Mormons move into Manhattan

Existing building refitted to be used as a temple

May 09, 2004|By John J. Goldman | John J. Goldman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW YORK - Successfully blending religion with prime real estate, the Mormon Church has completed its first temple in Manhattan.

The task required creating a feeling of spaciousness and spirituality in tight quarters.

Unlike most temples built by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with soaring spires and manicured lawns and gardens, the new temple is situated on four floors of a renovated six-story building across Columbus Avenue from Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

"I think the primary challenge has been fitting a temple inside an existing building, which is highly unusual," said Brent J. Belnap, president of the temple committee. "Other temples usually have been new construction ... on a piece of ground that has sufficient space for landscaping and parking."

Facing the challenge of creating contemplative space in a bustling, noisy section of mid-Manhattan, architects studied the construction of Lincoln Center, where groups including the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Ballet perform.

"As you walk through, you will notice you can hear virtually nothing from the outside," Belnap said.

The temple's architects employed the same soundproofing techniques used in some of the cultural center's facilities to block distracting noise.

The decision to build the temple - the 119th in the world - reflects both the growth of the denomination, which has about 42,000 members in the New York region, and its history.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, there were fears that the threat of further attacks would cause large numbers of followers to leave the city. That hasn't been the case.

"It hasn't affected the growth of the church at all," Belnap said.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has about 12 million members, was founded April 6, 1830, by Joseph Smith, who lived about 300 miles northwest of Manhattan in Palmyra, N.Y. In October 1832, he traveled to New York City to preach and was clearly impressed by the city, writing to his wife Emma: "The buildings are truly great and wonderful, to the astonishing of every beholder."

Many of the church's early hymn books, scriptures and newspapers were published in the city, and even after church members migrated west to escape persecution, many of its converts from Europe still passed through New York.

The temple in Manhattan, like others worldwide, consists of rooms designated for specific functions - marriages, baptisms and religious instruction - rather than a single large hall.

The church considers its temples to be sacred places, and after a building is dedicated, only church members may enter. Inside, they wear simple white clothing symbolic of purity.

The temple will be open to the public until it is dedicated on June 13.

The design of Mormon temples emphasizes symbolism and spiritual uplifting.

As in Mormon temples elsewhere, there are local touches. Doorknobs are engraved with the image of a flame that mimics the Statue of Liberty's torch, and the large mural in an instruction room is painted from the perspective of being high on a mountain looking out at a river valley in upstate New York.

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