Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » William S. Muir: Builder in the Kingdom

William S. Muir: Builder in the Kingdom

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 09, 2010

Before drywall and other forms of wallboard came into prominence in the mid-20th century, the interior walls of most fine buildings were finished with plaster. Before plaster could be applied, though, the laths had to go up. Laths – narrow, thin strips of wood – were nailed at close intervals to studs, covering entire walls and ceilings. When the first coat of plaster was applied, some of the mud was forced through the intervals between laths. It was these “keys” of plaster, bulging through the laths and hardening on the inside of the wall, that kept the plaster in place. (This picture of the rear of a plastered wall shows how that worked.)

Installing lath was a tedious yet skilled profession. Often performed on scaffolding, with work on ceilings being done by a man raising arms and materials above his head, it could be physically demanding. Laths had to be nailed – by hand; no nail guns then! – at correct intervals to allow the proper amount of plaster to squeeze through, and the repetitive work had to be done quickly and steadily in order not to delay all the other finish work that was waiting.

When the capstone of the Salt Lake Temple was raised into place in April, 1892, all of the finish work – the installation of walls, including lath and plaster, the fine woodwork, the finish flooring, the painting, the electrical wiring, the installation of light fixtures and plumbing and mirrors and furnishings – remained to be done. At the request of Wilford Woodruff, who had driven the stake marking the spot identified for the temple by Brigham Young 39 years earlier, work on the temple’s interior was pushed forward at a fantastic rate to permit the temple to be dedicated in April of the following year.

One of those working on the temple interior that year was 22-year-old William S. Muir. Born 30 March 1870 to Scottish immigrant parents who had crossed the plains in 1852, the as-yet-unmarried William had already worked as a lather for almost ten years. He was good, too – whereas most workmen could install roughly 1,000 laths in a day, at his peak he could nail 1,200 laths in four hours. Imagine the physical stamina required for such work!

But it wasn’t only his strong arm and steady eye that was in demand. While working on the temple interior, the lathers were faced with some difficult tasks, chief among them being the curved and “keyholed” cornices over the doors in many of the rooms. William solved the problem by carefully selecting the laths to be used, then soaking them in water until they could be bent and wired to the necessary shapes. When dried, his elaborately shaped laths “formed a base for the plaster which for endurance has been a fitting complement to the granite walls of the building” – that’s the 1948 evaluation of a young journalist working for the Church, by name of Gordon B. Hinckley. Thanks to the labors of William S. Muir and many others like him, the temple was ready for dedication in April 1893.

William returned to the temple often after its completion – he was endowed there in August 1893, and married there to Ane Katrina Sylvestersen in November 1900. Over the rest of his lifetime, he did the ordinance work for more than 300 people. “His labor is even more praiseworthy,” according to one of his fellow craftsmen, “in view of the fact that very few men of his trade could even qualify for a recommend.” William, a high priest, served as a ward teacher from 1888 onward through his 80th year, in addition to filling several short-term local missions and a mission to California. He greatly admired Heber J. Grant: “If this people had followed President Grant’s advice [on the Word of Wisdom], think of where they might be today. With only a percentage setting an example in clean living and the payment of tithing, just see what has been accomplished. And then think how far the work might have been advanced if all had lived up to the principles of the gospel.”

In his professional work he assisted with lathing the basement addition to the Salt Lake Tabernacle; he worked on the Utah State Capitol; and he helped to build the Church Administration Building, where the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve still have their offices. In 1948, when a new floor was added to the Administration Building, the 78-year-old master craftsman was called out of retirement to do the lath work in the new rooms. This time he used a metal mesh instead of the old wooden laths – a process as tedious as the old method, because it had to be wired to the studs at close intervals (he is shown doing such wiring in this 1948 photograph). He didn’t quite approve of the new method: “If we had used that stuff in the Temple, the plaster would all be down by now,” he complained. But the modern materials were what his employers called for, so he provided the best service he could.

William S. Muir, who passed away on 26 December 1954, was “just” a workman, “just” a laborer, unknown to many outside his family. He is representative, though, of all those who gave their skills to building the Kingdom in a very literal way, and whose anonymous works can still be seen and appreciated all these generations later by those of us who take the time to notice.



  1. I really enjoy hearing the stories of “just” regular people. Knowing those stories enriches us as church members and as “just” people ourselves.

    Comment by Tracy M — August 9, 2010 @ 8:34 am

  2. Ardis – Thank you for this wonderful story. Truly, the kingdom is built by “just” regular people…like yourself, who bring these things to our remembrance. Of course, since this story is about a distant relative, it is even more of worth to me.

    Comment by Cliff — August 9, 2010 @ 8:43 am

  3. The temples were amazing buildings for those frontier communities, and are still amazing compared to modern construction. It’s fascinating to hear some of the stories behind the craftsmanship.

