SALT LAKE CITY — When pioneer Latter-day Saint leaders asked Truman Angell to return to the job of overseeing construction of his design for the Salt Lake Temple in 1867, he wrote that he was surprised they would "sustain a poor worm of the dust like me to be Architect of the Church."
"Let me strive to serve them and not disgrace myself," he added.
More than 150 years later a new set of leaders moved Friday to protect one of Angell's Temple Square masterworks "for many generations to come" by announcing the Salt Lake Temple will close in December for a colossal four-year project to renovate and seismically strengthen the temple "for many generations to come."
The temple will be closed effective Dec. 29, said President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The work will honor Brigham Young's original vision and restore some of the original features inside and around the temple, he added during a morning news conference on Temple Square.
"We promise that you will love the results," President Nelson said.
Work will begin on Dec. 30 and include a massive excavation operation to place hundreds of seismic shock absorbers underneath the enormous temple, the most challenging and overarching part of the effort, said Brent Roberts, the church's director of special projects.
The project will include the demolition and removal of two buildings, construction of four new ones and a remake of the center square of Salt Lake City. Temple Square is an official National Historic Landmark and a tremendous tourist attraction, drawing 3 million to 5 million visitors annually, according to visitsaltlake.com.
The goal for the temple's future remains as bold as Brigham Young waving a handkerchief from a peak above the wild Salt Lake Valley and declaring it "an ensign to the nations" days after entering Salt Lake Valley in 1847.
"We want (visitors) to think of Salt Lake just as easily as they think of Jerusalem or the Vatican as a place where Christianity really has its heart," said Bishop Dean M. Davies, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric.
The temple, President Nelson said, "now stands in stately majesty as a beacon of light to all the world."
Roberts said the temple will reopen in 2024. He called the project unprecedented in scope and design.
"I've been involved in 40 construction projects, and we have had some significant ones in the past — the remodel of the Tabernacle, the Missionary Training Center — but nothing near the magnitude of what this is," he said. "This is the largest and most historic (temple project) we have ever tackled."
Only church members have been inside the Salt Lake Temple since it was dedicated in 1893, but after this renovation, a public open house will be held before the temple is rededicated, said Elder Larry Y. Wilson, executive director of the Temple Department.
Decisions are pending about when and how long the open house will last, but demand is expected to be high.
"I expect this will be the largest and most heavily attended open house in the history of the church," he told the Deseret News. "We don't yet have a time frame that has been determined for it, but I expect it will be a substantial time frame, which will allow for people from around the United States and around the world to come and enter and enjoy and experience the beautiful Salt Lake temple."
A record 750,000 people attended the open houses for the Washington, D.C. Temple in 1974 and the Provo City Center Temple in 2016. The Washington, D.C. Temple is undergoing renovations now and an open house is expected in 2021.
"I expect that we'll break some records with the Washington, D.C. Temple open house and then break those records with the Salt Lake Temple open house," Elder Wilson said.
Bishop Davies issued an early invitation to the open house.
"It will be a wonderful and unique opportunity for you and your children and your parents or grandparents to come to the open house," he said, adding "Yes, we have these wonderful models, but they do not really give a true sense of the feeling and the love of the Savior that exists within the temple."
First, there is work to be done.
"Monday morning on Dec. 30, we're going to decommission the temple," Roberts said. "So that means we go in and we take out the sacred emblems of the temple. We pull out the furniture, and we salvage and save everything that we anticipate that we will need to save. Then we begin demolition on the annex and the South Visitors' Center. We'll also begin our excavation at that time."
Meanwhile, the well-known weekly meeting of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve traditionally held in the temple will take place in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building during the closure, Elder Wilson said.
During the renovation, scaffolding and tower cranes will be in place on and around the temple, Roberts said. Workers will try to do as much concurrent work as possible, but the seismic part of the project is so intensive that there will be times it restricts all other efforts, Roberts said.
The north annex and South Visitors' Center eventually will be replaced by four new buildings — two new temple-entry pavilions and guest waiting areas on the north and two new visitor pavilions on the south.
Crews also will demolish the sealing room addition built along the north side of the temple in the 1960s and rebuild it.
Temple Square and the plaza east of it also will undergo renovations. Much of the famous wall around Temple Square will be torn down and replaced with more of the iron gates that allow passersby to see into the square.
