: never rely on memory … never rely on memory … never rely on memory …)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 20, 2009 @ 9:38 am

  5. I don’t know whether Wright/Knaphus had in mind an invitation to the Saints of 1927 to gather, or whether it was more a symbolic memory of those who had already gathered to build that temple. In any case, I like the way the Hawaiians are shown as not needing to emigrate, which certainly wasn’t the case for any European Saint who wanted temple blessings then.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 20, 2009 @ 10:07 am

  6. Wonderful, Ardis. I had not seen a close up of this frieze, before and found it quite moving. I once heard Richard Oman talk about the Hawaiian Temple frieze and baptismal font – some great stuff there as well.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 20, 2009 @ 10:46 am

  7. Thanks for the explanation. As many times as I’ve walked around the temple and looked at those, I’ve never read an explanation of what the friezes meant.

    When did the church officially end the policy of gathering to Zion? Wasn’t it about the time the Arizona temple was built?

    Comment by Researcher — April 20, 2009 @ 12:21 pm

  8. I don’t know that we can put an official end date to it. There may be earlier indications, but I’ve seen notices during the 1893 depression, and during later hard economic times, asking Saints abroad to stay put because there was no employment for them in Utah. Through the first half of the 20th century, you occasionally read suggestions that Saints stay at home because they were needed in local branches — but at the same time, sometimes in the same articles, you see news about members emigrating to be with family and friends who emigrated earlier. There was a big influx after World War II, and the Church News carries a lot of articles with photos, welcoming to Utah this or that family who had been prominent in the European church, and there’s no sense of disapproval expressed.

    All I can say for sure is that by October 2006, when Elder Nelson spoke on The Gathering of Scattered Israel, quoting Bruce R. McConkie’s 1972 talk in a Mexico City Mexico Area conference, the time of physical gathering to the western U.S. had definitely ended:

    “Every nation is the gathering place for its own people.” The place of gathering for Brazilian Saints is in Brazil; the place of gathering for Nigerian Saints is in Nigeria; the place of gathering for Korean Saints is in Korea; and so forth. Zion is “the pure in heart.” Zion is wherever righteous Saints are. Publications, communications, and congregations are now such that nearly all members have access to the doctrines, keys, ordinances, and blessings of the gospel, regardless of their location.

    Not that anyone is turned away or scolded for coming, of course. Our ward has newcomers from all parts of the world. Some are here for a specific purpose and a relatively short time before they take new skills home with them, while others have apparently come to stay permanently. (At least, I’m not aware of any scolding; there shouldn’t be any, as far as I’m concerned, but obviously I wouldn’t be as sensitive to any implied criticism as newcomers would be. Those in our ward, whether from India or Peru or Ghana, are some of the most outgoing, most *belonging* members of the ward.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 20, 2009 @ 1:52 pm

  9. This is so interesting. Thank you for the information. I love the unique architectural features and symbolism of the individual temples. I am very glad they still try to make them somewhat unique. For example, the painted murals in the Draper Utah temple are such a beautiful feature. It would be great to see a 21st century frieze on some temple somewhere!

    Comment by Martin Willey — April 20, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

  10. Thanks, Ardis!

    Comment by Researcher — April 20, 2009 @ 6:44 pm

  11. As Ardis said, there were spurts and feints starting with the depression in the 1890’s. Seems to me that like it was President Lee that gave the coup de grace, though I would have to do some research to be sure.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 20, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

  12. I love your post. Thank you so much for sharing.


    Comment by JA Benson — April 20, 2009 @ 8:37 pm

  13. When I was a Youth Guide at the Arizona Temple Visitors Center prior to my mission, part of the garden tour we gave involved a discussion about the friezes surrounding the temple. I loved that part of the tour. Thank you for a stroll down memory lane.

    I miss being able to share the history of the temple and the beautiful friezes surrounding the outside of the temple.

    Comment by Brian Duffin — April 20, 2009 @ 10:21 pm

  14. Like Brian, I was a Youth Guide. Thanks for the reminder, Ardis!

    IIRC, during tours we used to say that the people in the friezes were about 4 feet tall.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — April 20, 2009 @ 11:58 pm

  15. There was a story, with much less historical background, published in the Ensign, October, 2003. It includes color pictures of the friezes up close and with good detail. Coupled with Ardis’ comments, it is a great window into the trials of gathering to Zion a century ago, and keeping Zion today.

    Link to Ensign article

    Comment by Ric Pugmire — April 21, 2009 @ 8:18 am

  16. What beautiful pictures, Ric, thanks! This is another case of “had I seen that first, I wouldn’t have written this post.” I’m kind of glad I didn’t see it earlier, but am very glad to see it now.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 21, 2009 @ 8:59 am

  17. I found the original section drawing through the frieze but don’t know how to add an image here, so I’ll email it to you. From scaling off the dimensions, it looks as though the actual frieze panel is 3′-8″ tall, flanked on top and bottom by (2) 10″ precast pieces to total 7′-0″.

