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Why the latest Mormon temple design features a dome, not a steeple

SHARE Why the latest Mormon temple design features a dome, not a steeple

TUCSON, Arizona — The newest of the LDS Church’s temples, the Tucson Arizona Temple, has its own new-look element.

There is no steeple, no spire nor no towers typical to other Mormon temples. But that's not new — as evidenced by several similar LDS edifices in France, Canada, Hawaii and even in Arizona itself.

No, Tucson's has a dome — essentially a first for a temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In a word, the temple and its dome simply "fits" — fits because it borrows from and blends with not only Tucson’s own traditions but a taste of Italy’s Tuscany region. And it fits with local zoning allowances as well.

Currently in open-house mode through June 24, the 38,200-square-foot edifice — to be the LDS Church's 157th operating temple — is scheduled to be dedicated on Aug. 13. Originally announced in October 2012 with its groundbreaking in October 2015, the temple was designed by FFKR Architects, with Big D Construction the contractor.

The Tucson Arizona temple sits on a seven-acre site at the base of the Catalina Mountains in Pima County, just beyond the city's northern boundaries. As such, it falls under zoning ordinances and codes of Pima County, rather than of Tucson proper.

And while a dome may be a new feature to an LDS temple, it certainly isn’t new to the region.

“It fit perfectly in the constraints of what had been established for the county here,” said Elder Larry Y. Wilson, a General Authority Seventy with the LDS Church and executive director of the church’s Temple Department. “It enabled us to do something that didn’t require obtaining a variance and captured beautifully the architectural character of the Tucson area.”

When the church plans a new temple, architects visit the area to look at the geography, the environment and the notable visuals elements in the community, in order to design a temple that is compatible with and representative of the region.

“The Tucson community has some beautiful domed buildings in it,” Elder Wilson said. “They were looked at as architectural precedents, if you will, for the design of the Tucson temple.

The prominent domes specifically considered were the ones at the Mission San Xavier del Bac, located 10 miles south of Tucson, and the old, historic Pima County courthouse, situated in downtown Tucson.

With its exterior of volcanic rock, fired adobe brick and lime mortar covered with white stucco, the Mission San Xavier del Bac church is often called “the White Dove of the Desert.” Directed by Franciscan priests, the construction covered nearly two decades, from 1783 to 1797 and features Moorish, Byzantine and Baroque styles for one of the region’s best examples of Spanish Colonial mission architecture.

Prominent are the twin bell towers on the mission church’s front side to the south, with the dome — reaching more than 50 feet from off the ground — to the north.

The Pima County courthouse was designed by architect Roy Place in the Spanish eclectic revival movement of the era. It was finished in 1929 and added to the National Register of Historic Places five decades later.

Adorning the pink-stucco building was a 23-foot-diameter dome, the exterior featuring a zigzag Art Deco design of glazed tiles in blue, yellow and green. The mosaic-tiled dome long served as one of Pima County’s iconic images, including being featured in the past as part of the official county logos.

With county operations since moved elsewhere, the old courthouse is undergoing a $25 million renovation, with plans to have it host a regional travel center.

Both the Mission San Xavier and Pima County courthouse domes are more semi-circular in shape, but the architects and LDS Church officials looked to pattern the temple’s proposed dome to that of a world-famous one — the Il Duomo de Firenze (the Dome of Florence), of that city’s Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral.

And so, the move to a more elongated dome like the Duomo, with its octagonal shape and pronounced ribbing, was a conscious decision, Elder Wilson said.

“We added a little bit of height to the dome in order to make it look more like an ecclesiastic building,” he said. “It was in part drawn from the Duomo in Florence, Italy, which is such an iconic building. And I think this is going to be an iconic building in the Tucson area, in part because of the beautiful dome on it.”

Besides asthetic reasons, zoning allowances played a key role in the development of the Tucson Arizona Temple's dome.

Initial considerations for the temple followed patterns from previous LDS temples — something along the lines of two above-ground levels, and a steeple reaching 90-plus feet high. But early in the process, church officials and architects learned of limitations of Pima County’s zoning code, with the temple site already zoned to allow religious buildings.

That zone code limits a religious building to a maximum of 44 feet, not including a cupola or dome.

("Dome" and "cupola" are often used interchangeably, although the Encyclopedia Britannica defines cupola as "in architecture, small dome, often resembling an overturned cup, placed on a circular, polygonal, or square base or on small pillars or a glassed-in lantern. It is used to crown a turret, roof, or larger dome. The inner vault of a dome is also a cupola.")

A spire or steeple for the Tucson temple would have resulted in the church needing to seek a variance with the county’s Board of Adjustments and a subsequent public hearing.

County officials encouraged the LDS Church and its architects to stay within the prescribed limitations and work closely with neighbors in the planning process.

Plans were drawn and submitted in 2013 for the temple with the one level beneath the ground and the other above, and with its highest platform under the dome to come in just under 44 feet. The dome then adds an additional 27 feet, not including the Angel Moroni statue atop.

One variance was needed for the Tucson Arizona Temple — but that was for a stretch of fencing on the property, not with the building itself.

The result is a first-ever dome on an LDS temple — unless one counts the small cupola atop the steeple of the Newport Beach California Temple, also based on a mission-style design.

In the end, did a first-ever dome on an LDS Church temple create any pause among church leaders?

“I’m sure there were probably some questions about it, but it fits so beautifully with this particular part of the Southwest environment and the architectural legacy that’s here,” said Elder Wilson. “I remember when I saw it for the first time — my immediate reaction was, “Perfect! What a great choice for the design of the Tucson temple.”