Rediscovering the plans for the Nauvoo Temple

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On a blistering August day in 1948, two missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints felt compelled to stop at a remote house in California’s Mojave Desert.

The house belonged to Leslie Griffin, an elderly man who invited them inside.

Although Griffin was not affiliated with the Church, he told the missionaries that his grandfather was William Weeks, the architect of the original Latter-day Saint temple in Nauvoo, Illinois, that had been forcibly abandoned at the height of anti-Mormon sentiment there in 1846.

The three visited on several occasions before one of the missionaries, Vern C. Thacker, mentioned that he was soon to return to his home in Utah.

Years later Thacker wrote: “Upon hearing this news, Mr. Griffin excused himself. He returned with a large roll of papers. … He said: “These are the original architect’s drawings for the Nauvoo Temple.’ ”

Griffin asked Thacker to “deliver the plans to the proper place.” Thacker delivered them to the Church’s Historical Department in Salt Lake City.

While there was much excitement about this historic find, no one realized the role these yellowed drawings would play in the reconstruction of the temple a half a century later.

On 4 April 1999, Church President Gordon B. Hinckley announced plans to rebuild the Nauvoo Temple.

The Church assembled a design team composed of restoration architects, as well as a research committee of historians and Nauvoo experts.

Since the original temple was destroyed in the mid-1800s by arson and a tornado, the team had to rely on historical evidence to re-create the plans.

They spent weeks gathering and verifying material to ensure that the modern architectural expression would be an accurate reconstruction of the original temple. The foundation of their work was William Weeks’ drawings.

F. Keith Stepan, managing director of the Church’s Temple Construction Department, says that while “the drawings are not complete, for the day that William Weeks worked, they were a good set of drawings.”

Weeks’ renderings provided much information on the exterior of the temple, with some interior details. Combining Weeks’ plans with an early dauerreotype of the temple and other meticulously researched details, the restorers were able to piece together a reconstruction plan that Stepan says “is as accurate as we can make it.”

The 3.3-acre site for the new temple overlooking the Mississippi River is the same site the Prophet Joseph Smith selected for the 1840 temple.

Construction workers and craftsmen from Idaho to Illinois helped create the 54,000-square-foot building.

To duplicate the original temple’s gray limestone exterior, contractors used similar stone, quarried in Alabama. One challenge was to give each limestone block the look of having been cut in the 1800s.

Stonecutter Brad Hansen says that stonecutters who worked on the original temple “were taking a rough rock and trying to make it smooth,” while modern cutters were “taking smooth rock and trying to make it look rough.”

All of the new stone was handcrafted with the same patterns that appeared on the original stones. “The stonecutters had to develop their own tools to accurately make these patterns,” says Stepan.

Included in the new temple’s stonework are replicas of the original sun, moon and star stones. Highlighting the temple exterior, these stones were made from fiberglass molds designed and crafted by artisans from Canada, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Idaho and Utah.

In handcrafting wooden frames that encase handblown glass from France and Germany, local Nauvoo window makers intentionally created imperfections that were inherent in the original windows.

Keith Stepan says of the degree of replication: “The exterior is 95 percent correct.”

The only significant difference is the angelic statue atop the building’s dome. The modern statue stands upright, taking the temple’s height to 162 feet 5 inches.

Temple designers did not have a lot of information about the original interior. But by using details in William Weeks’ interior drawings and studying other Latter-day Saint temples constructed in the 1800s, they were able to reflect the period in the design and furnishings.

Despite this attention to historical detail, modern techniques did change how the building was constructed. Under the limestone exterior lies a concrete shell that meets modern seismic specifications.

Also, as this is an operational temple, the building is complete with modern amenities and meets all modern building standards.

Stepan estimates 2,500 people worked on the reconstruction project, including 150 volunteers. This is reminiscent of the largely volunteer work force that built the original temple — approximately 1,200 men who donated one out of 10 days toward temple construction.

The modern effort has recorded over 24,000 hours of donated work. Monetary contributions from Church members throughout the world have financed the reconstruction.

It took two and a half years to complete the reconstruction, compared to the nearly six years it took to build the original temple.

According to Stepan, the Nauvoo Temple’s reconstruction is part of the Church’s ongoing effort to preserve Church historic sites throughout the United States as well as overseas.

“The Church is dedicated to preserving its history as a way of honoring those who have gone on before,” he said.

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