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ChurchBeat: Extensive underground renovations recall Salt Lake Temple’s history

Fourteen years after the groundbreaking for the Salt Lake Temple, no work had been done above ground level

Renovation continues on the Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City on Saturday Oct 17, 2020.
Renovation continues on the Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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It all began with a divot.

Two days after the pioneers reached the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, Brigham Young struck his cane into the dirt where he declared they would build a temple. Wilford Woodruff marked the spot by pounding a stick into it with a rock, according to “Forty Years: The Saga of Building the Salt Lake Temple.”

Two full decades later, in 1867, the height of the Salt Lake Temple was still exactly zero feet.

By then, 14 years after the groundbreaking, all the work had been done below ground. Workers had excavated thousands of tons of dirt and wrestled a similar number of tons of sandstone and granite down from the mountains and into the foundations.

The temple continued to rise slowly.

By 1875, the walls were still only 18 feet high.

They reached 60 feet in 1880.

By 1889, the year the Eiffel Tower opened, the walls towered 160 feet above ground.

The final height of the walls was 167 feet, but the temple reaches nearly 223 feet with its towers and spires and the Angel Moroni statue.

Earlier this month, crews working on the temple’s renovation were back below the earth’s surface, pouring concrete around the underground base of a crane — how firm a foundation, indeed — that now extends higher than the temple towers’ tallest point. With the spires and statue temporarily removed, that point is about 70 yards above ground — the distance of several of Zach Wilson’s touchdown passes to Dax Milne this fall for BYU’s undefeated football team.

Workers pour concrete to stabilize the base for a crane taller than the highest point on the Salt Lake Temple, where it is being used during the renovation of the historic temple in October 2020.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The four-year renovation, now finishing its 10th month, is designed to protect an international landmark. Temple Square draws 5 million visitors a year, including daily tourist groups from around the world, and has been part of worldwide marketing campaigns aimed at bringing tourists to the United States.

“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,” Elder Dean M. Davies said last year, when he was first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The crane and its concrete base are temporary additions on the south side of the temple. The crane soon will be used to assemble scaffolding for stone repair work, according to templesquare.org. It also will assist in replacing the temple’s roof.

But much more underground work lies ahead. On Oct. 6, a backhoe knocked down the walls of exposed underground areas to clear room for the chief purpose of the renovation, which is to install a seismic upgrade and shore up the foundation to stabilize the temple for generations to come, according to President Russell M. Nelson.

The seismic upgrade requires excavation to between 40 and 60 feet below ground, which is underway on the temple’s north side, where a smaller tower crane will be installed. Crews continue to place steel and concrete pillars called soldier piles deep underground to support a retaining wall for the work.

All the underground work is intended to help fulfill President Young’s bold statement in 1862, when he ordered 16-foot-thick footings of granite for the foundation.

“I want to see the Temple built in a manner that it will endure through the Millennium,” he said.

He didn’t mean the year 2000. He was referring to the 1,000 years after Christ’s Second Coming.

That goal was reiterated in the spring of 1993 in a First Presidency message written by President Gordon B. Hinckley for the 100th anniversary of the temple’s dedication:

“May it stand, as it was built to stand, through the Millennium yet to come and serve the needs of our Father’s children, those in this life and those beyond.”

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