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Little Houses of Their Own: Relief Society Halls (UPDATED)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 29, 2010

Chapel-building had a relatively late start in Mormondom. Other than the Kirtland and Nauvoo temples, there were no gathering places dedicated to worship (unless you count the groves and temporary boweries) in the New York or Ohio or Missouri or Nauvoo periods of church history. The Seventies had their Hall in Nauvoo, a log building designated a “tabernacle” was built during the Iowa passage, and once in Utah more formal tabernacles were built in some communities, particularly for stake use, but ward chapels or meetinghouses came later. These ward buildings tended to be called “halls” at first, and served for everything – worship, schools, social centers – all in the same main room, which was often the only room beyond a small vestibule, if one existed. Some larger wards, chiefly in Salt Lake City at first, built “social halls” under separate roofs from their “assembly halls” – only gradually did these two large rooms come together under the same roof.

It was during this period of typically small ward buildings with multi-use main rooms that Relief Society was reestablished after the hiatus following the exodus from Nauvoo. Relief Societies needed space – room to meet, room to work, room to store supplies, room to conduct business and classes and testimony meetings – that didn’t accord well with the multi-use space of a ward assembly hall. From the beginning of the reestablishment of the Relief Society in the 1870s, ward and stake Societies began to build their own buildings. (There may have been other motives; if the question is discussed in histories of the Relief Societies I am not familiar with it, and I certainly haven’t combed ward minutes to find discussions by sisters of the need for their own halls. I do believe, though, that whatever other motives might have been at play, Societies built their own halls chiefly because it didn’t occur to anyone at first that the Relief Society was a subset of the ward organization that could or should be housed in the ward building – they were separate organizations, and separate organizations built separate buildings tailored to their functions.)

These Relief Society halls tended to be small buildings made of adobes or small frame buildings, as shown by the few random examples I’ve culled to illustrate this post. There were exceptions: the 14th Ward hall in Salt Lake City was built as a commercial building because the sisters operated a store; some buildings, especially on the stake level, could be quite elaborate, as shown by the Weber Stake hall in Ogden; and the sisters of the Beaver West Ward in Utah built a substantial brick building that would have been superior to the ward chapels in many parts of the church. But the smaller, simpler, one room (with perhaps vestibule) buildings were more representative.

Relief Society halls, although separate, were still closely tied to ward worship purposes, and the halls were built either on the same lot or sometimes directly across the road from the ward buildings they accompanied. Sisters raised the money to build their halls themselves. Sometimes this involved the stereotypical ladies’ activities of bake sales and fund-raising dinners. In other places, the women engaged in commercial, agricultural, or even industrial projects to raise means.

Simple as they were, the few that survived the wrecking ball are treated as treasures in their communities today.

All that is probably well known to you. What is novel (I hope) about this post is two-fold:

In 1914, the Relief Society published plans for two types of Relief Society halls, a bungalow style with its long side facing the street, and a more urban style with its narrow side facing the street the way city lots were usually oriented. Inside, the buildings were very similar. These plans were offered purely for the convenience of local Relief Societies, especially those who wished to save the cost of a professional architect – this was not a movement like the standardized building plans of the 1950s and later; local organizations were not required to build according to these plans. Suggestions were offered for suitable materials. Kitchens were incorporated, and “ample toilet accommodations” were provided – although most of us are probably raising our eyebrows at the use of the word “ample” in connection with the tiny, single space mapped out! Cellars could be dug, or not, for heating plants.

And the second bit of trivia, which I think might be a contribution to the study (I won’t swear to it, but I couldn’t find any mention of it while Googling, and there are many references to Relief Society halls out there), is the identified end point for the period of Relief Society hall-building. By 1924, the General Relief Society was acceding to the request of the Presiding Bishop’s Office that ward Relief Society halls not be built, but that the organization should be provided quarters within the newer, larger, more accommodating ward buildings that were being built by that date. Still, I love the spunk exhibited in the announcement that the women should insist on suitable quarters:

The Presiding Bishop’s Office has advised that separate Relief Society ward halls be not built. Where new chapels are being erected, quarters should be provided therein for the Relief Society. It is felt that it is a waste of money to build a hall which would be unoccupied except one afternoon a week, and that it is far more preferable that all auxiliary organizations be housed in the ward chapel. When Relief Societies are assigned a room in a ward chapel, however, they should not be contented with the darkest room in the basement.

