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Temple Square’s Temporary Temple

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 16, 2013

Temple Square’s North Visitors’ Center, dedicated 50 years ago this month (October 1963), is probably best known as the setting of the 11-foot tall replica of Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Christus – a goodly share of the three to five million yearly visitors to Temple Square must walk through its halls. Many visit that corner of the Square in December, where a life-size creche, including wise men on camels coming from afar, fills the lawn between the Visitors’ Center and the Tabernacle.

That corner of Temple Square saw far fewer visitors in the first part of the 20th century – that’s where the Temple Square greenhouses stood, nurturing plants for the Square’s outdoor gardens and flowers to furnish the Temple, the Tabernacle, and Assembly Hall.

And before the greenhouses were built? Well, that part of Temple Square, its northwest corner, was once the site of a small adobe building, just 33′ x 44′, with short wings added later in its life. It was a plain building, as humble in design and material as any other public building erected in the Salt Lake Valley in the 1850s, but it was a special building, held in fond remembrance by hundreds of Latter-day Saint families, as the place where they, or their parents, or, now, their great-great-great-grandparents, began their married lives. That corner is where the old Endowment House stood.

Ground was broken for the great Salt Lake Temple in 1853, but it would be a full 40 years before the Temple was completed and ordinance work could begin there. The Saints needed something else to fill in during the meantime, a place where ordinances for the living, if not the dead, could be performed. Endowments were given and couples were sealed in Deseret’s earliest days on top of Ensign Peak, in Brigham Young’s office, in the territorial Council House, and at various points in other settlements in the West. But these were all makeshift, unsatisfactory places.

A site in the northwest corner of the Temple block was selected for something more permanent, to serve in the interim until the Temple could be completed. Workmen began laying adobe bricks in the summer of 1854, and in December of that year the rafters went up. The two-story building, heated by fireplaces at each end, was dedicated on May 5, 1855.

“I met with my counselors, Heber C. Kimball and Jedediah M. Grant,” Brigham Young wrote (or more likely dictated), “also Elders Orson Hyde, Orson Pratt, Wilford Woodruff, Ezra T. Benson, Daniel H. Wells, Edwin D. Woolley, William W. Phelps, J.W. Cummings and Samuel L. Sprague, in the upper rooms of the Endowment House and dedicated the same to the Lord. President Heber C. Kimball offered the dedication prayer.”

That dedicatory prayer was offered at 10:45 a.m. on that “fine and frosty morning” (as the Historian’s Office Journal described it). But already, since 8:00 that morning, a company of five men and three women had been in session receiving their endowments. The day continued with a special lecture given by Heber C. Kimball to 15 men who left from that spot to serve missions, and the day ended sometime after 5:00 p.m. with the sealing of three couples in marriage.

The tiny building was expanded and improved somewhat over time – a baptismal font was added in 1857, used chiefly for rebaptisms of the living (including baptisms for health) until 1864, when baptisms for the dead became more common. The walls of one room were painted to resemble the Garden of Eden – the first instance of what has become the pattern for temples worldwide.

And so it continued through the decades of the Temple’s construction. Over its lifetime, nearly 70,000 persons were endowed there, roughly half of the ordinances being done for the living and half for the dead. The work went on winter and summer, year after year. The noise of construction of the Tabernacle in the 1860s, and the Assembly Hall in the 1880s, and the Temple throughout the years, didn’t halt the work – although you have to think, seeing the rows of granite blocks laid out mere feet from the Endowment House, that construction noise must sometimes have been intrusive.

The Endowment House became the focal point of much of the anti-Mormon, anti-plural marriage agitation of the 1880s. In part to defuse the tension – and diffuse the attention – Wilford Woodruff ordered the Endowment House demolished in November 1889, a year before the Manifesto was issued. The last recorded sealing there was performed for James Francom, a 21-year-old native of South Africa, and his bride Bertha Maag, 18, of Switzerland. Before the Endowment House was taken down, temples were dedicated in St. George and Manti, and the Salt Lake Temple itself followed in less than four years.

Here is an excellent article on Endowment House history, written by Lisle G. Brown and illustrated with many photographs and architectural sketches.



20 Comments »

  1. Thanks for this, Ardis. My knowledge of the Endowment House had been limited, before now, to a few fuzzy photographs, the reference in the Manifesto, and some “EH” listings in family records of endowments and sealings. Your post, and the splendid article by Lisle Brown, helps to fill that gap.

    One thing about those construction noises–since virtually all of the tools used in the construction of the Salt Lake Temple were hand powered, the work would have been much quieter than modern construction. The ringing of steel striking steel, or of steel striking stone, may have seemed loud to a company of saints in the Endowment House, but would sound heavenly to our modern ears, accustomed as they are to jack hammers and power saws. Verdi just couldn’t write an updated Trovatore with a “jackhammer chorus.”

