Like detectives working a major crime scene, they're piecing all the bits of evidence together, sorting through mountains of paperwork and rubble in search of the tiniest clues.
And in the process, the architects, sculptors and engineers charged with reconstructing the Nauvoo LDS Temple are rediscovering much about the dedication of their pioneer forefathers — and their own determination to restore a rich legacy of faith and 19th century craftsmanship.
The challenge is as daunting as it is unusual.
Robert Dewey, former construction manager for the Nauvoo Temple, said when LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley announced in April 1999 that the temple would be rebuilt, "the temple construction department had already
prepared some preliminary drawings showing how it could be restored to function like a modern-day temple, but we didn't know we were going to get serious about it until he announced it."
At that point, there were no solid plans, leaving those charged with rebuilding it in a quandary about how they would restore the temple as it was originally. Dewey said they quickly assembled a committee of church members with historical interest and background on the temple to provide suggestions.
"Then we had people calling us with little bits of information, coming up with books now out of print" that provided clues. The accounts by researchers like Don Colvin, who did his master's thesis on the temple, were combined with journal accounts written by the builders themselves, describing what they experienced.
"Once we had that assembled, we started putting the puzzle together," Dewey said.
Using bits and pieces of evidence gleaned from hundreds of journal accounts, diaries, letters, archaeological excavations and even a construction materials roster kept by the original builders, architect Roger Jackson, a principal at FFKR Architects in Salt Lake City, has spent the past eight months deeply immersed in research on how to re-create details of a building that was rarely photographed.
"There is no known photograph on one whole side of the temple," Dewey explained, "and the available photos show only the building's exterior."
Even so, Jackson said the photos that do exist have been invaluable. With vastly enlarged copies of the originals, Jackson and his team are using computer imaging to sketch out intricate architectural plans for 21st century accouterments that weren't even thought of in the 1840s: lighting plans, plumbing fixtures, electrical circuitry, electronic audio and video capacity, heating and cooling.
There were some descriptions of the interior of the building, Jackson says. "As much as we can tell, the inside was very much like" the first temple constructed by Latter-day Saints under the direction of church founder Joseph Smith in Kirtland, Ohio.
Miraculously, Jackson does have the original architectural drawings done by William Weeks.
Dewey said the drawings were retrieved for the church in 1948, when two missionaries knocked at the door of a man who turned out to be the grandson of William Weeks. When he showed them the drawings and offered them, "the missionaries knew what they had, and they (the plans) wound up in the church archives."
As Jackson and his team of 14 work feverishly to finish the plans and drawings, construction is already under way in Nauvoo, making the temple a unique "design-build" project — where builders begin before the plans are entirely finished — in some ways similar to Utah's own reconstruction of I-15, he said.
While builders plan to reconstruct the temple as much like the original as possible, they are using modern methods and reinforced concrete to make it earthquake and water resistant.
Ron Prince, construction project manager in Nauvoo, said the temple is resting on 67 concrete and steel caissons. Placed at various depths, they range from 2 to 5 feet in diameter and are placed anywhere from 10 to 26 feet deep to rest on limestone bedrock.
Originally constructed entirely of limestone, the walls for the new temple will also be of reinforced steel with a thick limestone veneer. Because limestone from the original quarry is not available, Prince has been visiting quarries all over the Midwest and into the Great Lakes region to find stone of the same color, quality and texture as the original.
Several stone cutters will also be employed fashioning not only the limestone blocks but the same sun-, moon- and star-stones that graced the original temple's exterior.
The unique carvings were one feature that set the building apart from contemporaries of its day and have become a source of fascination for many who know something of the temple, its history and symbolism. Yet for all their mystique, they, too, have had to be reconstructed in exacting detail. They were among the first of the original temple's components to be dismantled and either carried away or defaced and destroyed by vandals, according to researchers who have studied the building's history.
Sculptor and design artist LaVar Wallgren and his partner, James Dell Morris, have researched both the exterior stones and the oxen that support the temple's baptismal font to create patterns of the originals that will be used by the stone-carving craftsmen.
The moon stone and star stone were easier to create patterns for because the remains of the originals were mostly intact. The sunstones and the oxen have presented a greater challenge, Wallgren said. Two original sunstones have survived, one of them housed in the Smithsonian, but both have been substantially damaged.
"The church museum had some segments of the stone, and we had photos to work from, but there was no common denominator between the different stones and the different information we had. It was very difficult to use some of the information because it didn't correspond with some of the actual stone fragments." Sized to scale and made of fiberglass, the patterns for the exterior stones will soon be crated and shipped to the selected stone quarry. "They'll put them in a big machine and laser scan them to where over 60 percent of the stone can be removed by machine. Then the stone carvers will come in and finish them," Wallgren said.