Indeed!

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photos, from top to bottom:
Kamas, Utah
Weber Stake, Ogden, Utah (left)
Washington, Utah (right)
Beaver, Utah (left)
14th Ward, Salt Lake City (right)
Richmond, Utah (left)
Georgetown, Idaho (right)

UPDATE (Added 2 October 2010) — Sister Blah 2 sends these additional pictures of the Washington, Utah (near St. George) Relief Society hall, taken during her visit there in July 2009:

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43 Comments »

  1. An RS Hall pilgrimage would be a great pre- or post-MHA tour! I nominate Ardis as guide.

    Comment by Kristine — September 29, 2010 @ 9:08 am

  2. Great post, Ardis. I believe that I first saw photographs of Relief Society Halls while looking through A Centenary of Relief Society, 1842-1942 (I think that’s the right book). I haven’t seen one in person.

    The Presiding Bishop’s Office has advised that separate Relief Society ward halls be not built. Where new chapels are being erected, quarters should be provided therein for the Relief Society. It is felt that it is a waste of money to build a hall which would be unoccupied except one afternoon a week, and that it is far more preferable that all auxiliary organizations be housed in the ward chapel.

    I wonder how long various halls continued to be used after 1924. I see leeway in the announcement.

    Comment by Justin — September 29, 2010 @ 9:42 am

  3. Lawdy, Miss Kristine, I don’t know nothin’ ’bout no tour guidin’! But really, one of these years when we’re in the Mormon corridor, that would be a great tour idea. It might even have made a great tour for the next year when so many people will be traveling down the state to St. George — if this had occurred to someone early enough, a bus could have picked up a lot of people who would be flying into Salt Lake or who don’t want to drive that far, and we could have stopped at RS halls at several points on the travel to St. George.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 29, 2010 @ 9:43 am

  4. Justin, I’ve been trying to come up with something on RS halls ever since you raised the question on an earlier post. I’m glad you saw this.

    I know of some halls still being used into the ’40s. Like you, I don’t see the 1924 announcement as a call to abandon the halls, especially since many wards would have still been using much older buildings that couldn’t accommodate a RS room. And I’d be surprised if there weren’t a few wards that continued to build RS halls after the 1924 announcement even when there was space in a larger, modern church — it always does seem to take a few years for the whole Church to get on board with most changes, doesn’t it?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 29, 2010 @ 9:47 am

  5. Dear Ardis, you exemplify the true grit of our Relief Society mothers.

    Comment by Stephen Taylor — September 29, 2010 @ 10:43 am

  6. I’ve always thought of R.S. Halls as relics of the late 19th-century. And so, in my mind, to see the bungalow/arts and crafts architectural plan (with its 1920′s-looking font) was such a wonderful collision of the old and the modern!

    Thanks. I really enjoyed the primer, as well as the finer points you provided.

    Comment by David Y. — September 29, 2010 @ 10:52 am

  7. I know Jenny Reeder’s looking at DUP museums throughout Utah–the two of you could put together a really, really amazing Utah women’s history journey. Do it!!

    Comment by Kristine — September 29, 2010 @ 11:14 am

  8. Having grown up in Ogden, I was interested in where the Weber Stake RS Hall was located, and quickly found that it is on the Ogden Historical Register, and was deeded by Heber J. Grant in 1926 to the DUP who used it for a museum. It was confiscated during WWII by the federal government for use as a day care center for the mothers in the area pressed into working for the war effort. After the war, it reverted back to the DUP.

    Interestingly, the plaque that was attached to the building says “This building is the first and only Relief Society Hall in the Church.”. Later in the statement it says “only stake relief society hall”.

    The building is still there, and still in use as a DUP museum, on the same block with the Ogden Temple and the Ogden Tabernacle. The sad thing is that when I lived there, I don’t think I ever actually visited the museum. I hope that doesn’t damage my “Keepa Creds” too much.

