Mormon reconstruction of historic Nauvoo Temple nearly complete

Posted: Friday, March 29, 2002

NAUVOO, Ill. (AP) -- Mormon hotelier and farmer William H. Walker heeded the call more than 150 years ago, devoting one day in every 10 to building a grand temple envisioned as the spiritual home of his fledgling religion.

Less than a decade later, that temple lay in ruins -- ravaged by fire and storm after persecution forced the Mormons to abandon the city they carved in the Mississippi River wilderness.

Today, great-grandson and hotelier Kay Walker spends one morning a week on the same high river bluff, helping rebuild the temple. The work is almost complete. The temple is due to be dedicated at the end of June, following a six-week-long open house.

''You feel like it's your temple,'' Walker said. ''It makes everything come alive.''

Mormons have many other temples all over the world, but the Nauvoo Temple has special historical and sentimental importance.

Mormons fleeing persecution in Missouri arrived at this bend of the Mississippi River in 1839. It was here that church founder Joseph Smith Jr. announced many of the holy revelations that became cornerstones of the faith.

In 1841, he declared a temple should be built. It was -- and the big, stone house of worship was the site where Smith originated some of the unique and secret rites Mormons practice to this day.

The town grew along with the temple walls, but so did tensions with non-Mormon neighbors and even within Mormon ranks. Smith, who served as Nauvoo's mayor, ordered his police to ransack a dissenting group's newspaper, which reported he privately practiced polygamy while denying it publicly -- and that he had been anointed as king.

Smith and his brother, Hyrum, were arrested and jailed in nearby Carthage. On June 27, 1844, an anti-Mormon mob broke into the jail and shot the brothers.

When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced in 1999 that the Nauvoo Temple would be rebuilt, the site was a grass-covered block reminiscent of an abandoned town square.

Fire -- some say the work of an arsonist -- consumed part of the original temple in October 1848; a tornado completed the destruction less than two years later.

But now sunlight reflects from the high limestone walls of the 65,000-square-foot temple; a spire reaches more than 160 feet into the sky.

Architect Steve Goodwin said the reconstruction has been a balancing act between authenticity and the inevitable touch of modern technology.

''It's the idea behind it. We're trying to replicate what it looked like,'' he said. ''There's some things where we've married the old and the new together.''

The best examples are the 134 windows. They were built by Nauvoo resident Charles Allen, who has worked on restorations ranging from the Mark Twain House in Hannibal, Mo., to historic properties on Martha's Vineyard.

Each window casing was built using a 30-step method from the 1840s. Allen used more than 2,400 hand-carved square wooden pegs to hold the windows' joints together. The window design has been modernized, however, to make each double-pane insulated.

And unlike carpenters of old, Allen used an electric bandsaw.

''The only difference is we didn't use a foot-operated treadle, we used electricity,'' he said. ''But it was the same process.''

The most striking features of the exterior are the 90 sunstones, moonstones and starstones shaped like the original decorations and carved by several craftsmen. No two decorative stones -- or the dozen life-sized limestone oxen carved for the basement baptismal font -- are exactly alike.

''The cool thing is when you look up there, you can see differences,'' Goodwin said. ''That's what we wanted.''

Inside, the floor plan has been changed, but many details remain true to the original, from British carpet made using the same weaving process as in the 1840s to the 450 custom-made bronze light fixtures patterned after period hurricane oil lamps and candle sconces.

Project manager Ron Prince, a retired church engineer, said Mormons with construction or trade skills have donated their labor -- staying anywhere from a week to more than a year -- just as their ancestors did.

''We believe in the church that we belong to,'' said Prince, himself a volunteer.

Many who labored on the original temple never saw it finished. After the Smith brothers were killed, violence against Mormons continued until Brigham Young agreed to lead the faithful from Nauvoo.

They began departing in February 1846, and according to many accounts, the temple on the bluff was the last thing they saw as they headed west, eventually founding Salt Lake City. A small cadre stayed, finishing the temple three months later.

Mormons began drifting back to Nauvoo, about 150 miles northwest of St. Louis, in the 1930s. That's when the church began buying property in the area -- alongside land owned by followers of the rival Reorganized Church established under Smith's son, Joseph III.

The temple's rebirth has many Mormons feeling their people's journey has come full circle.

More than 250,000 are expected to visit this community of 1,200 for the open house and consecration. After that, like all Mormon temples, it will be closed except to Mormons participating in church rites.

For Walker, who does odd jobs at the temple, the project is part faith and part heritage.

A former insurance stockbroker in St. Louis, he decided to open a hotel in Nauvoo nine years ago. Once here, he read William Walker's diary, a family heirloom he'd never paid much attention to before. That's when he found that his great-grandfather ran a ''mansion house'' -- hotel -- for Joseph Smith.

''It's exciting, walking in his footsteps,'' Walker said. ''I think he'd be very pleased with what I'm doing. We believe those who have passed on are rejoicing that the temple's being rebuilt.''

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