To Build a Temple
August 1974

“To Build a Temple,” Ensign, Aug. 1974, 15

Special Issue: Temples

To Build a Temple

Under the direction of the First Presidency, the architects worked to conceive a worthy design.

“I can’t think of any assignment that could come to a Latter-day Saint architect that would be a higher honor than working on a temple for our Heavenly Father.”

These are the feelings of Emil B. Fetzer, Church architect and designer of the Provo and Ogden temples. Brother Fetzer, who made initial selection of architects to design the Washington Temple and who was to coordinate their work, had two criteria to follow in selecting the architects: they had to be mature, distinguished men who had proved their professional competence in public careers, and they had to be men of sufficient spiritual stature to be intimately acquainted with the work of a temple. Recommended to and approved by the First Presidency for this assignment were Harold K. Beecher, Henry P. Fetzer, Fred L. Markham, and Keith W. Wilcox.

Although these four brethren had never worked together before, they accepted responsibility for designing the temple and became a creative team, warmed by the special spirit of individual inspirations that gradually blended and evolved into one inspired design.

Pleased with the functional design of the Provo and Ogden temples, the First Presidency instructed the architects that the Washington Temple was to feature the same innovative single-room-session plan (ordinance rooms arranged around the celestial room); they further specified that it was to be a building of beauty, significance, and distinction.

Brother Markham was named chairman, and the work began. Their special spirit was epitomized by two initial procedures the architects adopted: planning sessions opened with prayer, and no votes were taken. Disagreements on any point were discussed until full agreement was reached.

The men sketched their own designs and compiled them for review and synthesis. Each man had the experience of struggling with an idea, of “studying it out in his mind,” and sharing it with his colleagues. After comment and criticism, one design gradually emerged: a multitowered structure that somewhat resembled both the Salt Lake Temple and the popular temple facade used at the New York World’s Fair.

The design, a hexagon with towers on the corners, was eventually elongated into a modified diamond shape. When the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve approved this design, the architects felt confirmation that their work and prayers had been productive.

Many others were involved in developing the plans. Among these were Mark B. Garff, former chairman of the Church Building Committee; Gerrit Timmerman, Jr., drafting supervisor and architects’ representative on the site; Amos Jackson, supervisor of electrical design; George W. Poulson and Edward M. Richardson, in charge of heating, ventilating, cooling, and other mechanical services. Ralph L. Wadsworth was the structural engineer. Contractors were Jacobsen, Okland, and Sidney Foulger construction companies. Project managers were Al Olson and Reed Nielson. Irvin T. Nelson was in charge of the grounds, and, in spite of being in his late 80s, worked from 7:00 a.m. until sundown, personally selecting plants and sometimes even wielding a shovel. Together they made a good team. Brother Wilcox praises “the great spirit of unity and love felt by all who were associated with the work.”

One of the challenges was to emphasize the striking location of the temple site, a heavily wooded hill rising above the Capitol Beltway. The architects determined the temple needed height to be a building of “beauty, significance, and distinction,” so they designed the body of the building 120 feet high. They later discovered that the local building ordinances allow a maximum height of 120 feet.

They planned the solemn assembly room to accommodate 1,800 people, which automatically regulates the number of fire exits required. County building officials, in inspecting the plans, discovered that the six tower stairways provided the exact amount of exit space needed.

Several Latter-day Saint sculptors were invited to submit designs for the Angel Moroni, and a model designed by Avard Fairbanks was selected.

The building is constructed of reinforced concrete. To permit the entrance of natural light into the temple without breaking the image of strength created by the integrated mass of the heavily ribbed walls, “windows” of translucent marble were designed. These give the appearance of a solid wall from the outside but create bands of rich glowing color inside.

The faceted glass windows on the east and west ends are unusually beautiful. They are made of inch-thick pieces of colored glass, chipped on the edges to refract more light, and set in an epoxy harder than concrete.

The W-shaped window panels are seven feet wide and run in a solid blaze of color and light from the ground to the top of the temple. The colors near the ground are rich and vibrant—reds and oranges—but as they rise, they give way to clearer tones: blue, violet, and finally white. According to Brother Henry Fetzer, the change in the colors is symbolic of the purity and clarity that enters a person’s life as he leaves earthly concerns and aspires toward heavenly matters. The unbroken line of the window rising continuously to the top of the temple is a reminder of the unbroken progress that is possible in the gospel.

