A closer look — inside and out — at St. George temple renovations after 1 year

From foundation to steeple, from demolitions to additions and from building to landscaping, the St. George Utah Temple is getting a drastic makeover on the inside and outside.

One year after project managers, construction leaders and architects began the historic renovation of the pioneer temple — the longest-operating temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — they gathered Friday, Nov. 6, at the temple site to give an update on the project.

First and foremost about updating mechanical, electrical, plumbing and heating, ventilation and cooling systems, the two-and-a-half-year renovation project is also an opportunity to admire the long-lasting effects of pioneer-era craftsmanship and ingenuity, which define the 1877 temple.

Brent Roberts, managing director of the special projects department for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talks to members of the media outside the St. George Utah Temple on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in St. George.
Brent Roberts, managing director of the special projects department for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talks to members of the media outside the St. George Utah Temple on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in St. George. Credit: Nick Adams, for the Deseret News

“It has been a blessing and an opportunity to work with the First Presidency in putting forth a [renovation] program that will carry on for generations and generations,” said Brent Roberts, managing director of the Church’s Special Projects Department, responsible for temple construction and temple renovation.

President [Russell M.] Nelson and the First Presidency and the members of the Temple and Family History Executive Council truly have a vision to provide facilities such as this — with a greater capacity and the beauty they deserve – to make covenants.”

He added: “Our purpose is to provide a facility for those covenants, because it’s not the facility that’s important. It’s what goes on inside the facility that’s important.”

The new north addition

In the past 12 months, crews have removed the temple’s north annex and west wing — both added in the 1970s. And in the past six months, construction teams have added the temple’s most-noticeable new feature, a stunning two-level north entrance addition with pre-cast walls complementing the historic temple’s unique 1870s look with with replicated turrets, windows, columns and pillared design.

Besides being the anchor to an expanded, new-look entrance area, the north addition will house administrative offices, changing rooms, laundry and a chapel.

Stabilization efforts have included shoring up the rock foundation of a century and a half, cladding wood support beams with steel, wrapping and reinforcing stone columns with resin-infused fiberglass and flanking corners with steel piping called micropiles.

While landscaping is often considered a final touch to a construction or renovation, the St. George temple project has trees, shrubs and foliage already being added throughout the grounds to allow them to mature and be established well before the temple opens.

Meanwhile, as construction crews have opened up areas of the temple for renovation and stabilization, they found evidences of the pioneer craftsmanship — such as sturdy, hand-milled wood beams fastened together by one-inch-diameter wood pegs — as well as other, more personal touches, ranging from hand-scribed initials and names and scraps of poetry inside inner walls and remnants of older murals that had been painted over or covered.

Pioneer craftsmanship revealed

Both Roberts and Andy Kirby, director of historic temple renovations, have admired the St. George temple as a statement of the quality and durability of pioneer trades and efforts.

The pioneer-era foundation of the St. George Utah Temple is exposed for the first time since its original construction. The foundation is being reinforced before being joined to the new north entrance addition, June 2020.
The pioneer-era foundation of the St. George Utah Temple is exposed for the first time since its original construction. The foundation is being reinforced before being joined to the new north entrance addition, June 2020. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Roberts called attention to the temple’s hand-laid foundation of basalt and sandstone. “They patted rocks in the best they could, and they used leftover cannons as pile-drivers, as it were,” he said, “And you can see that in areas where [larger rocks] didn’t fit, they would shove another rock in and mortar around it. It’s just unbelievable.”

Kirby relishes seeing the rough finished timbers and their joining, while imagining the effort to lift and install the massive wood beams and support system. “I can really see the care and dedication that the builders took when they built this temple.”

Pioneer-era wooden beams fastened with wood pegs are revealed during renovations of the St. George Utah Temple in June 2020.
Pioneer-era wooden beams fastened with wood pegs are revealed during renovations of the St. George Utah Temple in June 2020. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Kirby said he tries to envision what future renovations of historic temples like St. George will reveal about modern construction materials and processes. “I wonder what our ‘asbestos’ is, if there is some material we’re using now that in the future will be seen as not a good material.

