Other than New England, probably no other region in the country had as strong a religious
underpinning for Euro-American settlement as did Utah and the Intermountain West. When the first groups of settlers arrived, these members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or Mormons) planned to build Zion. They intended that faith would permeate everything they did. Naturally, ecclesiastical buildings became a part of the early landscape. However, because of the settlers’ humble circumstances, these early buildings were not as dominant as one might think; they were fairly simple and nondescript.
Not long after the Mormons settled in Utah, others followed. Members of various faiths arrived, mostly to proselytize among the Mormons, but these religions soon set down roots as well. Members of the earliest established religions in Utah included Jews, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, and Baptists. Their places of worship became landmarks in many established communities, indicating a growing diversity of
beliefs among the citizens.
The very first established place of worship for the Mormon settlers was a bowery near what is now Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City. The first real formal meeting place was the original or “Old” tabernacle on what is now Temple Square, constructed in 1852. In new settlements, Mormons did not always immediately build a local meetinghouse; instead, they often held church meetings in small, multi-purpose buildings or homes.
The earliest meetinghouses often appeared similar to larger residences, usually temple form in plan with minor classical design elements. The entrance was on the gable end, and a row of windows lined the two broad sides. If the church had a steeple, it was usually small. The spare interiors typically consisted of a single large room with rows of benches or sometimes chairs, and a small dais or just a podium at the end opposite the entrance. These first-generation meetinghouses were most commonly constructed of adobe brick stuccoed on the exterior. Sometimes as the wards grew in size, members built additions to their meetinghouses, but usually they just replaced the old with a new building.
In time, Mormons built tabernacles for regional meetings. These larger, more architectural and more costly buildings could hold more people. Many early examples have been replaced, but some still stand in larger cities.
By the turn of the 20th century, meetinghouse design accrued more architectural embellishment and took on a more traditional form, including a steeple (which the early forms usually lacked), and sometimes a small room at the rear of the building for office space. Soon, buildings were being constructed with several rooms in which to hold classes. And, as wards were able to raise money, they built “amusement halls” near the meetinghouses, in which to hold dances, socials, and sporting events.
By the 1920s, wards built “cultural halls,” as they came to be called, as part of the meetinghouse. Plans also became somewhat standardized church-wide. Common styles implemented from 1900 through the 1950s included Romanesque, Victorian Gothic, Prairie School, Colonial Revival, and Minimal Traditional, and even some hints of Modernism.
By the end of the 1950s, “ward houses,” as they became known, were fairly large and included a chapel that could be opened up into the cultural hall, classrooms, meeting rooms, and a kitchen. By this time most references to historical styles had given way to a basic, modern appearance. In the early 1980s floor plans changed so that hallway extensions were replaced with a single hall around the perimeter (also known as a “racetrack”) surrounding the chapel and cultural hall. New buildings basically retain this format today, although references to Colonial Revivalism are again popular in the exterior design.
Temples are the most sacred buildings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and are therefore the most monumental in appearance. While ward houses serve the weekly meeting needs of the congregation, temples serve a specialized purpose for doing specialized priesthood ordinances and ceremonies. Because of this only members of the faith in good standing are allowed to enter and use these buildings. The temple as a specialized building type was established early in Mormon Church history beginning with the first temple constructed in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1836. The Nauvoo, Illinois temple was completed in 1846, just as the Mormons were driven from there. The next temple to be completed was the St. George, Utah, Temple in 1877. Three others were completed in the nineteenth century in Utah: the Logan in 1884, the Manti in 1888, and the Salt Lake City in 1893 (although this was the first one in Utah to begin construction in 1853). Architectural design was not standardized for temples until the latter twentieth century saw a drastic increase in temple construction throughout the world. To keep up requirements the LDS Church designed smaller and more standard plans—for the most part. All LDS temples have adopted design elements common for the era in which they were constructed, but manage to maintain a unique appearance.
Because of the unique settlement circumstances of Utah and the dominance of the Mormon population, early congregations of other Christian faiths were typically small. After the establishment of mines and mining communities and then the arrival of the railroad, a larger, more diverse population of other Christian faiths developed. With more members, congregations could garner enough funding to build a meetinghouse.
Except for a few large examples throughout the state, architectural styles for meetinghouses of these faiths are basically indistinguishable from the exterior. Most Protestant faiths used a basic meetinghouse plan—basically a rectangular primary building mass with a tower or cupola centered at one end or at the front corner. Early examples of various other Christian meetinghouses are rare.
The Catholic Church is the earliest known Christian presence in Utah, with the 1776 expedition through Utah from Santa Fe of Fathers Dominguez and Escalante. However, it was not until 1850 that the Holy See in Rome placed any kind of ecclesiastical responsibility for the Territory. The first known mass in Utah took place in July 1859 at Camp Floyd.
With the beginning of mining in Utah in 1863 and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, Utah received an influx of members of various faiths, including Catholics. To serve these members, Catholic church buildings were constructed where the highest Catholic population bases were, railroad towns and mining settlements.
Not long after the first Mormons settled in the Salt Lake Valley, groups of Jewish settlers followed and established their own community and businesses. However, the first synagogue was not built until the 1883. Four other synagogues were built between 1891 and 1921, reflecting the internal diversity of the practicing Jewish community.
The primary differences among the synagogues were based on heritage (German-speaking vs. Eastern European) and religious persuasion (Orthodox, Reform, or Conservative). For the most part, the five synagogues built up to the 1920s followed similar vernacular architectural influences in both design and construction methods. The B’nai Israel Synagogue, built in 1891, is the only one that subscribed to a national and foreign-influenced design.