    Comment by Jonathan Kland — April 21, 2009 @ 10:02 am

  18. I appreciated the added detail you brought to the story. (We moved to AZ 10 years ago, so this is our temple now.)

    As a former Danish missionary, it disturbs me to find the Danish saints from Aalborg, Aarhus, and Kobenhaven bringing up the rear. If Knaphus had been a Swede, that might have been expected. lol

    Comment by Ric Pugmire — April 21, 2009 @ 10:15 am

  19. “Traveling single file, as was their ancient custom, the Native American people go to unite with the Church.”

    This reminds me of one of my dad’s favorite responses to broad generalizations based on scanty evidence:

    “All Indians walk in single file. At least the one I saw did.”

    Comment by Mark B. — April 21, 2009 @ 11:06 am

  20. Let it be understood (if there be any doubt) that Mark’s quotation comes from the Ensign, not from me!

    I should also have credited J.W. LeSueur, Maricopa Stake President during the building of this temple, as my source for identifying the different groups.

    Thanks to all who have commented, especially the ones I haven’t referred to by name. Sometimes I don’t respond directly to every comment because I don’t like the Recent Comments box to display evidence of how much I chatter with my fingers — but I read and enjoy and appreciate all the comments.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 21, 2009 @ 11:17 am

  21. When I worked as a security guard at the Mesa Temple, I used to take my breaks in the temple president’s office and would often read a book on the dedication of the temple that was kept in that office. I believe I recall seeing information about the friezes in that book.

    Anyhow, the Mesa Temple is a fascinating structure both inside and outside. I have enjoyed many quiet evenings walking alone inside that sacred edifice.

    Comment by Brian Duffin — April 21, 2009 @ 5:36 pm

  22. That’s really cool. I’m pretty sure Cardston doesn’t have this, but I should check next time I go. Or at least check for something just as cool.

    Comment by Kim Siever — April 24, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

  23. I haven’t seen it in person, but Knaphus’ “woman at the well” bas-relief at the Cardston temple looks impressive in photographs.

    Comment by Justin — April 25, 2009 @ 8:26 am

  24. I visited the Mesa temple for the first time this weekend. I had seen pictures, but never really realized how unusual the architecture was. I loved it. I wanted to know all about it, and asked the sister missionary in the visitor’s center. She gave me a little information, most of it wrong, but she didn’t know much. Thanks for your informative article. Is there a book you could recommend about the three temples with the boxy style architecture. Were they designed by the same architect? What made the church do three so different, and then continue on with the spire design? I love the symbolism in the temple architecture. This one is not so much symbolic, but actually telling a story in the carvings.

    We are in the San Diego temple district. Much of our temple is decorated with an eight pointed star, which was a design of the architect, but was found later to be, according to Hugh Nibley, the star used by Melchizadek. Lots of special things to learn in our temple designs.

    Comment by KaraLyn Drake — June 16, 2009 @ 12:03 am

  25. It is possible that the frieze was not so much an ‘invitation’ for the Saints in all the world to continue to gather to Zion in the American West but rather a visual illustration of Isaiah’s famous passage prophesying that in the last days,”…the mountain of the Lord’s House shall be established in the tops on the mountains and all nations shall flow unto it…” and that “…one shall turn to the other and say, ‘Come let us go up unto the House of the Lord…” (paraphrased). With so many figures seemingly on the move I believe that that frieze could just as easily be construed as an invitation to embrace the Restored Gospel and to gather to the House of the Lord to make the covenants and receive the blessings that can only be afforded there. I offer this explanation as another interpretation. Regardless of it’s original meaning, it should in no wise be removed or covered since it is a vital design element of the structure. With the frieze removed, the facade would become decidedly more bland and static.

    Comment by Velikiye Kniaz — June 16, 2009 @ 10:47 am

  26. KaraLyn: According to the Church Almanac, the architects for the Cardston, Alberta and Laie, Hawaii temples were Hyrum C. Pope and Harold W. Burton. The Mesa temple was designed by Don C. Young and Ramm Hansen. The Mesa temple was the last of those three to be built as well. The Cardston and Laie temples were built primarily during the Joseph F. Smith administration (though both were dedicated after JFS’s death) whereas the Mesa temple was built during the H.J. Grant administration. The Cardston and Laie temples were designed based on a Grecian look with touches of Meso-American temple styling. The Mesa temple also had a pre-Columbian look as well as a hint of the temple of Herod. I’m not sure, however, why the Church built these temples without spires or why the Church went back to using spires on the temples.

    Comment by Steve C. — June 16, 2009 @ 11:06 am

  27. One additional comment about these three temples (and I will also include the Idaho Falls temple because it fits into a general building trend) and that is these temples were the first built in the 20th century and were the first outside of Utah, though they were built in areas with a significant LDS population. The next round of temple building in the 1950s/60s was completely out of the traditional LDS strongholds–i.e. Los Angeles; Bern, Switzerland; Hamilton, New Zealand; London; and Oakland, CA. (At the time there were not even organized stakes in Europe or New Zealand).