“I hope that someone in 50 to 100 years will see that the construction showed our dedication to God and showed that we cared about quality and doing things the right way,” Kirby said of high-quality construction and maintenance. “We want to construct with durability and to maintain the temples in a way that they don’t have to be renovated too much in the future.”

Renovation timeline and temple history

The St. George temple is the latest of the Church’s “pioneer-era” temples to receive upgrades and updating. The Nov. 4, 2019, closure was announced in January 2019, with renovation plans and exterior renderings for the St. George temple made public on May 22, 2019. 

The St. George Utah Temple under renovation. Precast walls of the new north entrance addition replicate the architecture of the pioneer-era temple, October 2020.
The St. George Utah Temple under renovation. Precast walls of the new north entrance addition replicate the architecture of the pioneer-era temple, October 2020. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Renovation plans for the Salt Lake Temple were announced a month earlier, in April 2019. The renovations are part of the effort and attention given to the Church’s oldest temples in Utah, as stated by President Nelson in the October 2018 general conference.

The renovation of the St. George Utah Temple is scheduled to be completed in 2022, and the temple will be rededicated following a public open house.

In 1861, Brigham Young sent 300 families to settle St. George, hoping to establish a base for warm-weather crops, such as cotton. He announced a temple for the community in 1871, with workers transitioning from the nearly completed and nearby St. George Tabernacle to start work at the temple site.

The finished temple was dedicated on April 6, 1877, as the Church held its general conference that spring at the temple to coincide with the dedication. The St. George Utah Temple was the first temple dedicated in Utah, the first in the 30-plus years after the Nauvoo Temple and the longest-operating temple in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, going nearly 150 years strong.

The temple has undergone significant renovations previously. The cupola was replaced in 1883 following a lightning strike, and the first temple annex was added the same year. Other renovations followed in 1917, 1938 and 1975, with the baptistry renovated in 1999.

A closer look — inside and out

Highlights of the St. George Utah Temple renovation project include:

  • A new-look temple block, featuring new walkways, landscaping, water features, additional shade trees and improved landscaping.
  • New entrances and exits, with a new bride’s exit and plaza being added to the east side of the temple entrance and a new baptistry entrance and exit on the temple’s south side. For the latter, doors will replace a pair of large, ground-level windows.
  • Seismic upgrades, including the adding of steel reinforcements to the building’s original wood trusses.
  • New upgraded mechanical, electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling systems.
  • Architectural elements, with lighting and decorating to reflect the era of the early Utah pioneers. Furnishings in the renovated celestial room will be inspired by mid-19th-century designs, while many light fixtures throughout the temple will reflect an older, period-appropriate appearance.
  • Returning full wall murals to the endowment rooms. Murals were removed from the temple in the 1970s; the modern replicas will be inspired by the originals.
  • A rebuilt stair tower, which was added to the rear of the temple in the 1970s. The tower will feature a grand staircase and a pair of elevators.
  • A two-level north entrance addition, replacing the recently demolished annex that was built in the 1970s. Sealing rooms previously located in the annex are being moved into the temple proper, while mechanical equipment previously located in the temple is being moved into the northern entrance. The addition will also include administrative offices and lower-level laundry room.
  • New additional plazas — one as an entrance for patrons and temple workers, the other for guests and visitors. Located on the north side of the northern entrance, the new entrance plaza will be graced by an anchoring water feature and flanking gardens and seating areas. Meanwhile, the east-side visitors’ plaza — including palm trees, gardens and a tiered water feature — will offer a full view of the temple’s front facade.
  • Preservation of the 1870s cast-iron font and the accompanying oxen at its base.
  • Expansion and renovation of key temple areas. Some sealing rooms will be expanded for larger capacity, while the fourth-floor priesthood assembly room on the fourth floor will be renovated for a return to use. Weak wooden flooring and other limitations has precluded use of the latter for some time.