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What will visits to Temple Square be like during temple renovation? We now know

The Salt Lake Temple, which will close Dec. 29 for extensive renovations, is photographed in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019.
The Salt Lake Temple, which will close Dec. 29 for extensive renovations, is photographed in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When the Salt Lake Temple closes for a major, four-year renovation on Dec. 29, Temple Square won’t.

In fact, Temple Square will remain open 365 days a year and is expected to attract more visitors than ever before as the curious flock to watch the construction and see a new film and exhibits at the Conference Center across the street, officials for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said Wednesday.

The church also released four new renderings on Wednesday of what the temple renovation will look like when it’s done in 2024, but officials focused on the Temple Square visitor experience during a round of interviews with a large media contingent in the square’s South Visitors’ Center.

They said the Conference Center will be the hub of vibrant, new activity in a new role as a welcome and visitors center.

“It will be unique and engaging and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Tanner Kay, the Temple Square guest experience manager. “The most exciting thing to experience will be to view the temple renovation itself from the vantage point of the balcony and the roof of the Conference Center. You’ll be able to see over all the construction fences right down into the full excavation of the temple.”

Some 5 million people visit Temple Square each year, making it one of Utah’s biggest tourist attractions. The tourist buses that bring many of those visitors to the area now will arrive on the West Temple Street side of the Conference Center block.

They will find a new, 17-minute film about the original construction of the temple and its renovation. In new exhibits in the Conference Center lobbies, they will be able to touch some of the artifacts removed from the temple for the renovation and view some of the temple’s artwork.

“We’ll invite tourists to step right off their buses and off the curb and right into the Conference Center theater to view the orientation film as the way to start their visit,” Kay said. “That’s new. We’ve never had an orientation film on Temple Square before, so we are going to invite all the groups to view the film to start their visit. But guests can choose their own adventure on Temple Square.”

The artifacts and artwork in the exhibits will change and rotate throughout the four-year renovation. Also, the cutaway model of the temple will be relocated from the South Visitors’ Center to the Conference Center balcony lobby, which also will be home to a new statue of Jesus Christ.

A new audio/visual experience will help visitors to the Conference Center auditorium, which seats 21,000 people and features an organ with 7,708 pipes, feel what it’s like to attend the church’s general conference or concerts by the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.

“They can hear a message from President Russell M. Nelson and what it’s like to hear the choir sing in that space,” Kay said. “It will help them understand why we gather and how church leaders teach about Jesus Christ and understand why the temple is important to us.

“I want people to know what they took an Instagram photo of.”

Information on the exhibits will be updated on a new website, templesquare.org, and on the Temple Square Facebook page.

President Nelson announced in April that the temple would be closing for four years.

Since then, visits by church members to the temple itself have increased, said Rich Sutton, director of operations for the church’s Temple Department. The number of weddings has remained constant, because the Christmas season annually maxes out the temple’s capacity, but “other ordinances in the temple are a lot busier than in the past,” he said.

“We anticipate another upswing as we get close to the last day of operations” on Dec. 29, he added. “People want to have that connection with the temple before it closes.”

The temple should be able to accommodate members who want to participate in temple ordinances, though wait times may increase on nights and especially on Friday nights and Saturdays. Weekdays are best.

The renderings released Wednesday “indicate the careful and elegant approach we are taking in the renovation of this house of the Lord,” said Brent Roberts, managing director of the church’s special projects department.

Construction viewing areas will be available around the square, too.

“There will be multiple vistas to see what work is going on,” he said. “People will be able to see the deep excavation and the footings and foundations of the temple.”

Roberts is excited to show off the construction site with the Conference Center as a welcome and visitors center.

“It’s going to be absolutely spectacular,” he said. “You’ll have the opportunity to come down, enjoy the temple construction site, walk over and see the foundation of the temple while we’re working on it. No one’s ever had the chance to see that. To construction guys, that’s pretty exciting.”

The remodel has two main purposes.

“First of all, seismic stability in the temple concerns the First Presidency and the Brethren long term. We want to make sure that is protected and it will last,” Roberts said. “Secondly, mechanical, electrical and plumbing is 56 to 65 years old. It needs to be replaced. It needs to be updated.”

The reason the foundation and footings will be exposed is because the major part of the renovation is placing the massive, granite temple — the largest Latter-day Saint temple in the world — on a base isolation system.

“What we’re doing is separating the temple, the foundation, from the earth itself with a mobile, moving base isolation system,” Roberts said. “So we’ve got to go all the way down there. We’re going to save the old footings because they are historic. ... We will brace the temple up on the base isolators and separate it from the ground, in essence ... to allow the temple to float and move during a seismic event at a slower rate to preserve it from damage.”

Roberts said church leaders have been considering the base isolator seismic upgrade for nearly 20 years.

“We now think we have the most up-to-date, proven technology,” he said.

The renderings released Wednesday unveiled another driver in the renovation project — history.

Emily Utt, a church historian, has been working since 2011 on the Salt Lake Temple’s history. She is part of a committee that is working to use the renovation as an opportunity to return the temple closer to its original state.

She has studied hundreds of architectural drawings, layers of paint, the insides of walls, the murals and more.

“We want this building to be safe and functional for the next 100 years, but we also want this building to be beautiful for the next 100 years,” she said. “And because this building is so iconic and so important to the church, we want to honor those who did the original construction. Preserving the building is the very best way we can make this building safe and honor those who came before.

“We hope at the end of this project that if original craftsmen walked through, they would recognize it as their building and say, ‘Oh, I painted that’ or ‘Oh, I put that millwork in.’”