During the construction of the Salt Lake Temple in the second half of the 1800s, President Brigham Young said, “I want to see the temple built in a manner that it will endure through the Millennium.”
That target duration has been reemphasized today by President Russell M. Nelson. Brent Roberts, managing director of the Church’s Special Projects Department, remembers the charge given when President Nelson announced in 2019 the renovation of the Salt Lake Temple and much of Temple Square.
“He talked about (how) this project will enhance, refresh and beatify the temple and its surrounding grounds, replace obsolete systems and also handle safety and seismic concerns,” Roberts said, with the prophet also highlighting improvements for patron experiences and accessibility.
“From a standpoint of a construction worker and from an individual who’s responsible for this, it truly is an opportunity for use to replace outdated mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems as well as protect it into the Millennium, as he has said before. President Nelson has always made it clear that this is a project for the Millennium and for something that we can move forward with in the future.”
Roberts and Andy Kirby, director of historic temple renovations, joined the Church News podcast for a Tuesday, Feb. 15, episode that provided an update on and perspective of the Temple Square renovation project, which started in 2020 and is expected to finish in 2025.
Episode 70: The expansiveness of the Salt Lake Temple renovation project, with Brent Roberts and Andy Kirby
Renovating the temple and more
From its granite foundations to its heavenly spires, the historic Salt Lake Temple is a landmark and an iconic symbol for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Following a construction period of four decades, the temple was dedicated in 1893. Now, more than 125 years later, it is closed for five years for an extensive renovation, addition and seismic upgrade.
The temple is just one part of the massive renovation project in downtown Salt Lake City. Adjacent to the temple, the two visitors’ centers — north and south — have been demolished, with only one such center to return.
Most of the area previously occupied by the North Visitors’ Center will be turned to landscapes and gardens. Also, the Church Office Building plaza is being repaired, waterproofed and revitalized with new landscaping.
Besides structural changes, the project will improve patron accessibility — both in language and mobility, with stairs and ramps being replaced by elevators, lifts and leveled floors. A tunnel from the Conference Center parking area will allow people easier access to the temple.
Two-year anniversary and accomplishments
The project recently passed its two-year anniversary, with much of that time needed to decommission the temple — including the removal of furniture, lights, carpeting — as well as prepare for and complete the massive, 65-foot-deep excavation on the temple’s north side for a new three-story addition will go.
“We had to remove the original structure [temple annex] that was constructed in the 1960s and then go another 30 feet deeper than that,” Kirby said. “We were shoring into soils that hadn’t ever been dug into around at the temple site.”
In some ways, the project’s first two years was preparing for new construction, which is now beginning, he said.
Work now is focused on constructing the footings and foundation of the new temple addition, the seismic strengthening of the historic temple’s foundation. “We can see what those original pioneers constructed back in the 1850s,” Kirby said, “and it’s special to see that work because you think of the sacrifice that they made and how they were living and struggling at the same time, building the temple of the Lord.”
And he thinks of the two eras’ differences in processes and equipment. “They were using block-and-tackle rigging with horses to lift stones up onto the temple, and now we do it with giant, electric-powered tower cranes.”
Still to come on-site
Construction of the new north-side addition will provide — working from the bottom up — the foundation, walls, columns and floors, while work continues inside and around the base of the temple to strengthen it with seismic reinforcements.
“That seismic work is groundbreaking and world-class structural engineering, seismic engineering and construction over several years,” Kirby said.
For structure stability, the pioneers relied on gravity and the weight of the historic temple, tipping the scale at some 187 million pounds.
For seismic upgrades, the temple is first tied together — stones, towers and roof trusses. “We will also tension the temple, the top down to the bottom,” Kirby said, “so we’re kind of clamping it down so it will act as one unit. When the earthquake happens in the future, the ground will move around the temple and the temple will hold firm.”
The base isolation then creates a separation of the structure from the earth, “which allows the earth to move but the building not to move,” he said.
Renovating a massive structure nearly 130 years old trying to follow the original drawings and documentation from temple architect Truman Angel has resulted in what Roberts called “unforeseen circumstances.” Builders didn’t always follow details from the drawings, and renovators often come across little — and not so little — surprises.
“We have found many of those things because we just don’t know — we don’t know what is behind the walls until we get into those walls,” Roberts said.
And that’s besides finding occasional tools between walls or behind rafters or notes left among pioneer-era construction workers, Kirby said.
The two listed other unforeseen conditions: asbestos in the demolished 1960s addition, a major windstorm, downtown protests and riots, unexpected groundwater during excavation, COVID-19 pandemic absences and precautions, labor shortages, economic inflation, supply chain challenges and — ironically — a March 2020 earthquake.
“It helped us understand a little bit how the temple would move,” Kirby said, “and validated some of our assumptions of how it would perform in an earthquake.”
Pre-purchasing much of what materials were needed helped mitigate some of the supply chain difficulties, but delivery times have increased dramatically, said Roberts, adding that the Temple Square renovation project is not facing major supply challenges like other projects.
What members worldwide should know
Roberts meets with the First Presidency and the Presiding Bishops at least several times each month, providing updates and answering questions.
“Members of the Church can trust that this project is in great hands because it’s led by a prophet,” he said, explaining that President Nelson always asks for a report. “He asks specific questions he wants to understand, and, of course, he understands, and then he provides thoughts and feelings and direction as only a prophet could.”
In discussing the project, President Nelson reiterates to Roberts and others that Temple Square itself needs to be focused on the Lord Jesus Christ, His mission and His ministry.
“That emphasis has helped each one of us look a little differently on this construction project,” Roberts said, adding “It is truly construction that will end up being a place where people can come and feel the peace and the Spirit of the Lord in all that they do.”
What Roberts, Kirby know now
One lesson Kirby says he has learned from the project — as in life — is that difficult things can be done by focusing on the Lord and asking for His help.
“Trials and struggles will be here, but if we keep an eye single to Father in Heaven and seek His guidance in what we do, He will inspire us, He will give us strength, and He will help us work through those difficulties,” he said, adding “When we pray in our meetings with contractors and engineers and architects, we seek His guidance and His spirit and inspiration to do difficult things, and I know He helps us all the time.”
The finished project will mirror President Nelson’s emphasis on temple ordinances, Roberts said. “Yes, the house of the Lord is beautiful and needs to be beautiful and needs to be done right, but it’s the beauty of the ordinances and the sacredness of what goes on in the temple that is truly important,” he said. “We’re just happy to be a part of preparing the way, under the direction of the Presiding Bishopric, so those higher ordinances that can happen in the temple.”
He added: “I have learned the truthfulness of that over and over again, as we have sought, the Lord in His guidance, sought our Heavenly Father to guide and direct us and to work out issues and problems, but most importantly, to feel the joy of the successes that we have in the construction thus far.”