    Comment by Steve C. — June 16, 2009 @ 11:12 am

  28. Some of the chapels and tabernacles built in the Mormon corridor in the early 20th century also use the boxy, spireless style. I think that was simply one of the modern, popular styles for public buildings in that generation (modified to incorporate those “touches of Meso-American temple styling” for Mormon taste, but still basically a popular building pattern.) Some of the “Latter-day Saint Images” collections from those years (check the “Topical Guide” at the top of the sidebar) have shown chapels, like the 1918 Brooklyn chapel, and one in the Northwest (Portland?) that have quite a bit of architectural similarity to those three temples.

    (Some reader who knows more than I do undoubtedly could tell us the name of that style.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 16, 2009 @ 11:41 am

  29. Paul Anderson has written some articles on the Mesa, Hawaii, and Cardston temples (here, here, and here). He notes that church leaders decided to go without spires to avoid what they viewed as unnecessary expense, and the architects were influenced by F.L. Wright’s style.

    Comment by Justin — June 16, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

  30. There’s also an article by Paul Anderston on the Cardston Temple at

    Comment by Alison — June 17, 2009 @ 3:43 am

  31. Does anyone know why there is no spire or Moroni on the Mesa Temple? Thanks

    Comment by Rebecca — February 19, 2011 @ 1:22 pm

  32. Rebecca, the architecture of the Laie, Mesa, and Cardston temples, all designed in the same era, was simply of a different style that did not include spires. They were meant to evoke a sense of Mayan architecture, or some say, of Solomon’s temple. The Manti and Logan temples likewise have no Moroni statues on their towers.

    While Moroni statues were added to many existing temples late in the 20th century, the church decided not to alter the architecture of these few historic temples to accommodate statues. The absence is purely an architectural/aesthetic thing; it has no other meaning.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 19, 2011 @ 1:39 pm

  33. Until the 1980s, a statue of Moroni on temples was the exception rather than the rule. Of the first 20 temples dedicated, only three (Salt Lake, Los Angeles, and Washington) had a statue. (Nauvoo did have a horizontal angel weather vane.) In fact, the first group of small temples in the 1980s (Samoa, Atlanta, etc.) were also planned and announced without statues, and it was decided at some point during construction to start putting statues on all the temples, including the smaller ones.

    They have recently added statues to a number of these older temples, but some (St. George, Logan, Manti, Hawaii, Alberta, Mesa) have an architectural style for which a statue would be very much out of place. (Not that that stopped them from putting one on Hong Kong and Vernal, though). A few years ago, the Friend published a drawing of the Manti Temple with a Moroni added to the west tower. Yuk.

    Personally, I’m pleased to have been married in a sealing room with no mirrors, in a temple with no Moroni. I’m just that kind of nonconformist.

    Comment by Left Field — February 19, 2011 @ 2:24 pm

  34. Ack, how could I forget St. George (same category as Manti and Logan)?!!

    Left Field is of course right about the retrofitting of temples with reproduction statues. Even more right about the “out of placeness” of the statues at Hong Kong and Vernal.

    And I’m going to use this opportunity to promote an old post about the Angel Moroni at Los Angeles with kudos for being an original sculpture rather than a mechanical copy.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 19, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

  35. When they announced that they were going to add a Moroni to the building that houses the Manhattan Temple, I was horrified, sure that the building was going to get the same Moroni Flagpole that Hong Kong did. However, it turned out that they added a tower, and did a pretty good job of making it look as if it belonged there.

    Comment by Left Field — February 19, 2011 @ 4:50 pm

  36. I’ve been searching online for info on the Mesa Arizona Temple, so I read with much interest this article and all the comments and found myself fascinated. I’ve also come across an article in the July 1977 Ensign by Paul Anderson (whom I coincidentally know and worked with at the BYU Museum of Art) about the Alberta Temple. In it he talks briefly about the three temples (and chapels) mentioned in the comments above:
    “During this period [of extended construction – a decade – on the Alberta Temple], other temples in Hawaii and Arizona were begun. Both of these beautiful buildings were influenced by the design of the Alberta Temple. More than twenty chapels and tabernacles were also built in a style similar to that of the Alberta Temple during this same decade. These remarkably modern buildings were found in locations as widely separated as Salt Lake City, Utah; Denver, Colorado; Portland, Oregon; Brooklyn, New York; and Melbourne, Australia. Three of the finest buildings in this style that are still in use by the Church are the Parowan Third Ward and the Ogden Deaf Branch, both in Utah, and the Montpelier Tabernacle in Idaho. Together, these many structures constituted one of the most remarkable collections of early modern buildings anywhere.”

    Comment by James L. Heywood — October 17, 2015 @ 2:32 pm

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