"The plaza between State Street and the Main Street Plaza will be improved," Bishop Davies said. "The plaza and landscapes from State Street on the east to the Main Street Plaza will be repaired and refreshed with greater emphasis on the visitor experience and on the Savior."
Bishop Davies said the temple's mechanical systems also need updating.
Roberts said that a 24-hour fire prevention watch will be in place during the renovation to avoid a repeat of the renovation fire that badly damaged the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris this week.
Despite all that work, Temple Square tours will continue. The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square will continue to sing in Angell's other masterwork, but may move to the Conference Center across the street at times if construction noise is disruptive.
The famed Temple Square Christmas lights will continue to shine, at least on the west end of the square.
Built over the 40 years from 1853-93 by people President Nelson called "courageous pioneers," the Salt Lake Temple is one of four pioneer-generation temples that need updating.
"We have a sincere desire, yes, a sacred responsibility to care for them, that they may continue to serve as sacred houses of the Lord for many generations to come," he said.
Church history expert Rick Turley said Brigham Young and Latter-day Saint pioneers fully expected to build temples wherever they landed after they fled west out of the United States in 1847. Within four days after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley that summer, President Young selected the temple site, Bishop Davies said. Ground was broken in 1853 and the temple was built from quartz monzonite, commonly referred to in Utah as granite, painstakingly moved by wagon from a quarry in Little Cottonwood Canyon.
President Young worked with Angell on the project until his death in 1877. Angell died in 1887. Neither saw the project's completion. Turley pointed back to Young standing on Ensign Peak 40 years before his death.
"You get this small group that goes up on top of this little knoll," he said, "and they essentially wave a handkerchief and say, 'Hey, world, listen, we've got something big that's going to happen here.' It was an audacious, absolutely audacious kind of statement, to be followed by the construction of a temple that was meant to be a location for people from around the world to come in fulfillment of a prophecy of Isaiah."
Since its dedication on April 6, 1893, the Salt Lake Temple has been renovated multiple times. The most extensive renovation took place from 1962-66. Workers demolished an old annex, cleaned the exterior stone and replaced or upgraded mechanical, plumbing and wiring systems. No open house was held, but the temple was rededicated in May 1963, said Bishop Dean M. Davies, first counselor in the First Presidency.
Crews also constructed the sealing room addition along the north side and a new chapel. That addition was dedicated in October 1967.
President Nelson said parts of the temple and surrounding grounds will be restored to resemble original conditions that existed in 1893.
For example, murals inside the temple will be renovated or rejuvenated, said Bill Williams, director of temple design. He said many parts of the temple's interior were covered with white paint during the 1960s renovation.
"We would like to take it back to that more Victorian era that is a much more polycromatic scheme," Williams said.
The church last used quartz monzonite from the Little Cottonwood Canyon quarry for veneer work on the temple in the 1990s. Roberts said his team hasn't determined if it will need more this time around.
President Nelson signaled that renovations were ahead during general conference addresses in October and again last month, when he called pioneer-era temples "a stunning jewel in the crown of pioneer achievement."
The St. George Temple was dedicated in 1877, followed by Logan in 1884 and Manti in 1888. The Salt Lake Temple was the site of the first public open house for a Latter-day Saint temple, held on the evening before its dedication in 1893 when church leaders gave a tour to government and business leaders.
Four months ago, the church's First Presidency announced that the St. George Temple will close on Nov. 4. The renovation is scheduled for completion in 2022, after "extensive structural, mechanical, electrical, finish and plumbing work," according to a news release. The church will announce details in a May news conference, Roberts said.
The St. George Temple also underwent significant renovation and was rededicated in 1975.
Roberts said special projects team members have worked on the Manti project for years but isn't ready to announce plans. They are just beginning to study plans for Logan.
The projects will be expensive and take years, but they are worth it, leaders said.
"Temples are precious to us because in them, church members and their families participate in sacred ceremonies and ordinances that are the crowning facet of the gospel of Jesus Christ," President Nelsons said. "The highest blessings that God offers to his faithful children are available only in a temple."
The renovations include upgraded accessibility for members with limited mobility and the ability to translate ordinances into 86 languages.
During the renovation, those who regularly attend the Salt Lake Temple will be invited to visit one of the other 16 temples in Utah.