The Separation of Church and Building Codes

Rendering for the new MTC building courtesy The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, via the Salt Lake Tribune.

The LDS Church is attempting to build a nine-story building in the Provo Missionary Training Center, and some neighbors are concerned about the building’s height. The story should not be newsworthy—as I have learned in my Boston Architecture class this summer, some neighbors almost always oppose the height of new buildings—but recently the Church used its ecclesiastical authority to help minimize the opposition, and that has made this an important story to follow.

The MTC is part of BYU campus and sits on the lower slope of temple hill, a beautifully landscaped hill topped with the Mormon temple and with sweeping views of Utah Valley. When the MTC was built in the 70’s, Church leaders promised the neighborhood that no building would exceed 4 stories, thus maintaining the scenic area.

Inside the MTC, there is always a brick wall in front of you.

Having trained at the MTC, I can vouch that its unique design minimizes its impact on the neighborhood. I actually hated how isolated the MTC makes you feel from the rest of the world. It is surrounded by a big brick wall, and despite beautiful landscaping, the campus feels like a military bunker. The buildings are strategically staggered to keep all views inward—even the way the walkways are covered seems to keep your eyes inside the walls. When I lived in Provo, I hardly noticed the MTC, and when I lived at the MTC, I hardly noticed Provo.

The new building would be in some ways a welcome break from the MTC canopy, offering views of the valley beyond, but that means neighbors, for the first time, will have a view of the MTC. In response, neighborhood chairman, R. Paul Evans, led opposition to the project for four months by collecting signatures and voting against the proposals at zoning meetings.

Then steps in the LDS Church. The Salt Lake Tribune reports: “On Monday June 25, 2012, I received an invitation from a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints ecclesiastical leader relayed from a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, the second-highest governing body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints,” Evans wrote. “The invitation was to support the decision of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to build a nine story building at the Provo Missionary Training Center. I accept the invitation.”

The following Sunday that same invitation, offered in the form of a letter read from the pulpit during Church services, was extended to the entire neighborhood. Evans has decided not to submit the signatures he had gathered because so many Mormon congregants have withdrawn their complaints in order to follow their leaders, whom they sustain as prophets. Failure to support the general authorities of the church can lead to church discipline, and may bar an otherwise active Mormon from entering LDS temples.

Map of the MTC shows how buildings and walkways are staggered.

This is certainly not the first experience the Church has had with building height restrictions. I just finished a research project on the Boston Temple, which also faced opposition on account of its height. When the town of Belmont approved the building, neighbors sued, ultimately taking their petition to the state supreme court. The temple had been approved because state law exempted religions from height restrictions when the height was necessary for their worship. The state’s highest court ruled, “A rose window at Notre Dame Cathedral, a balcony at St. Peter’s Basilica, are judges to decide whether these architectural elements are ‘necessary’ to the faith served by those buildings? … It is not for judges to determine whether the inclusion of a particular architectural feature is ‘necessary’ for a particular religion.”

There are some key differences between the MTC building and the Boston Temple, however. Unlike the temple, the MTC building will not be used for worship. This is why when it was first proposed, church leaders said it was a secular issue, not a religious issue.

Secondly, the Boston Temple was built in Belmont, Mass, where its neighbors were largely not LDS. That meant the Church had to gently persuade them, which it did (or at least attempted to do). This lead to major concessions that ultimately enhanced the temple. The Church redesigned the building to make it more beautiful and appropriate for the location. In Provo, where most of the population is LDS and wants to support their leaders, the Church was able to strong-arm them into compliance without an extended dialouge.

Utah has long struggled with the separation of church and state. As a territory, it was governed by Brigham Young who theocratically integrated secular and religious building projects from Canada to Mexico. Over the years, the Church has contributed significantly to Utah’s urbanscape and economy, including the newly opened city creek center in downtown Salt Lake. While the state has undoubtedly benefited from these beautification projects, they have also blurred the boundaries between public space and church-controlled space.

I am interested in how the Church moves forward. Opposition to buildings—even good buildings—can be a good thing. It forces organizations to compromise and to improve building plans. In the case of the Boston Temple, the opposition made the building much more beautiful now than it would have been if it had been built as it was originally proposed. I hope that by sweeping aside their concerns, the LDS Church hasn’t missed an opportunity to improve the MTC in a way that benefits both the training center and the neighborhood.


One thought on “The Separation of Church and Building Codes

  1. Great post. I really liked how you laid out your points, how you did it without animosity and how you showed how easily potential changes could be made to the MTC building. I find it a little sad that promises not to exceed four stories for future buildings in the MTC complex are not being honored- that gives me concern. Still, I really learned a lot from your post. Thank you for taking the time to write it so thoughtfully.Happy day!

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