Gwendolyn Prudom never planned to visit Temple Square, or Utah, for that matter. But when business brought her to Salt Lake City recently, she found irresistible curiosity was pulling her to the heart of the LDS Church.
"When you come to Utah, you're supposed to ski -- which we do not -- or you're supposed to go to Temple Square," said Prudom, a special education teacher and devout Episcopalian from Oklahoma City.
Travel brochures can boast about breathtaking Zion, Bryce and Arches national parks. Tourism promoters can roar about Dinosaur National Monument and hawk the state's high peaks.
But Utah's hottest tourism destination is Temple Square and the campus around it, headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Covering three city blocks, the church's grounds in downtown Salt Lake City draw 3 million to 5 million visitors a year, the church and the state Office of Tourism said.
By comparison, Utah's five national parks drew 5.3 million visitors in 2005, the tourism office said.
And it's not just Mormons who tour the square's 15 attractions on the church's pioneer history, art, faith and genealogy.
"We're curious about their religion and their history," said Darlene Davis of Walker, La., who was also here on business. "But it's just curiosity. We're not interested in being converted or anything."
The LDS faith is one of the world's fastest-growing religions, with an estimated 12 million members worldwide. As its influence grows, so, too, does interest in Joseph Smith, who said he was directed to restore the church by spiritual visions beginning in 1820, said Kim Farah, a church spokeswoman.
Even a quick, 30-minute tour of the grounds reveals a history of epic American drama and Western adventure: Smith's death at the hands of an angry mob; early Mormons fleeing religious persecution in the Midwest; controversy because of some of the church doctrine; and Mormon pioneers who trekked across the plains in 1847 to find refuge and build a city near the shores of the Great Salt Lake.
Like visitors to St. Peter's Square in Rome, people touring Temple Square should expect to find a church-related version of history.
You will, however, encounter some of the most polite, articulate hosts imaginable. And if Utah is known for its trademark "Greatest snow on Earth," the church's grounds could qualify for "the cleanest show on Earth." From the ornate gardens to the two visitor centers, three restaurants and even the restrooms, the campus is a testimony to a Mormon sense of meticulous cleanliness and order.
About 150 young women missionaries, speaking more than 30 languages, guide tours that begin every 10-15 minutes. Visitors will stop outside the grand Salt Lake Temple and the Tabernacle (traditional home to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, it is closed until 2007 for renovations).
Visitors can enter the 1882 Assembly Hall, the 1854 Beehive House of Brigham Young, art galleries and visitors centers.
Among the most popular attractions is the Family History Library, which holds the largest genealogical research collection of its kind, according to church literature. Here, millions of records are open to anyone to trace family roots, and people travel from all over the world to do so.
The collection is open to anyone who's curious about their lineage.
One of the key stops on the general tour is the 11-foot-tall marble statue of Christ, centered before a huge circular mural depicting the stars and heavens.
"There is proselytizing, but it's a combination of both proselytizing and church history," Farah said. At the end of the tours, visitors are invited to fill out a survey and give an address so that they can invite a missionary to visit them at home.
Farah noted that visitors are also free to take self-guided tours of the grounds.
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A6.