    Comment by kevinf — September 29, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

  9. Heck, kevinf, I was born in Ogden and didn’t visit. If you’ve lost your creds, I have too.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 29, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

  10. My first introduction to Relief Society buildings was when I was a student worker in the BYU Library. These pictures of Relief Society halls from the BYU Digital Collections, taken in 2003 by Kenneth R. Mays:

    Ogden Relief Society Hall: http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/u?/RelEd,5102

    Salt Lake City 19th Ward Relief Society Building: http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/u?/RelEd,5115

    Comment by Sarah in Georgia — September 29, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

  11. In the last year I have visited the still standing Relief Society halls in Beaver, Bicknell, Deseret, Escalante, Kingston, Levan, Ogden, Richfield, Spring City and Washington. I also know that there are halls in Greenville, Mapleton, Mona, Payson and Santa Clara, but I have not see them in the last year and could not be sure they are still standing. Of course there are Relief Society granaries in Ephraim and Spring City which should be part of the tour. These are all in Utah, but I am sure there must be halls in Mormon towns outside of Utah. A careful study and a guide would be very useful. Alan Barnett has been looking at these buildings from an architectural point of view.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — September 29, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

  12. That’s great additional information, Sarah and Jeff. I’m going to nominate Jeff and/or Alan to join Jenny in tour guiding; I’ll be a major cheerleader and the first to sign up for the tour. And thanks, Stephen and David, for noting your enjoyment.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 29, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

  13. This is great stuff Ardis. I have been interested in Relief Society Halls, but I haven’t done a lot of work on them. I just recently started compiling a list of both extent and demolished halls after discussing the topic with Jeff Johnson. I think it would be interesting to document all the halls that have existed over time in the various wards and communities, as well as exactly when they were built and how late they were still in use. I’m interested in knowing about any halls that I haven’t included on my list, so after reading this I will add a few more. A tour is a great idea so people can actually see these places.

    Comment by Alan Barnett — September 29, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

  14. Awesome. I’ll note any references I run across and pass them on to you, Alan.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 29, 2010 @ 4:41 pm

  15. I lived in Mapleton as a teenager and young adult, and I remember hearing there was an old Relief Society hall, but I never bothered to visit, find out where it was, or learn anything about it. I feel so ashamed.

    Comment by Left Field — September 29, 2010 @ 5:16 pm

  16. It’s like genealogy, Left Field. I think you’re not allowed to become interested in something until everybody and everything that could have helped you learn about it has passed on.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 29, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

  17. But I remember wanting to learn more about the Relief Society hall even then. I just didn’t. That probably makes it worse. I still don’t know where the hall is/was, but it likely was not much more than a five minute walk from my house.

    So ashamed.

    Comment by Left Field — September 29, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

  18. The church members in Joseph City, Arizona, built an “all-purpose building” in 1887 which was used for religious, school, government and public functions. A new church and school building was built in 1903-1904 and the old all-purpose building became the Relief Society Hall. In 1941, the Relief Society moved into the church building and the Relief Society Hall was sold. I don’t know if it still exists and I can’t tell by looking at Google Maps. There is a picture on page 107 of Colonization on the Little Colorado (Tanner and Richards).

    I also see references to Relief Society halls in St. Johns, Snowflake, Nutrioso, and the Maricopa Stake (Mesa). I don’t recall seeing or hearing about any of them.

    Here is a picture of the Mesa Relief Society Hall in 1883 or 84. It is the building on the right of the picture with the flat roof.

    Comment by Amy T — September 29, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

  19. This is wonderful, Ardis! I first saw a RS Hall when I happened on the Washington one while doing some genealogy work there last year (Washington makes for a nice stop on the way from SLC back to southern CA). I had no idea that such a thing existed and took a bunch of photos. If I can find them (we recently had a computer die and got a new hard drive..) I will send them to you.

    Comment by sister blah 2 — September 29, 2010 @ 7:46 pm

  20. Simply delightful. Seems to me there is a professor at U-Wisconsin (Madison, if I remember right) that is looking that this as well.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 29, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

  21. Ardis, I love this.

    I left the General RS meeting wondering which parts of RS history we were supposed to focus on, and what we were supposed to learn from them. I wonder, as an expert on the subject, what your take on that talk was?

    Comment by Emily M. — September 29, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

  22. Amy’s comment sent me off to Google hoping to find something about the Relief Society Hall in Snowflake, Arizona, my father’s hometown. I haven’t found anything yet, but did run across this in the entry about Relief Society in The Encyclopedia of Mormonism:

    Two stake Relief Societies established and operated maternity hospitals, the Cottonwood (Utah) Maternity Hospital (1924-1951) and the Snowflake (Arizona) Maternity Hospital (1939-1960).

