Memorials to the Prophet

The Former and the New Joseph Smith Buildings

Richard O. Cowan

Richard O. Cowan, “Memorials to the Prophet: The Former and the New Joseph Smith Buildings,” in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993), xli-l.

Richard O. Cowan was professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University when this was published.

As part of the Joseph Smith Symposium held 22 February 1992 in the newly dedicated Joseph Smith Memorial Building, Richard O. Cowan, professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU, presented the following paper on the old and the new Joseph Smith Memorial Buildings. But as it is a report about the history of the buildings, we decided to place it immediately after the dedication matters. It will be followed by selected symposium papers about Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man.

During the early 1920s, the whole BYU student body could still be seated in the 500-seat College Hall on lower campus with room to spare. By the 1930s, however, enrollment passed the 1,500 mark. Hence, only a third of the students could be accommodated at the regular devotional assemblies, which were such a unique and special feature of Brigham Young University. To remedy this problem, the General Church Board of Education in 1937 approved “a new building to provide for Chapel Assemblies and the Social needs of the students” on the BYU campus (Minutes, 9 Jun 1937). The site chosen for the new structure was BYU’s athletic field on the upper campus just east of the recently enlarged Brimhall Building.

Planning and Construction

To help plan the new building, Church Commissioner of Education Franklin L. West turned to J. Wyley Sessions for advice. Sessions had created the Church’s first Institute of Religion in 1926 at the University of Idaho, and in the following years, the Church organized similar institute programs at other major universities in the western United States, constructing attractive buildings which provided facilities for the students’ religious education as well as spiritual and social activities. Sessions had personally directed the establishment of some of these new institutes and served as a consultant on the design and furnishing of others. Because of this experience, West assigned him to plan another institute building to serve from 3,500–4,000 students. Sessions did not know where the new large institute was to be built, but supposed it was for the University of Utah; it was not until he came to BYU in 1939 that he learned the structure would be on the Provo campus.

Sessions was not the only one who was surprised to be working for BYU. At about 8:30 a.m., 19 April 1939, Fred L. Markham, a graduate of BYU and a Provo architect who was trained at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was asked to meet Arthur Price, a Church architect, in Salt Lake City later that morning. At that meeting, he was invited to prepare sketches for the new religious center which the Board wanted to review at their meeting in just two days. That afternoon Markham received Sessions’ recommendations on what ought to be in the new building, and the following day he created a basic plan and, later that evening, prepared the requested sketches. By Friday, these sketches were approved, and Markham was appointed to be the architect for the new structure.

Working closely with a faculty committee, Markham completed his plans for the new “chapel and religious education center” in which some 2,400 persons would be able to attend devotional assemblies and other important meetings—1,200 in the main body of the auditorium, 400 on the large stage, 500 seated in the ballroom at the back of the auditorium, (the large dividing curtain being opened), and 300 seated in the lobby and reception room at the side of the auditorium (folding wooden partitions being pushed aside; see Y News, 16 Jun 1939).

By the fall of 1939, construction was under way. Presiding Bishop LeGrand Richards explained that the new structure would be erected as part of the LDS Welfare Program. Each ward in the twelve stakes of the Utah Valley area was asked to supply workmen and construction materials. Some of those providing labor were thus given an opportunity to work for the assistance they were receiving through the Church Welfare Plan. Of the $190,000 estimated construction cost, $57,000 would be for labor, $26,000 of which would be donated. Cash expenditures were made through the office of Harold B. Lee, Managing Director of the Church Welfare Plan, who worked closely with the building’s contractor.

The pace of construction quickened in the spring of 1940, and male students at BYU were invited to donate time to speed the work. Response was greater than anticipated and officials reported that almost all common labor was being done by volunteers. At the annual commencement, University officials reported that students had donated 4,439 man-hours (Wilkinson 2:370).