The interior colors also change. Walnut paneling and carpets of deep blue give way to more and more white, with accents of gold. The celestial room, with white walls and a white ceiling, is carpeted in a very pale apricot gold. Plants provide the only other colors.

The bronze doorknob plates on all the interior doors feature stylized three-dimensional castings of the east or west temple facade, the three towers extending above the doorknobs.

Another unique feature is the design of the main entrance doors and the sliding gates at the north annex entrance. Eight bronze medallions by Latter-day Saint sculptor Franz Johansen portray the Big Dipper and North Star, the earth, the planets, the moon, the stars, concentric circles representing eternity, the traditional temple sun face, and seven concentric pentagons representing the seven dispensations. These designs are symbolic of the creation, mortality, and the degrees of glory. Triangular “ribs” that arch from the top to the bottom of the medallions like a much-segmented orange are a distinctive feature. Patterns of the celestial bodies sculpted on these medallions have “a different expression every hour of the day,” according to Brother Henry Fetzer, “because the shifting sunlight strikes the striations at different angles.”

The reflecting pool on the south side of the temple, 106 feet long and 52 feet wide, is the same elongated diamond shape as the temple. Water is also used as a landscaping feature on the south end of the mall, where a single jet of water will spray to a height of 30 feet in the center of a stone basin eight and one-half feet in diameter. The water then flows over the brim of the inner basin into an outer basin 32 feet in diameter. This will be illuminated at night.

A motif of intersecting pointed arches, which unifies the building design, appears on the windows, the doors, the stair railings, the sides of the altars, and the backs of the stands in the solemn assembly room. It also appears in the celestial room where twelve pillars rise to a height of 32 feet, flaring at the top to meet in pointed arches. In addition, arches appear in the faceted glass windows on the east and west ends of the building, where the sections are joined in arches that elongate toward the top, giving the impression of approaching infinity.

This motif also appears on the metal spires atop the marble towers. Coated with 24-carat liquid gold and fused into the embossed porcelainized steel at 1680 degrees Fahrenheit, the spires look pierced at certain angles of light almost like those of the Oakland Temple.

The towers on both ends traditionally represent the Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthoods, and to give the building continuous sweep, the flanking towers are of unequal height. The three or four feet of difference gives the temple the feeling of continuous movement. Brother Henry Fetzer feels that “through that principle of design we represent the living Church—moving, dynamic.”

Since the Washington Temple district includes both Puerto Rico and Montreal and will welcome many other international visitors, headphone facilities will be available to about half the audience in the ordinance rooms. Designed to provide Spanish and French now, the system will ultimately handle many other languages.

Simplicity, quiet, dignity—these are the feelings that the architects wanted the temple to convey, and with deep sincerity they share their own feelings about their part in shaping the temple.

To Brother Wilcox the temple is a visual symbol of enlightenment, the one word that to him epitomizes the total spirit of the Church. “Looking back,” he says, “I have a feeling of deep humility, realizing that we have been instruments in the Lord’s hands in helping to give direction to the design of one of his temples.”

“Over the last 25 years,” says Brother Markham, “I have been very much interested in temple work but through working on this building I have obtained a strengthened testimony of temple activity, particularly in learning the significance of many details that must be considered as one designs for temple ordinances.”

Said Brother Beecher, “It gets more beautiful every day.”

Brother Henry Fetzer commented, “As I have sat in the Salt Lake Temple and enjoyed the wealth of decoration there and marveled that the pioneers were able to construct that amazing building, I’ve thought it appropriate to give our very best to the temple. Into this building we are inviting not only living people, but also the glorious spirits of the departed to witness the work done on their behalf, the angels of the Lord, and the Lord himself. How could you make a building beautiful enough?”

Photography by Elmer S. Crowley

The original charcoal sketch.

1. Watercolor of original sketch.

2. Wooded site selected for the temple.

3. Aerial photo of the temple area.

4. Green oval sealing room.

5. Floor plan of sixth floor, showing temple shape.

6. Architect’s drawing of celestial room.

7. Architect’s drawing of the baptismal room.

8. The temple spires reach upward.