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.