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.