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It’s the start of a new era as Salt Lake Temple begins its 4-year renovation

Conference Center will play host to visitors as Temple Square south visitor center readies for demolition.

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Matt Mendoza, left, and Steve Kirkland, of Identify Signs, install a sign on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Conference Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 30, 2019, inviting guests to visit.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The line outside the Salt Lake Temple began to form at 4 a.m. on Saturday as eager members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sought to take part in the last ordinances to be performed in the temple until 2024.

When the day ended after a final “spiritually serene” session, the church’s Temple Department began to prepare the temple’s most sacred items for removal. On Monday morning, the temple — symbolic center of the faith — was decommissioned for four years of renovation.

The effort began Monday as workers removed sacred emblems and the temple president was released and left for the final time. Construction fencing is expected to appear any day now and the first demolition is expected in mid-January with the south visitors’ center and portions of the wall that surrounds Temple Square. Excavation is expected to begin at that time for the seismic work under the temple.

Also Monday, workers began to change the face of the church’s Salt Lake City Conference Center, directly across from Temple Square. On Wednesday, it will become the largest visitors’ center in the church.

Matt Mendoza and Steve Kirkland of Identity Signs used heat guns and rollers to apply new vinyl adhesive banners in frigid air to the rough stone sides of the Conference Center. The signs declared, “Come on in, stay awhile” and “The Temple Square Experience.”

Minutes after they finished their work Monday — they will add more banners throughout the week — as darkness fell, President Jack Wixom packed his last belongings in his car, said his last farewells after he was released from his calling as temple president and drove away with his wife, the temple matron, Sister Rosemary M. Wixom, the church’s former general Primary president.

“We feel the deepest gratitude to the Lord and to the opportunity given us,” he said. “We’re very excited about what needs to happen. The building is very tired. We’ve seen the plans and we’re excited that it is going to strengthened, renewed and renovated.”

He called it “glorious” to watch church members come from all over the world in the final months, weeks and days to revisit the temple. Sister Wixom said those members “were savoring it.”

“I think people came back to be back in the temple again and see the sealing room where they were married or to feel that feeling of family or unity that they had here in the past,” she said.

President Russell M. Nelson, who is considered a prophet by the faith’s 16 million members, announced the temple’s closure in April and said it will reopen sometime in 2024.

“We promise that you will love the results,” he said.

“We’re grateful for a prophet and his vision for the Salt Lake Temple and the energy he has given this renovation,” Sister Wixom said Monday. “For our children and grandchildren and the generations to come, this temple will remain an icon of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

In the meantime, the Conference Center’s roof will become the place where visitors can get some of the best views into the work site.

Starting New Year’s Day, the Conference Center will be home to several new exhibits as part of the temple renovation:

  • A new 8-foot version of the Christus statue is already on display in the Conference Center.
  • An auditorium experience will allow visitors to see, hear and feel what it is like to attend a general conference session or performance of the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square in the Conference Center, with its 21,000 seats and 7,708 organ pipes.
  • The cutaway model of the Salt Lake Temple that was still in the South Visitors’ Center on Temple Square on Monday will move by Wednesday to what has been a hall of the prophets in the Conference Center, where it will be surrounded by touch screens with more information about the temple. The busts of the prophets of the church have been moved a few yards away to a west window on the same floor of the Conference Center. The South Visitors’ Center will be demolished beginning in mid-January.
  • An orientation film called “Why Temples Matter” will run in the Conference Center Theater. The 17-minute film includes interviews with Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Bishop Dean M. Davies of the Presiding Bishopric; church historians Emily Utt and Jacob Olmstead; Andy Kirby, director of historic temple renovations; temple engineer Brent Maxfield; and Bill Williams, director of Temple Design.

The film portrays the original construction of the Salt Lake Temple, said Tanner Kay, the Temple Square guest experience manager.

“It shows the dedication of those who sacrificed to build this temple of God,” he said. “It changed the way I view the temple. It feels more sacred to me now. I understand better why it is at the center of Salt Lake City.”

He said the film includes rare footage of the original construction as well as renderings of what the renovation may look like.

“As the renovation begins, we can experience the story of the historic construction in a better light than ever before,” Kay added. “We can also learn about the amazing engineering designed to help protect the temple from earthquakes.”

The new banners on the outside walls and columns of the Conference Center will be removed during each of the church’s semiannual general conferences during the four-year renovation period, said Kirkland, one of the workers from Identity Signs.

The congregations assigned to the Salt Lake Temple district have been reassigned to four nearby temples — Bountiful, Jordan River, Draper and Oquirrh Mountain.

Volunteer temple workers were sad over the temple’s closing, President Wixom said, but worked tirelessly through the final weeks and days to squeeze in extra temple sessions so more church members could attend.

“The closing of the Salt Lake Temple was spiritually serene,” Sister Wixom said. “That last session, there was such a spirit there. It was tender.”