SALT LAKE CITY — President Brigham Young was a remarkable, creative designer and overseer of the buildings put up during his tenure as president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a side of him that's not wholly appreciated, according to church history curator Emily Utt.
Utt said she became interested in President Young's designs and influence after hearing anecdotal stories at various Mormon landmark buildings, stories that were largely inaccurate but intriguing.
She researched extensively, studying letters from son Joseph W. Young to Brigham Young, minutes from meetings involving various buildings and office files.
"His name just kept popping up. Brigham Young was the pacemaker. He valued building. He was very involved in the details, even with the furniture. He had a very good eye. He was a very hands-on president. People listened to him," Utt said. "It gives a little bit of a twist to him."
She believes people greatly underestimate President Young's place in the architectural profession of the mid-19th century.
"I have built a great many houses, both for myself and for others. I have never built two houses alike, and I do not expect to in time or eternity, but I mean to improve every time I begin," President Young said.
President George A. Smith called him “our only architect."
Utt explains her findings in presentations to civic groups such as the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers by first outlining how people looked at building and architecture.
"Historically, buildings were designed by two types of people: the gentleman architect (think Thomas Jefferson types) who were seldom paid for their work and really designed for their friends or for patrons. The other type was the master builder, generally a carpenter, mason, or some other type of expert in the building trade with years of construction experience. Their designs may not be elegant but they are perfect in the details and specifications."
Utt said President Young fell into both categories.
His early job training was as a carpenter, painter and glazer, and his skills — combined with his finishing abilities as a painter and window maker — would have made him a prime candidate to become a master builder.
His professional aspirations as a builder come to a stop when he became the LDS Church’s president. A story told in "40 Ways to Look at Brigham Young" by Chad Orton and Bill Slaughter tells of Jedediah M. Grant seeking President Young out on a public matter and finding him shingling a roof. Brigham Young told him to come back later. Grant replied: "Now, Brother Brigham. Don't you think it is time you quit pounding nails and spending your time in work like this? We have many carpenters but only one governor and one president of the church. The people need you more than they need a good carpenter." President Young came down off the roof and seldom thereafter spent his days in manual labor.
His professional career may have ended, but his interest in architecture and building continued, Utt said.
Brigham Young became an architect, the tastemaker and style setter for early Utah Saints.
He advocated for construction of buildings and encouraged the best and finest in design. In 1860, he called church members to task for not building as they should. "You need to build beautiful things," he told them, even if they expected to relocate soon.
Some of the projects he was involved with as church president included:
The Beehive House
Designed to be the governor’s residence, the house type is based on a type familiar to President Young from his Vermont upbringing. The style is Greek Revival, a popular 1850s style that denoted democracy, equality and republicanism, but the type is “Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn."
The Lion House
Built as the family residence in the Gothic Revival style, it denoted religious living and domesticity for its occupants. Note the “Y” windows.
The Brigham Young Winter Home
The home was purchased and added to by President Young in the 1870s in the Italianate style. He was closely involved in its design. “There should, however, be a verandah one story high, running all along the north side, with a door opening on to it from the house which would be a good place to sleep in the summertime," he advised.
The Salt Lake Theatre
An 1870 visitor attended a play at the theater and was particularly impressed with the central chandelier, which was “creditable to any New York firm, apparently a richly carven circle, twined with gilt vines, leaves, and tendrils, blossoming all over with flaming wax-lights, and suspended by a massive chain of gold lustre.” He guessed that the Saints had “probably paid $1,000 for it in New York.” President Young said, “I made it myself! That circle is a cartwheel — the wheel off one of our common Utah ox-carts. I had it washed and gilded it with my own hands. It hangs by a pair of ox-chains which I also gilded; and the gilt ornaments of the candlesticks were all cut after my patterns out of sheet tin!" (Story also from the Orton and Slaughter book.)
The St. George Tabernacle
President Young thought that as the dust was blowing upon the congregation in a bowery, it was a good time to speak about the building of a tabernacle. He did not know what arrangements had been made, but proposed that one should be built 100-by-50 feet, with a spire 150-feet high; and that one end of the building be constructed, that when necessary, the house could be conveniently enlarged.
The St. George Temple
President Young took a personal interest in the temple construction and basically moved to St. George to supervise construction. When he was in Salt Lake, the workers would write to him directly instead of writing the church architect. Brigham Young selected the floor plan, gave the building dimensions and commented on many aspects of design.
The first Provo meetinghouse
President Young selected the site and told the congregation their building was already too small the day it was dedicated.
The Bountiful Tabernacle
President Young chastised the local members for leaving it unfinished while so many towns around them were able to finish their buildings.
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For the building of this temple, President Young was involved in every stage. He hung a copy of the rendering in his office so every visitor would be reminded of the primary focus of temple building.
Despite his achievements as church president, colonizer and leader of thousands, the title of “builder” was dearest to his heart, Utt said. "Indeed, in the end he was a builder not only of towns and structures but of people and doctrines."
Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with more than 35 years experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.