January 12, 2009

Partial Restoration of the Nauvoo Temple

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.6
The 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:

A partial restoration of the Nauvoo Temple, to be built on the original Illinois temple site, is projected by the Nauvoo Restoration, Incorporated (NRI)…The purpose of the restoration is to create a center where the story of the Church can be told to the millions of tourists and nearby residents who travel through the Midwest...It is estimated that by 1974 nearly half a million visitors yearly will visit the Nauvoo center.

Construction on the partial restoration of the Nauvoo Temple is expected to begin in 1970. A two-year construction period is anticipated. Preceding the restoration there will be an exhaustive program of archaeological and historical research, which will near completion the latter part of 1969. The archaeological work has already unearthed numerous artifacts, including portions of the wall that surrounded the original temple plot, part of the bricked basement floor, segments of the stone oxen statuary that sustained the baptismal font, workmen's tools, and many other related items...

The artifacts will be displayed in a museum and visitors' center to be located on the temple block. The information center will feature numerous displays, artwork, and rooms for the presentation of films designed to tell the temple story.
Near the information center and inside the walled temple grounds will be appropriate statuary of the two martyrs, the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, and of Brigham Young, president of the Council of the Twelve and successor to the Prophet Joseph Smith as head of the Church. Other statuary will represent scenes of the Nauvoo period. The temple block itself will be beautifully landscaped.

The main exhibit, however, will be the restored portion of the Nauvoo Temple. The temple's footings and floor will be built over the exact spot where once stood the original temple, and will follow the exact measurements of the original building. Indeed, some of the original stonework, including some of the original footings, will be used in the reconstruction. The brick basement floor will also contain some of the original basement bricks. Portions of the legs of the original 12 oxen that surrounded the font will be used in the font restoration. Nearby will be the temple well, which provided water for the font.

The front facade of the temple is to be rebuilt to the original height of the upper pediment, so that tourists may ascend the stairway and obtain a glimpse of the view that so enchanted early-day Nauvoo visitors.

The view, noted as "magnificent" and "beyond description," was described by one visitor, J. H. Buckingham: "The whole valley of the Mississippi for miles and miles lay exposed to view on the north and south, where the prairie lands of Illinois, and Iowa, and Missouri, were to he seen to the east and west, overlooking the few hills lying near to the shore in the latter state, and showing the tortuous course of the Des Moines River for some distance."7

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:
“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 
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

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 [1968]” 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.