Editor’s note: The article has been updated to include anecdotal information from members in the affected areas.
Temple renovations are not uncommon, even lengthy ones. Temples are buildings, after all, and even when constructed from the best materials, following decades of wear and tear, semiannual refreshes are not enough to address structural, HVAC, or other issues.
Indeed, we were reminded of this recently, when Brent Roberts, the managing director of the Church’s Special Projects department (a department we can only hope involves some sort of James Bond-level innovation in a bunker deep below doTerra headquarters), spoke of this issue in light of the completion of major renovations on the Jordan River Utah Temple.
“We’re entering a unique period of time…. We have a number of temples, of course, that are aging, especially those that are between 35 and 45 years old, including this temple, as well as other temples that just need to be refreshed — not so much refreshed on the interiors, but refreshed with mechanical, electrical and plumbing.”
However, there seem to be two different types of renovations taking place among LDS Temples at present. While several older temples—Washington DC, Tokyo Japan, Oakland California, Mesa Arizona—are being “refreshed” with updated mechanical, electrical and/or plumbing systems, four of the “mini temples”—significantly smaller structures sharing a common template and offering the bare means necessary to perform temple work—are being stripped to the studs and essentially rebuilt from scratch, far beyond what would be required for new mechanical components or even an expansion. And these buildings are less than 20 years old – far younger than the larger temples previously mentioned. (The Mesa Arizona Temple turned 90 last year and is only now undergoing its second long-term refurbishment.)
The “refurbishment” is so drastic that the actual appearance, and in some cases, layout, of these temples will be altered. In fact, the Church has quietly released images for a “reskinning” of these temples when the work is done:
The first image was taken in October 2017 of the Memphis Tennessee Temple. Now let’s look at the same temple in mid-November. Images courtesy of LDSChurchTemples.com.
Look at the similar state of the Oklahoma City Oklahoma Temple in December 2017.
And here’s the Raleigh North Carolina Temple as of February.
Lastly, the Baton Rouge Louisiana Temple was also stripped bare mere weeks after its closure. This image is from February, as well.
Do these look like the groundwork for “mechanical upgrades,” as one press release states? The Church has been curiously mum about the true nature of the renovations on these buildings. So what is behind such drastic work? Part of the answer may lay in geography. Behold the map!
All of the temples in question are more or less in the southern United States, an area with different weather patterns than Utah. It stands to reason that if these temples were framed with wood and then clad in materials unsuited for the local climate, issues would arise.
There will always be a climate-related risk as it pertains to temples. Buildings in California have to deal with earthquakes and wildfires. Soil quality and type can affect foundational integrity. Even civil unrest can close down a building. Weather, which is tied to location and climate, can also play a role. For example, the Houston Texas Temple flooded last fall during Hurricane Harvey, requiring the closure of the temple and a full rededication following renovations. But to be clear, that building has not been reduced to metal framing, nor was its closure foreseen because of ongoing issues; it was directly related to a massive weather event. (It probably didn’t help that the Houston Temple abuts a creek.)
So what of the temples mentioned in this article? The Baton Rouge Louisiana Temple backs up onto a swamp. Anecdotal evidence argues that the local contractors employed by the Church were forced to rebuild the entire parking lot area upon which the temple was constructed because it held water. And where water seeps, so grows mold. Needless to say, mold is not good, and if an HVAC system isn’t up to the task of neutralizing whatever issues arise from faulty cladding and insulation, then the only remedy is a complete refresh from the bottom up.
Elsewhere, the Oklahoma City area suffered an earthquake in spring 2017, but evidence suggesting it damaged the temple is scant.
As for Memphis and Raleigh, both temples appear unthreatened by the land and area itself, save the sometimes stifling climate in the summer and frosty one in the winter.
A Troubled Exterior Threatens the Interior
Weather alone, however, does not necessarily hurt buildings. Constructing an edifice from materials unsuited for the location and climate, on the other hand, can certainly cause long-term damage.
This wouldn’t be the first time that climate issues affected a church building. In the 1970s, the Church sold off its incredible chapel in Washington, DC because upkeep of the Utah marble—completely unsuited for the humidity of the East Coast—was too much for a dwindling local congregation that had long since moved to the suburbs.
The 4 temples in question were all clad in white marble quarried in Vermont, which has been used in 10 smaller temples, or approximately 21% of all Hinckley smaller temples. Every temple using this cladding is in the eastern United States, and most of them in or near the South, except for Columbus and Detroit. Other temples are covered in granite, which is less porous than marble and has been used regularly, but not exclusively, in temples with colder or wetter climates.
Marble overall has been used on 48% of these smaller temples, but the Vermont variety only a small sample of that; the marble quarried for temples in Mexico and Australia has presumably not had any issues. Was there a fault in the Vermont marble that has yet to be an issue to the north? But if weather is an issue, why hasn’t there been a problem in Nashville or Columbia?
One Latter-day Saint close to the temple renovation work offered the following insight:
“The white marble cladding is so porous that it absorbed water and grew mold within the former temple’s walls. It’s apparent that the people designing and building it didn’t know how to build for our area. The same thing happened 50 years ago when the Church started building meetinghouses in the South. The Building Department learned this. Why didn’t they apply that knowledge to building temples for this area?”
Why So Mum?
Above all, the Church’s quiet lips are intriguing. Unlike with the massive refurbs at Ogden, Jordan River, or others, the Church has done very little to publicize what’s happening with these temples. When the work is completed there will undoubtedly be some local publicity and an open house, but it’s almost as if the Special Projects folks do not want to draw attention to the fact that four (at the time of writing) temples that are normally “built to the highest standards” require such intensive care that they have been reduced to the bare minimum allowed under permit regulations to be considered a remodel and not new construction altogether. (Update: we’ve been told there will be no open house or celebration, just a quiet rededication of the temple 2.0.)
With that said, we’ve also received reports of local leaders dissuading members from sharing photos or information about the skeletal temples, as if to pretend there’s nothing to discuss.
So is there a conspiracy? A cover-up?! Hardly. Part of PR is playing the stronger hand and ignoring the weaker one, but it still raises eyebrows when four buildings have practically been demolished with minimal attention brought to the process or the newly styled exterior, the latter being something the Church is normally quite happy to highlight.
And that’s not to say the Church hasn’t mentioned similar temple renovations in the past. In 2014, the Montreal Quebec Temple closed because of structural issues that required the replacement of the entire original wood framing with reinforced steel and concrete. But even upon its open house and rededication, the temple received minimal fanfare from the Mormon Newsroom. Compare this to the coverage of the Ogden Utah Temple. Naturally, these are very different buildings in terms of size, scope, and history, but it seems easier to promote a major redo of a temple when it makes a good story, as opposed to one that could potentially call into question the quality of materials or craftsmanship used to construct other buildings.
To be clear, a temple is wonderful. Its very existence is a testament to the faith of Latter-day Saints in an area, as well as a blessing to all those who are able to attend. A temple unites families and can bless an entire community.
In the end, all we can wonder is why. Did local contractors build on the cheap? Were materials not properly considered by the Temple Department? Was there a lack of oversight? We’ll never know how much cost is involved in fixing what were presumably mistakes in original construction, but it likely stands that there are good reasons why the mini temple template hasn’t been repeated, even as other temples of similar square footage, some even more austere, have been constructed in the years since.
Either way, Church members in these temple districts will have an entirely new experience attending the temple when it reopens, and presumably will enjoy those blessings for more than 20 years until the next refurbishment.