    Comment by Mark B. — October 16, 2013 @ 8:22 am

  2. I ran across and read this article during church some weeks back (I often do on-the-fly research on my iPad when interesting questions and issues come up, especially during high priests’ group meeting). I knew of the Endowment House, but knew very few details; Brown’s article was a wonderful education. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — October 16, 2013 @ 8:59 am

  3. Thanks, Mark. I realize this is the barest introductory post, but to those like you and me to whom “Endowment House” is a familiar term but a generally fuzzy idea, I thought it would help to give it a little substance by locating it in time and place, and providing a link for more in-depth reading for those who care.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 16, 2013 @ 8:59 am

  4. bfwebster, you sneaked in there just as I was posting my own comment. Thanks for your endorsement of that article — many Keepa’ninnies would probably appreciate it as much as we did.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 16, 2013 @ 9:41 am

  5. I ran across Brown’s article about a year ago, as I was also just one for whom the term “Endowment House” was a pretty vague term. I think I had seen a photo at some point, but new nothing more. Thanks for the writeup here; Brown’s article is good, but you’ve captured the most important points here.

    Comment by kevinf — October 16, 2013 @ 10:03 am

  6. Oh, it looks like the author of that article died recently. That’s too bad. That is quite an article.

    Thanks for this overview, Ardis.

    Comment by Amy T — October 16, 2013 @ 10:19 am

  7. Yes, Lisle passed away on June 14 of this year at age 69. He was a pioneer in scholarly LDS temple history.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — October 16, 2013 @ 10:38 am

  8. Great article…and I commend you on the proper use of “defuse” and “diffuse”!

    Comment by Tom O. — October 16, 2013 @ 11:21 am

  9. From personal observation, the standard genealogy computer program has absolute fits when you put “office of the President” into the temple location. Ensign Peak must cause some amusement too.

    Comment by STW — October 16, 2013 @ 12:03 pm

  10. That’s interesting, STW. I hadn’t looked too carefully at how the new FS Family Tree treats ordinance locations, so I’ll look at the case of John Madison Chidester, his first wife Mary Parker, who accompanied him on Zion’s Camp, and his other two wives, both of whom were in difficult circumstances when the Chidesters took them into the family.

    He and Mary were sealed in 1854 in “Other.” (None of the family histories give any information about this sealing.)

    He and Leah Thompson were sealed in 1857 in “President’s Office.”

    He and Annie Eldridge were sealed in 1867 in “Endowment House.”

    So, evidently there are no more funny little codes like the old “EH” and “SL” or the more recent “EHOUS” or “SLAKE.”

    Comment by Amy T — October 16, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

  11. Amy, my genealogy software uses “POFFI” for the President’s Office. And how frustrating is “Other”?!

    Comment by Alison — October 16, 2013 @ 3:48 pm

  12. POFFI? That’s funny!

    Comment by Amy T — October 16, 2013 @ 4:34 pm

  13. There may have been another building that was used to do endowments

    http://www.historicspringcity.org/history/buildings/endowmenthouse.html

    Comment by Cameron — October 16, 2013 @ 6:38 pm

  14. Thank you for this post and for the link to Lisle Brown’s article. I have a lot of people in my family database who were married and sealed in the Endowment House, and at least one in the President’s Office.

    Comment by Maurine — October 17, 2013 @ 12:22 am

  15. I’m a little late coming to this, but I wanted to register my thanks. And I’m sorry to hear that Lisle died. I was unaware of that.

    I’ve recently come across a couple of references that describe the use of the font and its description. There was one history that was written that categorically there were no living baptisms performed there (I guess because records were not kept?). Besides the rebaptisms, which you note (both for health and the renewal of covenants), I found where JFS baptized one of his eight-year-old children there. I’d like to get a better handle on how common that was.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 18, 2013 @ 11:39 am

  16. I knew a family in our stake who went to Washington to be sealed in the temple. Between the time they received their recommends and the day they went to the temple, one of their children turned eight.

    The temple workers said he needed to be baptized before he could be sealed to his parents, so they all went down to the baptistry where the boy was baptized.

    That suggests that we should be very careful about categorical statements about what has never been done.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 18, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

  17. Thanks

    Comment by The Other Clark — October 18, 2013 @ 1:29 pm

  18. Oh, I’ve got a good, colorful living baptism account:

    I was present this forenoon at the baptism, in the Endowment House, of Edward Isaacson D.D., a Jew, who lately arrived from Vienna. He was first made acquainted with Mormonism by a Bro. Johnson, also a Jew, baptized in Austria by Orson Pratt many years ago. Bro. Isaacson, after getting some knowledge of hte Gospel from Bro. J., who is still in Vienna and still faithful, with his household, came to America and arrived in Utah several weeks since. I was introduced to him by Pres. A. M. Cannon who converted him, soon after my remakrks in the Tabernacle Mar. 25th, which Mr Isaacson referred to in glowing terms. At his request I was present at his baptism. Just before it took place Sister Pratt, mother of Elder Milando Pratt, accidentally fell into the font while passing around to a seat and nearly went under. Milando jumped in and rescued her just in time.
    The choir led by Bro. E. Beesley sang: “I know that my Redeemer lives”. Pres. Cannon having first made brief introductory remarks, Elder A. M. Musser offered prayer and Pres. Cannon then baptized Edward Isaacson. The Choir sang: “How sweet communion is on earth” and Bp. John Tingey pronounced the benediction. Bro Isaacson will be confirmed next Sunday.

    (Orson F. Whitney diary, 20 Apr 1888)
    Boom–near-drowning and choir numbers. A fine combination.

    Comment by Bryan Buchanan — October 18, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

  19. Bravo, Bryan!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 18, 2013 @ 6:40 pm

  20. Great post. Thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — October 18, 2013 @ 8:19 pm

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