Even as construction moved forward, some significant changes were made in the building plans. In March of 1940, a patio with an outdoor fireplace to be used for afternoon or evening social gatherings during the spring, summer, and fall was added to the east side of the building (Minutes, 29 Mar 1940). Then, in October, university officials decided to move the main campus cafeteria from the Art Building into the basement of the new “religion and social center” (Minutes, 18 Oct 1940). Up to this point, no name had been selected for the new facility, but in November the board approved Elder Stephen L. Richard’s suggestion that the new structure be named in honor of Joseph Smith, the Church’s founder (Wilkinson 2:379–80).

Another decision was needed as the building neared completion: What type of seating should they put in the main hall? Board members differed in their perception of the main use of the building. From the outset some had referred to it as a “chapel,” while others said it was to be an “auditorium.” Those who viewed it primarily as a spiritual center favored wooded pews to give “the desired chapel atmosphere”; others favored individual padded theater seats. In December 1940, the Board adopted a compromise solution: There would be long benches of oak, but they would have individual box-sprung imitation-leather seats and padded backs covered with mohair (Wilkinson 2:377, 379).

The Joseph Smith Building Dedicated

The beautiful new structure was dedicated on Founders Day, 16 October 1941, just seven weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor would propel the United States into World War II. Students gathered at the Lower Campus for the “traditional trek” to Upper Campus prior to attending the dedicatory service which focused on the Prophet Joseph Smith and his contributions to humanity. President David O. McKay, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, gave the principal address and offered the dedicatory prayer.

“It is fitting that there should be on this campus an edifice bearing the name of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” he declared. “Without revelation given to Joseph Smith there would be no Brigham Young University. In all classes here at this school there should be connoted [the] great truth: that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that Joseph Smith was the divinely inspired Prophet of the Lord, chosen to establish Christ’s Church on earth in this latter day.” He indicated that the new structure should be “a place of worship” and “a temple of learning.”

In his prayer, President McKay petitioned “let Thy spirit be in every room of this institution, and be in the heart of every instructor . . ..I dedicate this, the Joseph Smith Building . . ..and set it apart as a religious and social center, a place of instruction in the revealed work of God, a place of divine communion” (Daily Herald, 16 Oct 1941, 1).

A Religious and Social Center

Construction of the new Joseph Smith Building (hereafter sometimes referred to as JSB) was accompanied by the first formal organization of a religion faculty at BYU. Even though a “department of theology” had been mentioned as early as 1902, almost the entire university faculty participated in teaching religion and a “department” as such did not yet exist. On 5 January 1940, however, the Board of Trustees approved the formation of a “Division of Religion” to be directed by J. Wyley Sessions. The new unit was to have comparable academic standing with the various colleges of the University for developing and strengthening the faith of the students in Restored Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Finally, the Division was to be responsible for “all religious activities on the campus” including devotionals, Sunday School, and the Mutual Improvement Association (Minutes, 5 Jan 1940). Classroom instruction and these other activities sponsored by the Division would be centered in the new building.

As BYU’s enrollment continued to grow, local Provo wards experienced increasing difficulty in assimilating the students. BYU leaders consequently recognized a “growing need for supervision of the University students in the Church activities” and on 7 October 1941, some 486 students attended the first BYU Mutual Improvement Association meeting (Wilkinson 2:350). A Sunday School was organized under the supervision of J. Wyley Sessions with the superintendency composed of students and the teachers drawn from the Religion faculty.

As BYU’s enrollment continued to swell following World War II, further provisions were needed for the students’ religious activities. In October 1947, the “Campus Branch” was formed with 600 members as part of the East Provo Stake. By January 1953, the membership of this branch passed 1,200 and attendance at sacrament meeting, held in the JSB auditorium, averaged 1,500 (perhaps one of the few units in the Church to average over 100 percent). As many as 48 young men were needed to pass the sacrament and students had to draw lots for an opportunity to share their testimonies during fast meetings. By this time, the branch had 500 officers and teachers.

