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Editor’s note: This story is a part of a series highlighting Latter-day Saints for General Conference week.
SALT LAKE CITY — Temple Square already looks vastly different than it did nine months ago when crews began the massive Salt Lake Temple renovation project.
Gone are the majority of temple add-ons constructed in the 1960s, such as the north side entrance, chapel and sealing room addition, and nearly all objects that were located in the space north and south of the temple. Other buildings, such as the South Visitors' Center, were demolished in January.
There’s also a large pit surrounding the historic structure after crews created a retaining wall around it as they work to strengthen the temple’s foundation.
"The next stage is probably the hardest, where we work on strengthening the foundation by adding to the foundation," said Andy Kirby, director of historic temple renovations for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a video released by the church Sunday.
The story of the temple's foundation
While crews work on shoring up the building for seismic activity, they also get an up-close view of the temple's foundation. It’s the first time a majority of the foundation has been visible since additions were constructed more than 50 years ago.
The history of that foundation is about as unique as the temple's entire construction story — a structure that took 40 years to complete after its 1853 groundbreaking ceremony.
The location of the temple itself was set aside on July 28, 1847, just four days after pioneers reached the Salt Lake Valley. The groundbreaking happened in 1853 with the cornerstones laid on April 6, 1853, as a part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' spring general conference.
A recap of the ceremony was recorded in an edition of the Deseret News published 10 days later. The ceremony included talks, prayers and music as the cornerstones were put in place.
Brigham Young provided a sermon and an oration that day, according to records from the time. At the sermon, he explained that the southeast cornerstone would be laid first because it symbolically was in the section where the most light was provided.
"We dedicate this, the southeast cornerstone of this Temple, to the Most High God," Young added during an oration that was followed by prayer. "May it remain in peace till it has done its work, and until He who has inspired our hearts to fulfill the prophecies of His holy Prophets, that the House of the Lord should be reared in the 'Tops of the Mountains,' shall be satisfied, and say, 'it is enough.'"
The cornerstones, as noted by BYU historian Richard Cowan, weren’t made from quartz monzonite like the majority of the temple would eventually be constructed out of; rather, the 3-by-5-foot cornerstones were cut from firestone found in Red Butte Canyon. Granite-like quartz monzonite was discovered in Little Cottonwood Canyon sometime in the mid-1850s.
The original foundation didn’t last. In 1857, the foundation was covered with dirt to hide it after word that U.S. troops were approaching the territory as a part of what would become the Utah War. After work continued in the early 1860s, the foundation was discovered to be in poor shape. Young and other church leaders determined it would need to be replaced, and it was with the granite-like rock found in the canyon so it would "endure through the millennium," according to the Latter-day Saints' Church History.
The large rocks came through oxen until the 1870s, when railroads transported rock from the southern part of the valley to the Salt Lake Temple site. The capstone was completed in 1892 and the temple was dedicated the following year.
About a century after the new cornerstones were placed, Temple Square looked much like it does now. Construction crews dug all around the temple in preparation for a new annex and the additions built in the 1960s.
Reinforcing the foundation
As Kirby points out, some of the historic foundation is now exposed as crews work to reinforce it.
"It strengthens the perspective of what a sacrifice it was to lay this foundation for future generations of the church," he said. "It’s awe-inspiring to me."
Crews excavated 40 to 60 feet around the temple building. Large pillars were installed near the foundation to ensure the material doesn’t flow out from underneath the foundation that would create cracking or settlement, said Scott Chambers, vice president of Malcolm Drilling.
Workers then started drilling holes into the foundation as they worked to add to it.
That sets up the installation of 98 large base isolators underneath the foundation. Church officials explained that the isolators, which separately can withstand 9 million pounds of pressure, will be able to support nearly five times the weight of the temple during a large earthquake.
"The dished plate would actually allow it to just kind of float and just slow the building down as it starts to come back down and settle down," said Brandon Rowley, superintendent for the base system isolation system. "If any building in the valley is worthy of going to this extent, this is the one."
Other project updates
Construction is a lot more visible now than it was at the beginning of the renovation project. People can view the work through fence windows installed at Temple Square. While many objects were removed from the north and south sides of the temple, one item wasn’t.
The eight-decade-old Cedar of Lebanon tree positioned southeast of the building was not touched. In fact, workers made sure to protect its root system in order to preserve it.
"There are very few projects like this in the world and it takes a lot of expertise and a lot of planning," Chambers said. "It’s just been so neat to be a part of."
Of course, there’s plenty that’s changed outside of the construction zone, as well. The COVID-19 pandemic reached Utah in March. The coronavirus hasn’t stopped construction because it was deemed essential by the state.
Spencer Loveless, a project manager for Jacobsen Construction, said the pandemic led to adjustments in how close people work in proximity with each other.
Just two weeks after Gov. Gary Herbert issued a state of emergency for COVID-19, a 5.7-magnitude earthquake rattled the Wasatch Front and damaged the temple on March 18. That stopped construction for safety assessments that halted work for about a week. Crews continued past both hurdles, though.
A spokesperson for the church told KSL.com that neither obstacle has changed the pace of the project. The temple is still slated to reopen in 2024.
Temple Square lights update
As crews work to shore up its foundation, work is also underway to continue a beloved holiday tradition at Temple Square. Grounds crew already began installing Christmas lights in areas unimpacted by construction, church officials said.
This year will likely be different, not only because of construction but also the COVID-19 pandemic. A church spokesperson said logistics to factor in coronavirus concerns and local health guidelines this year are still being worked out.
Decisions about in which areas lights will be turned on, when they will be turned on and how they plan to allow visitors to access Temple Square are all expected to be announced later this year.