Author: Rasmus, Carolyn J.
Temple Square is the architectural center of Salt Lake City, sacred ground for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a primary point of interest for millions of visitors annually. Within the square are the Salt Lake Temple, the tabernacle (home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), the Assembly Hall, two visitors centers, several historical statues, and well-kept grounds. Its appearance today differs sharply from that of the treeless desert that greeted the first Mormon pioneers in 1847.
Only days after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, President Brigham Young identified the site for the temple. It was originally planned as a 40-acre block but was reduced to ten acres "for convenience." The ground-breaking ceremony for the temple was held on February 14, 1853, even though the ground was frozen and covered with snow. Construction continued for forty years, and the temple was dedicated on April 6, 1893.
Construction of the Tabernacle began in 1863. It was in use four years later and dedicated in 1875. A decade later the Assembly Hall was built to accommodate smaller gatherings. This building holds approximately 3,000 people and is often used for overflow of the Church's general conferences.
Almost from the beginning, keen interest in Temple Square and the Church made it an attraction for those visiting the "Crossroads of the West." In 1875 Charles J. Thomas was appointed the first official guide to Temple Square. In 1876 he greeted 4,000 visitors. The first visitors center, called the "Bureau of Information," was built in 1902, followed by larger buildings in 1904 and 1910. However, when the number of visitors increased, the depiction of the story and beliefs of the Church required additional exhibit areas. In 1963 the large visitors center at the northwest corner of the square was opened to the public. It houses theaters, artwork, displays, and dioramas. Its focal point is a copy of the 11-foot christus statue originally carved by the Danish sculptor Bertell Thorvaldsen. It depicts the Savior with arms outstretched inviting all to come to him. The Christus represents the central focus of the Church's beliefs and worship: Jesus Christ.
An additional visitors center was built in the southeast corner of the square and dedicated on June 1, 1978. Its displays include an exact replica of the baptismal font of the Salt Lake Temple, like the biblical "molten sea" on the backs of twelve life-size oxen (see 2 Chr. 4:2-5).
Many monuments and statues adorn the square. They represent people and entertain the story of the beginnings of the Church and of the pioneers. The first statues to become a permanent part of the square were those of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum in 1911. In 1913, the Seagull Monument was placed on the square memorializing the gulls' providential intervention in 1848 that saved the Mormon pioneers' early crops from being devoured by crickets.
Other monuments include a statue honoring the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon: Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris; the Handcart Monument representing approximately 3,000 pioneers who walked either from Iowa City, Iowa, or from the Missouri River near Florence, Nebraska, to the Salt Lake Valley; a small bronze and granite sundial provided by the young women of the Church in 1940; the Aaronic Priesthood Memorial Monument, which depicts John the Baptist bestowing the Aaronic Priesthood on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery; and the Relief Society Memorial Campanile, a 35-foot tower in which the Nauvoo bell is preserved and displayed and upon which a tone is struck on the hour each hour of the day. The bell had originally hung in the Nauvoo Temple and was brought to Utah by oxteam in 1847.
Visitors may choose to walk through the grounds and visitors centers at their leisure or may request a guide to accompany them. Guides are familiar with the state's pioneer history as well as the teachings and culture of the Church. Foreign visitors are provided, when possible, with guides who speak their language.
At every season, the temple grounds are colorful. Long before spring, workmen are trimming, planting, and cultivating flowers, shrubs, and trees. Since 1969, the limbs of almost every tree have been wrapped in lights for the Christmas season. On the day after Thanksgiving, a special program inaugurates the celebration and the lights are turned on. They remain on until New Year's Day.