    All sorts of family connections to Snowflake are making me curious. But I’ll have to wait until at least tomorrow before trying to get some answers.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 29, 2010 @ 10:13 pm

  23. Emily, not sure I’m any kind of an expert, but I’ll take a crack at answering.

    I think Sister Beck and her board would probably want us to understand — really understand, in a visceral way — that Relief Society isn’t just a class we go to on Sunday to keep us off the streets while the menfolk are in priesthood meeting. I think they’d want us to know that Relief Society wasn’t a routine thing for every woman, that they joined the Society voluntarily because they wanted to serve. To know that would require us to know about all the things they did outside of Sunday worship — the relief of the poor, nursing (both in families and on a larger hospital scale), hands-on work of creating clothing and blankets and food, perhaps the social work of improving their communities (anti-fly campaigns, beautification campaigns, improvements to sanitation, nutrition, families in crisis). They might want us to learn about how Relief Society brought a measure of education to women who often had only a scanty district school education and spent the rest of their lives on farms — Relief Society brought them elements of culture in the way of music and literature and history and current events that nobody else was providing for them. Maybe they’d want us to see how those sisters looked out for other women — fought for their rights in the world, provided restrooms (safe havens, not merely toilets) for women who came to the larger towns for shopping and needed a place to get off the street for an hour, and provided an employment bureau and safe temporary living quarters for girls coming to the city to find work.

    I hesitate to think the modern leaders would care that we know those facts just for the sake of knowing facts, but because of what those events of the past stand for: Women can do more — for themselves, their families, the church, and their communities — than we often make the effort to do, and it’s our privilege to look to our sisters of the past for models of how they improved their world, then go and do likewise.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 30, 2010 @ 2:23 am

  24. I read this yesterday but was so bogged down I didn’t get a chance to reply. I found the post very interesting and gives us a glimps into how the Church was and how it has changed. My thoughts centered on the idea that the RS was quite active in the community and that at least in the first couple of decades of the 20th Century the RS resembled many Progressive-Era social work organizations. Many future RS leaders traveled to Chicago and worked at Hull House. All this made me consider how much the times influenced the RS Halls in the Mormon Corridor. Did the philosophy of the RS at the time influence the design of the buildings and so forth. Just some random thoughts on the subject.

    Comment by Steve C. — September 30, 2010 @ 7:27 am

  25. Ardis, thank you for taking the time to write that. You’ve eloquently answered exactly what I’ve been wondering after the RS meeting. Thank you.

    Comment by Emily M. — September 30, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

  26. Yes, great post and comments. Wow.

    Comment by Hunter — October 1, 2010 @ 12:06 am

  27. Look what happens when I do a google search for my MHA proposal on RS halls! I find this! Perfect timing.

    I’m so all about a tour of Relief Society halls. A lot of the DUP museums have co-opted RS halls. Thank goodness, because otherwise they may have lost to the wrecking ball. That was the case in Ogden. Kevin & Ardis–you really should visit. It’s a great hall.

    I’d love any comments and ideas–I really would like to do a dissertation chapter on halls. And my adviser is dying for me to write about granaries.

    Comment by Jenny Reeder — October 1, 2010 @ 9:27 am

  28. Heh, heh — since we nominated, seconded, and elected you behind your back, Jenny, I’m glad you’re in favor! I’d love to learn more and actually visit these halls with someone who understood their original purpose.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 1, 2010 @ 9:38 am

  29. Jenny: I would be glad to share my research and help in any way possible.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — October 1, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

  30. Jenny, the Mt. Sterling granary (Cache Valley) is still standing.

    Comment by Maurine — October 1, 2010 @ 7:42 pm

  31. Wow, Women’s Utah History Tour would be outstanding!

    I did find the photos I took of the Washington, UT RS Hall. There is just one of the whole building (very similar to Ardis’ above), and then a number of close-ups of the various plaques on the building (both original and subsequent historical markers). There is a sign over the door reading “Holiness to the Lord,” with a cool beehive and floating eye (kind of like the dollar bill pyramid eye) symbols. Email me at gmail: sisterblah2 if anyone wants copies.