In 1949 a new pipe organ was placed in the Joseph Smith Building. At the time the building was dedicated, President Heber J. Grant had made a personal donation toward acquiring a new organ, but it took an additional eight years to have this instrument installed. At that time the famous organ in the Salt Lake Tabernacle was extensively rebuilt and many parts of the old organ, including some pipes originally created by the pioneer organ builder Joseph Ridges, were brought to the BYU campus to be part of its organ. For several months students and faculty followed the progress on the auditorium’s stage as technicians installed thousands of pipes.

Ernest L. Wilkinson, BYU’s new president in 1951, was anxious to expand the university’s drama program. When acoustics in the JSB Auditorium proved to be satisfactory, all the dramatic productions were moved there from College Hall. This shift was not made without difficulties. All curtains, lighting and scenery had to be taken down each weekend to prepare the room for devotional assemblies and Sunday services. Rehearsals had to be conducted at times when the auditorium was free—typically in the afternoon or evening or even after midnight. In spite of these difficulties, some 144 major faculty-directed productions were presented in this auditorium during the next 11 years, including many of Shakespeare’s plays (Wilkinson 3:380).

The university’s main cafeteria, located in the basement of the JSB’s south wing, was expanded in 1953 with the addition of the new “Cougareat” snack bar. Still, these facilities seated only 150. Formal dinners were served in the “Banquet Hall” (later Room 179) in the south east corner of the building’s main floor. As these gatherings grew in size, they had to be held outside on the lawn easy of the building. A special meal service was offered in the “Club Room” (later Room 176) at noon for members of the faculty and others.

A Changing Role

The construction of other campus buildings impacted the role of the JSB. Beginning in 1952, university assemblies were moved to the George Albert Smith Fieldhouse. When the first BYU student stake was organized in 1958, its twelve wards met in various campus buildings, not just in the JSB. When the Harris Fine Arts Center and the Wilkinson Center opened in 1964, all plays, concerts, dances, and food services were moved from the JSB. With these functions housed everywhere, the Joseph Smith Building assumed its more familiar recent role—as headquarters for religious education on campus.

During the fall of 1964, areas of the JSB were completely remodeled. Several dozen offices were constructed in the basement by portioning the area formerly used by the cafeteria. A permanent concrete block wall separated the ballroom from the auditorium, and the ballroom was divided into levels. Four large classrooms were provided on the new second level while the ballroom’s intricate hard wood floor could still be seen in each of the 14 new faculty offices created on the main level. Most of the former reception area adjoining the auditorium, including the fireplace, was made into a dean’s office complex. Fitting so many offices into these former spacious rooms resulted in narrow hallways noted for their many jogs. Nevertheless, for the first time in many decades, almost all members of the religion faculty had their offices under one roof rather than scattered in several buildings across campus. Still, the JSB’s classrooms could not accommodate all the religion classes. As BYU’s student body continued to grow, more and more of these courses had to be held in other buildings.

The Need for a New Building

By the late 1980s, it was apparent that he Joseph Smith Building was inadequate, even for its more restricted role as the center for teaching religion classes. University officials and members of the Religious Education faculty first considered the possibility of remodeling and refurbishing the existing structure as had recently been done with the nearby Brimhall, Grant, and Maeser buildings. There needed to be a larger entrance made on the north and elevators were also needed to give handicapped students access to the offices in the basement and classrooms on the second floor.

As Physical Plant personnel studied the feasibility of these improvements, additional problems came to light. Various remodeling had left the building with many unconnected heating and cooling systems which often did not function properly. Electrical wiring was inadequate and needed to be replaced completely. Even the second floor created in the old ballroom area was not connected to the original second floor. Portions of the building were not seismically sound and would not meet more recent and stricter codes. It became apparent that constructing an entirely new building would be preferable and would even cost less than trying to patch up the old one.

