Build it, and they will come
By John Miller
By John Miller
REXBURG, Idaho — After selling houses in this Mormon university town in eastern Idaho for two decades, Ted Whyte knows what some customers want: A home near the new Mormon temple. If only he could use that in his ads.
"We'd love to, but we can't use that phraseology," said Whyte, who like 92 percent of Rexburg's 31,000 residents is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "The Federal Fair Housing Act kicks in and calls it discriminatory."
Call it the "temple effect" — towering structures like the one to be completed in Rexburg in February, or another scheduled to be finished in mid-2008 in Twin Falls 190 miles away, produce economic ripples.
Home prices in surrounding subdivisions escalate. Motels hawk rooms with temple views. Devout retirees relocate.
Unlike Mormon chapels where anybody can enter, temples are places where even LDS members must be in good standing with church leadership to get inside. Once there, they baptize the dead by proxy, marry for eternity and make sacred covenants with God — all beneath golden spires topped with Moroni, the angel that Mormons believe delivered the golden plates that form their gospel's foundation.
"It is always a constant reminder, when you see it sitting there and the beauty of it, of what I'm supposed to be doing," said Georgia Brown, a Twin Falls resident who says even her town's non-Mormons have taken notice of the new temple. "A friend asked me, 'Did you know our Moroni is bigger than the Boise Moroni?' Even for her, it's 'our' temple."
As the 2008 presidential run of LDS member and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's piques interest in this 177-year-old American religion, the 13-million-person church has at least 13 new temples under construction or in planning around the world, including six in Latin America where it's growing quickly. Just four are in the United States, with two in Idaho. Hawai'i has two completed temples: One on O'ahu, the other in Kona, on the Big Island.
The Rexburg temple, to be the church's 125th worldwide, is about 57,500 square feet, rising 168 feet, 8 inches to the trumpet-blowing Moroni atop its single spire. Located near 20,000-student Brigham Young University-Idaho, a Mormon-owned school, the temple's exterior includes 637 composite concrete panels mixed with sunlight-catching quartz.
Stately leaded-glass windows are ornamented with wheat designs, a nod to the region's agricultural heritage. Inside, the fixtures are art-deco, from the wall lamps to the stairway banisters. A blue-tiled baptismal font astride 12 oxen on the second floor is where Mormons induct dead relatives into the faith. Carpeted instructional rooms have colorful murals depicting elk and deer.
LDS couples will marry here in the same rooms where deceased partners are sealed together for all time. The temple culminates in the well-lighted "Celestial Room," where believers can meditate on their faith.
Early temples like Salt Lake City's, completed in 1893, were built to resemble both a house of worship and an imposing fortress against a world that persecuted founders including Joseph Smith, who was murdered by a mob in Carthage, Ill., in 1844.
For visitors arriving on Idaho's Yellowstone Highway from the north, the Rexburg temple competes with the craggy Teton Mountains for dominance of the horizon. It's at once a beacon for the faithful — and a symbol of influence.
In a community where institutions from the Boy Scouts to local sports teams are Mormon-dominated, the few members of other faiths say the temple is a lavish reminder of how predominant LDS culture is in the region, said the Rev. Donald Hammer, an Assembly of God pastor in Rexburg.
"A temple is a powerful icon for any community. That's why they build them," said Father Caleb Vogel, priest of the local 100-member Catholic congregation. "We've always been a minority. And this is affirming that."
Clark Hirschi, an LDS spokesman in Salt Lake City, said that's one reason the church holds open houses before all of their new temples are dedicated, so that even nonmembers can tour the building. Especially in LDS towns like Rexburg, Hirschi acknowledges that Mormons are trying to counter criticism they are exclusive of outsiders.
"It's one that we struggle with, and chew on, because I think there is some truth to it," he said. "But we're trying to get the word out that anybody is welcome."
At the Rexberg temple, church leaders say around 150,000 people will don protective white plastic booties for the free tours being offered through Jan. 26.
Vogel, the priest, said he was invited but won't go. Hammer plans to attend.
Once the Rexburg temple is dedicated Feb. 3, however, only LDS members who have fulfilled rigorous requirements including tithing can secure a "temple recommend" that allows them past the lobby's waiting room.
Temples haven't been greeted so warmly everywhere, especially in communities where Mormons are in the minority.
In Catholic Boston, for instance, the $30 million temple of white granite in the upscale Belmont neighborhood where Romney is a church leader was targeted by lawsuits. Dedicated in 2000, the building's 81-foot steeple was added only later when the church fended off a Supreme Court of Massachusetts challenge.
In communities like Rexburg, Twin Falls and Idaho Falls, where there has been a temple since 1945, opposition is rare.
At least one Idaho Falls hotel, the LeRitz, lures guests by advertising rooms overlooking the temple.
And land near temples can be such a hot commodity that church leaders in Salt Lake City carefully safeguard their future plans, to prevent unfair property speculation, Hirschi said.
Ken Edmunds, an LDS member and developer of a 49-unit subdivision near Twin Falls' new temple, paid a premium for his land, figuring its location would make it easier to sell homes priced up to $900,000 even if the market slumps.
Just to be sure, he named the neighborhood after a Mormon magazine, the "Ensign."
"The name is readily identifiable to those within the church, and those outside don't seem to care," Edmunds said. "In my mind, it was an economic cycle-proof development. And that was proven out."
Hawai'i information for this story was added by Mary Kaye Ritz of The Advertiser.
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