    Comment by sister blah 2 — October 2, 2010 @ 9:07 am

  32. Or, I could post them here, if you don’t mind, SB2. I didn’t know if you were willing for me to do that when you sent them yesterday. (They’re great, people!)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 2, 2010 @ 9:21 am

  33. Nice photos of the Washington RS hall. I’m currently reading a pioneer era journal from a British convert who lived in St. George, and am continually reminded how central the Relief Society was to her life. The sisters in those pioneer communities literally provided birth to death service to each other, as is also mentioned on that Washington City Historical Society plaque.

    Comment by Amy T — October 2, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

  34. The RS rooms in our present meeting houses, of course, are vestiges of the old RS halls. Until the present era, they were furnished with RS funds. Thus, were more ornate than other rooms in the meeting houses. So far as I can tell, the upholstered folding chairs in the RS rooms are the sole remnants of RS being different from other priesthood auxiliaries.

    Comment by Paul — October 3, 2010 @ 8:32 am

  35. Agreed Paul. Most people in the church today have no knowledge of the RS buildings and are surprised when I answer the question some brother asks, “How come the women get a fancy room with padded chairs and we don’t?”

    Comment by Maurine — October 6, 2010 @ 11:29 pm

  36. I wish I had taken a picture of the lovely little garden behind the Washington RS Hall. The sisters of Zion can be relied on to never forget or underestimate the importance of a little botanical beautification of whatever corner of the world may be in their charge.

    Comment by sister blah 2 — October 16, 2010 @ 1:39 am

  37. Very late, but SB2 inspired me to add this: leafing through Charles Peterson’s Take Up Your Mission a few days ago, I saw a drawing of the pioneer fort at Sunset, Arizona. Typical of such forts, the exterior walls of the “houses” and other rooms formed the exterior of the fort, and their fronts faced the inner courtyard.

    Each of the rooms was labeled with the name of the family who lived there. In addition, there was a larger room labeled “Meeting Room and School” and, finally, another labeled “Relief Society Hall.”

    Since the book mysteriously disappeared right after I saw it, I can’t provide any more detail. But you can look it up.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 16, 2010 @ 10:42 am

  38. I will! That’s a wonderful find.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 16, 2010 @ 11:23 am

  39. Glad you added these additional photos. When’s the tour happening?

    Comment by David Y. — October 16, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

  40. I wouldn’t have noticed if not for this post, but yesterday driving through Santa Clara, I noticed a restored old adobe on Main Street labled “Relief Society House.”

    A little digging on the internet revealed the historical gem was saved by the wrecking ball in the 1990′s.

    Comment by Clark — October 17, 2010 @ 7:50 pm

  41. I’ve enjoyed reading all the comments about Relief Society Halls, but how about more on granaries? I’m currently working on a history of the Murray Granary, which is still in existence on the corner of 5600 South and Vine Street. It is marked by both DUP and SUP markers, because this was also a rest stop for the men hauling granite for the SL Temple. It has been developed into a very nice little park. You could even hold a wedding in the park!
    I would like to know how many RS granaries were actually built in the 1800s. There must have been dozens.

    Comment by Darrell Jones — May 10, 2011 @ 9:28 am

  42. The two best known Relief Society granaries are the Spring City one and the Ephraim one. The one in Ephraim is now a art gallery. Maurine tells me that there is one in Cache Valley and I am sure there are more. I need to get them on my list. Thanks for telling me about the Murray Granary and would love to know if anyone knows of others.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — May 10, 2011 @ 10:53 pm

  43. Hi! I am doing a DUP lesson this month (March 14, 2012) in which R.S. Halls are mentioned. I wondered to whom I should attribute the quotation about “not having the darkest room in the basement” when the RS was told to meet in the ward buildings in 1924. Also I was in Georgetown summer 2011 and took a photo of that little white building which was advertised with a big sign that it was the first public building in Georgetown, Idaho. I didn’t take a photo or even read the plaque in front of the building unfortunately. Maybe that said the little white building was a RS Hall? Do you have the information on the plaque? While preparing this lesson, I thought of the little building and imagined it was probably a RS Hall, but your blog confirmed it. Using google I found no mention of a history of Georgetown and wonder if one exists. Thanks for all you do!

    Comment by Maude Norman — March 2, 2012 @ 11:57 am

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