On 31 January 1989, BYU announced the decision to raze the existing edifice and construct a new Joseph Smith Building. President Jeffery R. Holland pointed out that “the Joseph Smith Memorial Building which serves as the center for our Religious Education and larger General Education classes, is one of the most heavily used buildings on campus yet it is perhaps the least efficient in utilization of floor space and internal accessibility.” Paul Richards, the university’s spokesman, pointed out that although temporary buildings had been torn down in the past, this would be “the first time in the history of the university” that a “permanent structure of this size” had been razed.

The original plan was to tear down the existing Joseph Smith Building and then build the new structure on the same site; however, when university officials could not find enough classrooms to teach religion classes even with the old building intact, they decided to design the new edifice in such a way that it could be constructed in the area occupied by the parking lot immediately west of the existing building and continue to use the old building until the new one was completed.

The assignment of designing the new Joseph Smith Building was given to the architectural firm of John and Dixon Markham, sons of Fred L. Markham, the architect for the original structure a half century earlier. Wherever they could they included Markham’s characteristic feature of the original building, such as the tower which would stand as a reminder that, ultimately, all truth comes from God. The 75,000 square feet of floor space would include a 900-seat auditorium and 17 classrooms. Over 75 offices would accommodate the Religious Education faculty—who teach some 23,000 students each semester—as well as Church Educational System personnel who train prospective seminary and institute teachers. Many of the offices would be linked to the campus computer network, providing instant access to scriptural texts, key Church books, genealogical data, and other research-support information. The building would also include a student commons area and a baptismal font. An atrium in the center of the building would feature a garden containing plants mentioned in the Bible. A bronze relief honoring Joseph Smith would be hung on the building’s north wall facing the quad. Sculpted by Franz Johansen, this 25 by 9 foot panel depicts the Prophet teaching a young family from the scriptures.

The general contractor for the new building was Layton Construction Company of Salt Lake City. Construction, which began in August 1990, was completed in just one year. As the Fall 1991 Semester began, many religion classes were taught in the new building. Within a month, all functions had been moved out of the old JSB.

The demolition of the old Joseph Smith Building took place in October 1991. The last high walls of the building, at the west end of the auditorium, came down on October 16th—50 years to the day of its dedication. Even though my colleagues and I miss the beloved old building, its destruction could not take away our choice memories, and we all looked forward to new opportunities in the new JSB.

The new Joseph Smith Memorial Building was dedicated on 10 December 1991. Speaking to an overflow crowd in the auditorium, President Gordon B. Hinckley, First Counselor in the First Presidency, expressed appreciation for “this beautiful and impressive structure that will become a place of learning for uncounted generations of eager and able students.” In his dedicatory prayer (printed in this volume), President Hinckley petitioned:

We pray for those who will walk its halls and sit in its classrooms, that their minds may be enlightened, that their understanding may be quickened, that they may learn those things which will bless their lives in the world of which they will become a part, and, in a more particular way, that they will become familiar with that truth which his eternal in its nature and everlasting in its consequences.

Bless the faculty who will teach here that they may be qualified through scholarship to do so effectively, but, more important, that they may teach by the power of the Holy Spirit, that their faith may be strengthened, that truth shall be established, and that thy divine will may be done.

May the name of Joseph Smith ever be held in gratitude, respect, and love by all whose lives will be blessed by this facility. (xxxviii)


General Church Board of Education Minutes. Copies in possession of the author.

BYU Board of Trustees Minutes. Copies in possession of the author.

Daily Herald (16 Oct 1941) 1.

“Dedications of Buildings, Addresses, and Prayers.” Box 5, BYU Archives. Harold B. Lee Library, Provo, UT.

Sessions, J. Wyley. Interview by Richard O. Cowan. 29 Jun 1965.

Wilkinson, Ernest L. The First One Hundred Years. 4 Vols. Provo, UT: Brigham Young Univ, 1975.

Y News (10 and 16 Oct 1941).