Temple's architect fitted pieces of past

Architects pored over old drawings, daguerreotypes, stone fragments and journals until they fitted together what the original Nauvoo Temple looked like up close.

With new drawing on wall and copy of original on his desk, Roger P. Jackson shows design work.
With new drawing on wall and copy of original on his desk, Roger P. Jackson shows design work. Photo: Photo by John Hart

The sleuthing was for the details — stone textures, moldings, window frames and a thousand other fine points nearly lost to history. They also met the greatest mystery of the Nauvoo Temple — the east end or facade; of which there are neither photos nor accurate drawings.

"It was almost forensic, trying to piece together all these things," said Roger P. Jackson, principal of FFKR Architecture and chief architect of the rebuilt Nauvoo Illinois Temple.

"Some things we didn't know and had no way to know. Absent any evidence to the contrary, we would develop what we thought was the right thing and go ahead."

He was not alone in this quest for historical accuracy, which really began more than half a century ago when the original 1840s drawings made by William Weeks were returned to the Church by his descendants. Next came archeological excavations followed by the discovery of more detailed daguerreotypes. One of the Church architects, Robert Dewey, had begun doing research a few years ago, but the case gained urgency on April 4, 1999, when President Gordon B. Hinckley announced, "We plan to rebuild the Nauvoo Temple."

"Like the rest of the Church, I was shocked and surprised," said Brother Jackson. After a few phone calls and a letter of application, he joined an extensive team of historians and builders put together by the Temple Construction Department. Historians scoured journals of early Nauvoo residents, and also newspaper accounts providing almost "excruciating detail" of the building. Friends and acquaintances volunteered ancestors' journals. The Nauvoo trail was searched with a synergism that increased as the project progressed.

The research for the historical interior was assigned to Richardson Design Partnership Inc., which provided modern drawings of the baptismal font and first floor that were well detailed in the Weeks' drawings. Both William A. Richardson, and his son Neil William, carry the name of their ancestor William Warner Player, chief stone mason of the Nauvoo Temple, who carved oxen from detailed Weeks' drawings.

Brother Jackson and his associates did not have the benefit of such detailed drawings for the exterior. They studied the 150-year-old drawings with jewelers glasses. "We looked at the actual drawings. That was so neat — we wondered, 'Who else has touched these?' They were so beautifully drawn, and the writing was so fine."

On a large copy of the Weeks' drawing of the west face, Brother Jackson and his team red-penciled in measurements and proportions. From these, construction schemes emerged.

For the most part, the daguerreotypes were "fuzzy old images" that provided little detail. "The molding is three inches, and on that daguerreotype it hardly shows," he said. "So what did the molding really look like?"

He said the careful archaeological work done in the 1960s and recorded by J.C. and Virginia Harrington provided helpful information. However, despite all information, many details were lacking. Where there were blanks, he and others traveled to the Kirtland Temple and the St. George Utah Temple and studied the finish work.

A copy of William Weeks' drawing with architects' recent notations.
A copy of William Weeks' drawing with architects' recent notations.

The east side was the most inscrutable. A journal mentioned a window, so they put a window in the top floor and made the rest of the east face correspond with the sides. "We feel pretty good about it; I can't say that it is right. My hope is that someday someone will find a photograph and say we got it right or close. My fear is that someday someone will find a photograph and we'll have gotten it way wrong."

The original plan was for these architects to process information for an architect in St. Louis, Mo., but that plan didn't stay on schedule; Brother Jackson and his company were formally assigned as the architects.

The builders were eager to get started, "so we just started drawing, truly. We knew the size. It was a very regular building — these pilasters [half columns] were the exact same width all the way around and the west elevation gave us a very good start."

Complicating matters was the fast-track, draw-as-you-go, schedule of construction, which essentially eliminates second chances and adds meaning to the phrase "set in concrete." As soon as the first set of drawings was complete, heavy equipment moved on the site and the builders began digging up the clay.

A need for strength was pinpointed by an 1860 drawing by Frederick Percy of the remnant of the temple wall. It shows a big crack in the stone. "I suspect that if the temple had stayed there, it would have over time had some serious ground problems," he said. "When it gets wet [the clay] turns the consistency of heavy Jell-O. We put in many concrete piers that go clear down to the solid rock. Fortunately, it's only about 25 to 30 feet."

He said the Church has a "plus-one" building policy, which means that if the local code requires a zone 2 level for earthquake protection, Church buildings will have a zone 3 strength. The showcase temple is not only designed to withstand earthquakes, but wind forces that are sometimes greater than earthquake forces. "We designed against all that. But if a tornado comes by — you can't protect yourself against a tornado — but I don't think it is going to blow over.

"We did a lot of heavy structural work that is all buried in the ground. This is a very tall building . . . and a very heavy building. It is very strong — it had to be to hold up all the stone."

Staying ahead of such work "is very stressful. We had to compress the time . . . and compress all that thinking." To help with the plan, FFKR stationed one of its architects, Steven Goodwin, on the site. He would sometimes re-think and redraw a concept on the spot. The Church's team of construction missionaries greatly helped, said Brother Jackson. (See Church News, May 4, 2002.)

Still, there were a few problems. Once, an exit stair was too low, but after some good-natured ribbing about who should have caught the problem, the stair was chipped out and the work continued. Another problem emerged during a cold snap when a water pipe broke.

"We looked at it as a little warning that something was not right there."

Stonework was assigned as the critical path, which means it had top urgency. As the building rose and began taking on stone and detail, Brother Jackson and others began to appreciate more and more the original builders. That feeling deepened into wonder as the edifice was completed.

"We had electric diamond-tipped saws and diesel powered cranes," he said. "Horse power then meant a horse on the end of a rope. Everything had to be lifted by block and tackle with a derrick. It is a marvel how much work they did in five years."

"I have five stars of satisfaction," for the finished temple, he said. "It is great."

Builders form a personal bond to a building. "We eat, sleep and dream a job like this. There is a feeling of loss, of separation, at the end of the job." The early builders also formed a bond, he said. "Yet many of them worked on the original temple knowing they were going to walk away from it and never see it again."

He said that he looks foward to seeing the temple functioning as a temple, this time through the eyes of a patron, "to feel the Spirit and see people enjoying the beautiful place."

And he will be able to, whenever he wants. Because unlike the first temple, this one will stand a long, long time.

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