The pattern for the oxen is still being refined, he said. It was constructed using only four small fragments of stone from the original oxen, coupled with written accounts of what they looked like and enhanced using diagrams of muscle structure and a plethora of photos taken of two bullock oxen at This Is The Place State Park.
When finished, Wallgren said, the 12 oxen will be placed around the oval-shaped baptismal font 18.5 feet long and 12.5 feet wide, to be located in the basement of the structure on the original site.
While the font's placement and other major structural components, such as the circular staircase, are part of the original architectural plans, reconstructing other interior components has posed major challenges, in part because so little is known about the furnishings or interior decor of the building.
Newspaper accounts from the mid-1800s describing the building were detailed, but conflicting reports have provided more questions than answers in some cases, Jackson said.
Another part of the challenge is that the original builders — all relatively new converts with little material wealth — purchased building supplies piecemeal, as they could raise the money to do so. "Window glass, nails and iron pieces were all purchased as they progressed in building, and we have a very careful record of those."
But large items seem to be omitted from the record, Jackson said. "We've been looking for big things that would jump out," but so far, there haven't been any. A detailed scouring of that record and the accompanying research to find original suppliers would take more than two years to complete — time the architect just doesn't have as walls begin to take shape back in Nauvoo.
Not only are the details missing, but Jackson must now incorporate fixtures and design work into the building that weren't there originally but that would fit well within the Nauvoo period. His biggest challenge is the lighting.
"We're looking at things like light fixtures before there was (electric) light, so we're trying to find things that are close or would at least look close. They had very little light back then," and the temple requires an industry standard of lighting in addition to unique lighting levels needed for various rooms in the structure.
"Most of their meetings were held during the day in large assembly rooms with large windows," much like the Kirtland temple looks today. "We're trying to meet the modern requirements within a historically sized and scaled fixture."
Another challenge involves electrical outlets and switches, which didn't exist in the original building. Jackson said the design involves disguising outlets in the baseboards around the floor.
Plumbing and duct work are also being designed for a building that didn't have them originally. In most areas it can be hidden, he said, but some of the smaller spaces that existed in the original temple had ceilings only 8 feet high, and duct work in such areas would make them even smaller. "So we have to shoehorn all that in."
While the original had large assembly rooms with canvas dividers, the new temple must incorporate smaller ordinance rooms into the design as well. Prince said the temple's celestial room "goes up through two floors."
Other design features have been added to make the building a functioning modern temple, Jackson said, though most components will be as close to the original as possible.
Even the glass for the windows "will be the same" quality and texture as the original, Prince said. The handmade panes are coming from a company in France that's been in business for more than 300 years. "It will have a beautiful shimmering effect as the light hits it," Prince said.
While much of the material and labor going into the project are funded by the church, the reconstruction is so emotionally tied to the history of the early church that many church members have sought to donate materials and labor to the project, Prince said.
Stan and Mary Hemphill are working in Nauvoo as church service missionaries, coordinating the volunteer goods and services.
"We've had a number of volunteers . . . that have come forward from the time President Hinckley announced the building of the temple," Elder Hemphill said. "This is the first time volunteers have been used in construction of a temple since the Nauvoo temple was originally built."
Skilled craftsmen in all the major building trades are submitting rsums and offering their own time to participate in the project, he said. Each funds his own transportation, food and housing costs, in addition to a physical exam and personal insurance. The volunteers indicate the dates of their availability, and the Hemphills coordinate with the construction managers to schedule them at the appropriate times.
Steve Weber, LDS institute director in Bellevue, Wash., who has worked for 22 years as a contractor and carpenter building homes on the side, is now working as a volunteer at the temple. He left a wife and six sons behind in Seattle to spend eight weeks in Nauvoo, working on concrete pours by day and sleeping in his tent at a local RV park by night.
His enthusiasm and dedication to the work parallel that of the architects, engineers and designers as they take inspiration from the pioneers of the past in rebuilding what they consider to be a house of God.
"It hasn't been difficult to come. There have been some trials, but it's a blessing to my entire family. . . . I'm here because the Lord has blessed me with a talent, and I'm able to share it in a way that is very sacred."
Much like his pioneer forefathers who worked carving stone on the original temple, Weber said he has deep emotions about his involvement with the project. But rather than recording the day's events like they did with pen and paper, he returns each evening to a laptop computer set up inside the tent to record the day's events.
Like many of his co-workers — both employees and volunteers — Weber says the project will always be a highlight of his life. "This is very poignant and personal for me."
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