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Guest opinion: Our shadow by day and our pillar by night

By Rob McFarland - Special to the Daily Herald | Feb 16, 2022

Courtesy photo

Rob McFarland

Many of us Provoans just celebrated a significant milestone in our city — the Provo Temple just turned 50 years old. As an architectural historian and a resident of Provo’s Tree Streets neighborhood, I think about the Provo Temple every day. My question is simple. What is our responsibility to the buildings that we inherit from other generations? In Provo, where I have spent most of my life, there are two very different answers to this question.

Provo’s first answer shows the right way to treat an old building. In 2010, I wept as I looked over the charred remains of the Provo Tabernacle. This had been a place where I had been moved by funerals, taught by church meetings, uplifted by concerts and many other events. When it was announced that the Provo Tabernacle would be reconstructed as the Provo City Center Temple, I wept again. This time with joy.

I watched as they secured and hoisted the building’s remains, dug out underneath and created a whole new modern purpose for the building. It would have been massively less expensive and troublesome to just knock the old brick walls down and to start over with reinforced concrete. The question about the worth of our built heritage was vehemently answered at the site of the new Provo City Center Temple: A building is more than a series of walls; it helps to form identity. It is a heritage worth preserving.

Subjecting the Provo Temple to the same treatment as the Ogden Temple represents another possible approach — to tear down unique and original buildings that have moved out of fashion and replace them with more up-to-date “upgrades.” When he was designing the Provo Temple, Church architect Emil Fetzer was overcome by his spiritual vision of a design for a temple. The main part of the building is a striking, broad white cylinder set upon a low square base, representing the cloudy shadow that guided the Israelites during the day and the original golden spire on top of the temple represented the pillar of fire that guided them by night.

The thin aggregate panels of the building’s rounded center are abstractions of gothic arches, an ingenious nod to the sacred architecture of the past. This originality, it seems, will be the end of our beloved Provo Temple. First, the temple lost its golden spire, which was painted white and topped with an angel in an attempt to bring it into line with other temples. Now it is slated to be replaced by a generic design.

Must the Provo and Orem temples be as indistinguishable as Orem and Provo’s bland shopping centers?

There are compelling reasons to spend the money to seismically upgrade the Provo Temple and to maintain its present design. One of the most important: While it does challenge some people’s aesthetic preferences, the Provo Temple is a logistical masterpiece. Seldom has a building been better suited to its purpose.

My temple-worker father, now in his eighties, dares patrons to try to get lost in the building. “The circular design always leads you right where you need to be,” he explains. Another important reason to invest in restoring the modern design, its originality. I have taken many international visitors to see the Provo Temple, and they have marveled at its unique design.

One visiting professor from Germany exclaimed, “there is no other building in the world like this!” Provo’s twin temple in Ogden did not age well in its urban setting, but Fetzer’s design fit perfectly into Provo’s dramatic natural backdrop. The long, low, white main part of the building sets off the steep rise of the mountains, and the golden spire stood in dialogue with the colors of the cliffs at the entrance to Rock Canyon.

Last week, my son and his fiancée were married in the Provo Temple. The couple chose the temple not in spite of its funky mid-century looks, but because of its uniqueness. The Provo Temple is going through a renaissance, as design-y LDS twenty-somethings turn to the striking beauty of the clear, modern design.

Yes, the temple does not conform to most others. But neither do many of our young couples, who yearn to keep their temple covenants and still express their own personal style and individuality. It may not technically be a pioneer temple, but the Provo Temple is still our heritage, our shadow by day and our pillar by night. Investing in this historical treasure will show that we honor this heritage. It will show that our temples and our covenants are perfectly at home in even the most modern of buildings.

Rob McFarland is a professor in the College of Humanities at Brigham Young University. He has published on architectural history and urban art, literature and film.


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