KENSINGTON, Md. — The last time the doors to the Washington D.C. Temple opened to the public, U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller was among the 758,322 people who poured in to take a look, setting a record for a temple open house for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Now, 46 years later, the church will throw open the doors again next fall to immense anticipation, and the since-broken record could return to the nation’s capital.
After a renovation that will have lasted 30 months, the memorable six-spired beacon towering over the Capital Beltway will open for tours from Sept. 24 through Oct. 31 before it is rededicated on Dec. 13 and once more closed to the public for decades, said Aaron Sherinian, of the church’s local public affairs committee.
He announced the dates during a news conference on Thursday morning at the visitors’ center on the temple grounds in Kensington, Maryland.
“D.C. is a city that plans months in advance, and we wanted to announce the dates now so people could plan ahead,” he said. “We want to ensure that everyone in the area knows the doors are opening, and we know there are a lot of people who’ve always waited for this moment.”
Free tickets to the open house will be distributed through a website. Details will be announced in the summer.
The Washington D.C. Temple closed in March 2018 for renovation. Church officials said they are upgrading its mechanical systems. Workers also are refreshing the temple’s finishes and furnishings, according to a news release.
For example, one image among the renderings and photos released thrilled church members. New lighting has been placed on the stained glass behind the temple’s recommend desk, revealing that it depicts the Tree of Life from the Book of Mormon.
The temple is a cultural icon and landmark in the Greater Washington Area, said Kevin Lewis, a reporter for WJLA-TV. People here joke that is the Emerald City because of the way the white Alabama marble shines majestically above I-495 each night.
The temple is the tallest in the church at 288 feet. It has seven floors and is topped by the statue of the trumpet-blowing Angel Moroni on one of six spires.
“When you make the turn westbound on the Beltway, it’s beautifully positioned,” Lewis said.
The church bought 52 acres atop the highest point in Montgomery County in 1962 for more than $800,000, according to a history about the church in the area from 1839-1991. Leaders broke ground for the temple in 1968.
Church leaders hosted a special open house for dignitaries across several days in September 1974. More than 100 members of Congress attended, as did several members of President Gerald R. Ford’s Cabinet and the U.S. Supreme Court. So did the first lady Betty Ford.
Similar tours for dignitaries will be conducted this fall from Sept. 16-23.
President Ford and his wife attended a sold-out concert by the church’s world-famous Tabernacle Choir at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts held as part of the 1974 open house, the Ensign reported. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger of the Supreme Court also was there.
The church scheduled four weeks for the general public open house in 1974. The doors initially were opened from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Demand was so high that leaders extended the hours, opening the temple from 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Then they added two more weeks, and another 216,000 people toured the building. Finally, they tacked on yet another five days, taking the open house into November.
More than 100 reporters and photographers attended what then was the largest church press conference ever, according to the Ensign. Church leaders dedicated the temple in November 1974. Afterward, only church members found worthy to enter could do so.
Lewis, the WJLA-TV news reporter, said Thursday’s news conference was enlightening.
“I think the community will find this story interesting,” he said. “I don’t think I was curious about what it looked like on the inside, but I am now. I think this will spark more curiosity.”
Reporters. will be the first to tour the temple on Sept. 15.
“I certainly will plan on being back here for that,” Lewis said.
When it first opened, the Washington D.C. Temple changed the church in tangible ways.
It was the faith’s 16th temple. A dozen of the other 15 temples were in the American and Canadian West and Hawaii. The other three were in England, Switzerland and New Zealand.
Up until 1974, then, members who lived in eastern North America or anywhere in South America traveled either to Utah or Arizona to take part in temple ordinances considered crucial to eternal salvation under Latter-day Saint doctrine.
Temples differ from the thousands of meetinghouses where weekly church services are held. Members visit temples to participate in special ordinances. For example, they make covenants with God during the endowment, which is a course of instruction and ordinances. They also may perform a proxy baptism on behalf of a dead ancestor.
Temples are also critical because they are where a husband and wife may be sealed together with their children, starting an eternal family.
The Washington D.C. Temple originally served all Canadians and Americans from the Mississippi River to the East Coast and all members in the Caribbean, too. In fact, since travel to Washington often was less expensive than a trip to Utah for people in South America, the D.C. Temple served many from that continent for four years until a temple opened in Brazil.
Today, the temple serves Latter-day Saints in Washington, D.C., Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland. While the temple has been closed, church members have traveled to Philadelphia, North Carolina and New York to receive and perform the ordinances.
The church now has 168 operating temples. Leaders have announced plans for 49 more, most of them outside the United States. However, one will be built in Richmond, Virginia.
The church’s history with the nation’s capital began in 1839 when Joseph Smith and another leader visited with America’s political leaders to seek a remedy to atrocities committed against the Latter-day Saints in Missouri. They left without satisfaction.
Today, church members work throughout the U.S. government. Last month, one told the Church News that his coworkers in the State Department regularly ask when they can get tickets to the open house. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has accepted an invitation.
The Washington D.C. Temple is the third-largest in the church at 160,000 square feet. Only Salt Lake (253,000 square feet) and Los Angeles (190,614 square feet) are larger. It cost approximately $15 million to build, according to a November 1974 Church News article.
At 86 acres, only the Hamilton New Zealand Temple has larger grounds. The church developed 11 acres of the 52-acre D.C. site. The rest of the land maintains the wooded feel of nearby Rock Creek Park.
The church’s Bountiful Utah Temple drew 870,000 people to an open house when it was built in 1994. More than 800,000 people toured the Provo City Center Temple in Utah after fire gutted the former Provo Tabernacle and the church rebuilt it as a temple.
Church officials declined to predict how many will attend the Washington D.C. Temple open house in the fall. They did say they are ready to accommodate 750,000 or more.
“We can handle as many as can come,” Sherinian said.
Church members who have been in the temple before won’t notice the new plumbing, electrical or mechanical upgrades. They will find new carpet, fresh paint, new wall coverings, some new furnishings, and a new elevator and stairway added on the south end for access to the baptistry, said Brent Roberts, managing director of special projects for the church. Two small sealing rooms have been combined to create a medium-sized one, too.