    Comment by Researcher — August 9, 2010 @ 9:43 am

  4. I needed to hear this today Ardis. Thanks for reminding me that ordinary people do extraordinary things.

    Comment by Paradox — August 9, 2010 @ 11:41 am

  5. Amen to Comment #1

    Comment by Clark — August 9, 2010 @ 11:49 am

  6. This, actually, explains all the ordinance work I discovered that had been done on behalf of absolutely every William Muir living in 19th-century Scotland; at the time I was researching my several-greats grandfather of the same name (no relation)!

    Comment by Alison — August 9, 2010 @ 11:58 am

  7. An interesting look at craftsmanship. Is his plastering still extent in the temple? Are there other places one could see examples? I’d like to see some, but its been so long since I’ve been home I’m not sure I could think of anyplace to investigate off the top of my head.

    I’m also wondering what this remark means: “His labor is even more praiseworthy,” according to one of his fellow craftsmen, “in view of the fact that very few men of his trade could even qualify for a recommend.”

    Comment by Mina — August 9, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

  8. Thank you, all who respond to the same thing that prompts me: recognizing ordinary people who either do something extraordinary, or something that was ordinary in their day but is now seen as extraordinary.

    Mina, perhaps the best place to visit would be the Church Administration Building — I don’t know that his work is still intact, but it’s the most likely place, and with your credentials you could probably arrange to see the “new” floor fairly easily. His work still exists in the temple, but the Tabernacle basement and Capitol have been so thoroughly remodeled and modernized in the past few years that I wouldn’t expect any of his work to be identifiable in either place.

    As for the remark about temple recommends for his fellow tradesmen, I suspect that referred to Word of Wisdom violations, probably a culture of smoking among the workmen.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 9, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

  9. A very enjoyable read. I like to hear of the ordinary people who did their part, whatever that might have been. That is a lesson for all of us. I also like the duality of the story: he worked on the physical structure of the temple then worked on the spiritual structure of the temple as well.

    Comment by Steve C. — August 9, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

  10. I thought that it might refer to something like that Ardis, and was also thinking it might therefore have a class inflection. All in all, a very interesting look at the importance of the “ordinary man” on whose shoulders everything else usually depends (SteveC your remark on dual structures is quite relevant to this, too).

    Comment by Mina — August 9, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

  11. Regarding class inflections, Mina, I have evidence that William S. Muir was active in a labor union at least as early as 1911. FYI.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 9, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

  12. I remember a friend in junior high school who referred to the sort of workmen who “smoked cigarettes and carried lunch buckets.” I suspect that’s what Bro. Muir’s “fellow craftsman” was alluding to–and it’s not the carrying of a lunchbucket that would disqualify one for the temple recommend!

    As to plaster–now that was a wall! The modern replacement–gypsum wallboard, sold under the tradename “Sheetrock” among others, is cheap and easy to install and requires fewer skilled workmen, but it’s flimsy in comparison, subject to dents and dings and breakage.

    If you’re comparing “degree of difficulty” on installation, though, it’s a lot easier to nail a piece of lath to the ceiling than a 4′ x 12′ piece of sheetrock!

    Comment by Mark B. — August 9, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

  13. I’m a long time reader, first time poster, but I want to jump into the line of complimentary commentators. Great read, as always. I would like to add Bro. Muir to our architects and builders files in the preservation office at state history – do you care to share some of your sources for posterity?

    Comment by Nelson — August 9, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

  14. Sure, Nelson, I’ll write to you directly. Thanks.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — August 9, 2010 @ 6:20 pm

  15. My grandparents’ home (later in my possession–now owned by my son and his wife) was built in 1908. The “upstairs” was only partially finished, so the lath and plaster walls were readily noticed. I took a lot of people upstairs to see the walls, people who only knew about sheetrock and wanted to learn about lath and plaster.

    I, too, enjoy reading about “ordinary” people and their accomplishments.

    Comment by Maurine — August 10, 2010 @ 12:12 am

  16. William S. Muir is my great-grandfather. Our family stories have always been enriched by details of his great life. He grew up on 2nd Ave. and H street in the home his pioneer parents built after they had lived in a dug out for several years. His father and older brothers had all worked in the granite quarries for the temple. He was the youngest of 10 children and cared for his parents until they were both gone. Then he married, Ane Katrina Sylvestersen (Katy). They have five children two of whom died in childhood. The other three all graduated fro the U and became teachers, engineers and business men. In his sixties, he helped his son, Syl, build a home on 11th Ave that still stands today. All this children had the chance to learn to spit nails, which is what they called working as carpenters. Stories of his thrift are legendary, but his great faith is the gospel and dedication to the Savior touch the lives of his family through the generations Thank you for the story that tell usmore of the man we love even after he is gone.

    Comment by Cindy Barton — April 3, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

  17. I own a house that was finished by a master plasterer. It looks like perfect crown molding and fancy door frames, but it is all plaster. The closer I look at it the more perfect it is. That was an amazing craft and you can’t find anyone to do that any more.

    I like this story.

    Comment by Carol — April 3, 2011 @ 8:11 pm

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