Joseph F. Smith’s 1905 trip to Vermont began an era of monument building for the LDS Church. Kathleen Flake described these “Progressive-Era efforts to change and remain the same” as symbolizing the church’s “project of collective memory.” Monuments and celebrations were designed to remember specific aspects of the past while at the same time forgetting others.1 The 1905 group traveled through Vermont, Palmyra and Kirtland, but significantly not through Nauvoo. While the Church began acquiring land in New York, Ohio and Missouri, monuments for Nauvoo would have to wait.
In 1954 J. LeRoy Kimball purchased the Nauvoo home of his great-grandfather Heber C. Kimball, restored it, and attracted the attention of tourists. Elder Spencer W. Kimball was invited to rededicate the home. Soon LeRoy Kimball would be commissioned by the First Presidency to create plans to restore other parts of Nauvoo.2 The church’s presence there was steadily growing (a branch opened in 1956) and the Church purchased the vacant temple site in 1960.3
In January 1962 Kimball presented his plans for restoring Nauvoo to the First Presidency (Pres. David O. McKay and counselors Hugh B. Brown and Henry D. Moyle). In light of the Washington D.C. temple President McKay wondered if building a temple in nearby Illinois was justified. They decided to table plans to rebuild the temple but McKay noted in his diary that—if it would be done at all—the temple “should be restored as near to what it was as can be.”4
As restoration plans progressed and the temple site was excavated interest in Nauvoo increased. NRI assumed more responsibility for the restoration projects and the Church transferred title of the temple site to it on December 13, 1963.5 Despite McKay’s desire to eventually rebuild the temple as near to the original as possible, by 1967 NRI was considering a partial restoration as described by Kimball in an article he wrote for the Improvement Era:
One suggestion is to partially restore [temple square], perhaps rebuilding only a corner of the building to the tower base. This will allow people to get an idea of the temple’s grandeur and permit them to climb to the top and see the beautiful view of the Mississippi River and the countryside about which so many visitors as well as the saints wrote.6The October 1968 Improvement Era featured a cover story projecting a partial restoration of the Nauvoo Temple to begin in 1970. Jay M. Todd’s article described the plan:
Artist’s depictions of the plan show what might have been, but it remains to be seen why it never came to fruition.
Jay M. Todd explained that after writing the article he lost touch with the story and could only speculate why the facade was never built:
Greg Prince noted that President McKay died in January 1970 “at which time (I presume) the project was still anticipated to go forward. Nothing in the research I did hinted at putting the brakes on it. Clearly, something happened after McKay's death that deep-sixed the project, but I don't know what, who or when.”9“I do remember that later I had probed, or it came up in a conversation that the brethren had changed their mind or decision on what to do with the property for the time being. Of course, all kinds of things happened in the 60s and 70s with protests and things happening relative to the priesthood, it was a darker public relations time for the church and they may well have tabled it for a variety of reasons. I suppose they felt it was not timely to move forward in that arena; they had things of much greater significance to handle. This is just a memory, more of a guess.”8
It remains to be seen exactly why the project fell through. Richard I. Kimball, associate professor in the Department of History at BYU and grandson of J. LeRoy Kimball, said Kimball's papers are not gathered in any library collection for research.10 President Gordon B. Hinckley announced the rebuilding of the Nauvoo Temple in the April 1999 General Conference.
Flake, “Re-placing Memory: Latter-day Saint Use. of Historical Monuments and Narrative,” [.pdf]. This paper later became a chapter in Flake's The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.
See James L. Kimball, Jr., “J. Leroy Kimball, Nauvoo Restoration Pioneer: A Tribute,” BYU Studies 32, nos. 1, 2 (1992), pp. 5-12 [.pdf]; Lisle G. Brown “Nauvoo’s Temple Square,” BYU Studies 41, no. 4 (2002).
David O. McKay Diary, Jan. 4, 1962, cited in Greg Prince, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, p. 272.
Brown, opt. cit., p. 27.
J. Leroy Kimball, "About Nauvoo Restoration," Improvement Era, July 1967, p. 14).
Jay M. Todd, “Nauvoo Temple Restoration,” Improvement Era, October 1968, pp.10-16.
Jay M. Todd, personal interview, Dec. 9, 2008 (notes in my possession). In 1968 Dennis Lythgoe (then a Teaching Assistant in the Dept. of History, University of Utah) detailed “the drastic change in the image of Mormonism as seen through popular periodical articles from 1950 to the present ” in his article “The Changing Image of Mormonism” (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 3, Num. 4 - Winter 1968, pp. 45-58). Ironically he opened his article with a “devastating indictment of Mormonism” from the New York Review of Books: “The ultimate fate of American minorities is to become tourist attractions…But the tourist boom means the same thing in Utah that it means in Vermont, the same thing it means wherever the past has been piously “restored,” roped off, and put on display—not vitality but the decadence of a way of life.” The article goes on to show how bad publicity regarding the priesthood restriction brought much condemnation onto the Church from the national press.
Greg Prince, author of David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, personal email of Dec. 15, 2008 in my possession.
Richard I. Kimball, personal email, Jan. 7, 2009.