A Jewel in the Gardens of Paradise

The Art and Architecture of the Hawai‘i Temple



For seventy years, the Hawai‘i Temple (now called the Lā‘ie Hawai‘i Temple) has stood like a timeless vision of paradise, white and gleaming between emerald mountains and a sapphire sea. Some visitors have seen in its noble form and lush gardens a resemblance to the Taj Mahal or some wonder of the ancient world. However, my own reaction upon approaching the temple for the first time was surprise. My lifelong familiarity with the building had come from handsome and exotic color photographs in Church magazines, and I was amazed to discover how much smaller the temple is than I had imagined.

This dismay at the diminutive size of the structure is completely appropriate. The temple is small. Before the additions of recent years, it was even smaller—a tiny pearl in a vast tropical setting. The building’s size makes its architectural presence all the more remarkable (fig. 1). The architects, builders, gardeners, and artists somehow managed to endow this structure with an aura of dignity and grandeur that transcends its modest dimensions to express its greater symbolic and spiritual importance. A comparison with the Provo Utah Temple illustrates the success of this building in appearing larger than life. Although the two buildings seem similar in size when seen from afar, the Hawai‘i Temple as originally constructed is only one-tenth as large.

For those of us interested in how sacred places are created—places with a feeling of holiness and significance—the Hawai‘i Temple has valuable lessons to teach. The story of the creation of this evocative building is fascinating and at times surprising. The characters in this story span virtually the whole sweep of Mormon history. When President Joseph F. Smith proposed its construction, he was approaching his eightieth birthday. Some of the designers and artists he called upon to realize his vision were young enough to be his great-grandchildren. The prophet—born in Missouri, raised in Nauvoo, orphaned by the martyrdom at Carthage, and matured on the trail to Utah—employed people on this project who would live through the 1980s.

Houses of the Lord

Although the Hawai‘i Temple had its beginnings in 1915, many of the basic concepts that would shape its form antedate it by several decades. When the temple was proposed to the membership of the Church in the October 1915 general conference, there were only four functioning temples in the Church. All were in Utah, and all had been initiated by Brigham Young. These structures were arguably the finest artistic achievements of Mormon pioneer times. Despite poverty, isolation, and persecution, the Latter-day Saints had built magnificent monuments of their faith and perseverance. The massive stone walls and graceful towers evoked both the strength of castles and the aspiration of cathedrals, two popular images in nineteenth-century European and American architecture. Their interiors gave literal form to the phrase “House of the Lord,” with rooms decorated like the great halls of a royal palace.

All of these buildings had been originally planned as “meetinghouse temples,” composed principally of large meeting rooms, one above the other. In the late 1870s, however, shortly after Brigham Young’s death, there was a major change in temple planning. Church leaders decided to replace the lower of the two assembly rooms with a series of impressive ordinance rooms for the presentation of the endowment.1 Worshipers would move through five rooms during the ceremony, some of which were ornamented with murals providing appropriate settings for various parts of the sacred rituals. The exteriors of the buildings, which had already been designed when the new interior plan was adopted, did not reveal this more complicated arrangement. The rows of windows and moldings continued to imply that the temples were composed of two large rooms, much like the earliest temples at Kirtland and Nauvoo.

The Salt Lake Temple, the first of those four Utah temples to be started, was the last to be finished forty years later in 1893. Its completion coincided with the end of an era in Church history: the passing of the founding generation of pioneers and leaders, the virtual closing of the frontier, the official discontinuation of plural marriage, and the emergence of Utah from isolation to statehood. In the two decades that followed, as Utah and the Church entered the American cultural mainstream, Latter-day Saint architecture reflected an attempt to define an acceptable and progressive image for the Church in this very different world. Meetinghouses appeared with elements taken from a wide variety of styles, ranging from Gothic towers and Byzantine arches to Greek columns and Renaissance domes. On the block next to Temple Square, work began on a complex of administration buildings clothed in fashionable corporate classicism, as respectable as a government and solid as a bank.

A New Style of Architecture

In 1912, during this period of renewed confidence and prosperity, Church leaders announced plans to build a new temple, the first in thirty-five years, to stand in Alberta, Canada. For the design of the first temple in the new century, they held an architectural competition to seek the advice of the leading architects of the Church. Of the fourteen architectural firms originally involved, only seven actually turned in drawings in December 1912. These drawings, submitted anonymously to ensure fairness in judging, were put on public display in the new Bishop’s Building. The First Presidency and the Presiding Bishopric announced the winner in the Deseret Evening News of January 1, 1913.2 They passed over several pinnacled miniatures of the Salt Lake Temple to choose a daringly modern design by two young Salt Lake architects: Hyrum Pope, a thirty-two-year-old German immigrant, and Harold Burton, just twenty-five years old and a Salt Lake City–born son of English immigrants. The architects’ partnership was three years old at the time, and this was their first major commission.

Pope and Burton’s design for the Canadian temple was a new architectural concept. Church leaders, seeking to avoid needless expense, had recommended against large towers and spires. They also reiterated the decision that a large assembly room was no longer needed.3 As a result, the four major ordinance rooms and the celestial room became the largest spaces in the building, and their arrangement could shape the temple’s ultimate form. As designer Harold Burton pondered this situation, he arrived at a brilliant architectural composition that was perfectly logical and simple. The four ordinance rooms would be arranged around the center like the spokes of a wheel, each one a few steps higher than the one before, with the celestial room in the center at the very top of the building. The baptismal font would be in the center of the lower level, directly below the celestial room. Individuals participating in a temple session would pass through all four ordinance rooms in an ascending spiral. Finally, they would enter the central celestial room, a tall space with light coming down from high windows above the roofs of the other rooms. On the exterior, the four ordinance rooms would form four arms of a cross, each arm pointing in one of the cardinal directions, with the higher celestial room providing a suggestion of a tower in the center. Four minor wings, containing stairs and rest rooms, would project diagonally between the arms of the cross (fig. 2). The architectural style of the building was a blend of the influence of the modern American architect Frank Lloyd Wright and elements of ancient American ruins.4

A Temple in Hawai‘i

When President Joseph F. Smith returned from Hawai‘i in 1915 to announce his decision to build a temple there, he turned again to Pope and Burton to serve as architects. He asked them to design a smaller version of the Alberta Temple for the site on the Church’s plantation at Lā‘ie. Their design was ready for publication in 1916 (fig. 3).5

Although the general arrangement of the Hawai‘i Temple was similar to the successful layout of the Alberta Temple, the architects did much more than create a miniature of their earlier design. For one thing, good building stone was not easily available in the islands, so they chose to build with exposed reinforced concrete. For aggregate in the concrete, they would use a local crushed volcanic rock. The exterior surface would be cleaned and tooled to a rather smooth texture with a creamy white color. The whole building would thus be monolithic in appearance, like an object carved from a single piece of stone. Ornamental cornices would be cast in place from molds in the structural framework, making even these details integral with the building’s walls. This was a very progressive building technique for the time, particularly in such a remote location. Frank Lloyd Wright had pioneered this system for his Unitarian Church in Chicago just ten years earlier.

The plan of the temple was a simplified version of the Alberta design. The ordinance rooms, which accommodated fifty people each (about half the size of those at Alberta), remained the principal wings of a Greek cross (a cross with four equal arms). Where there had been diagonal minor wings in Alberta, the Hawai‘i plan replaced them with smaller square elements. This change gave the building a more traditional appearance, like a Greek or Roman temple with a flat facade. The Alberta Temple had been perfectly suited to a site in the midst of a prairie, looking the same from all directions. By contrast the Hawai‘i Temple site was better suited for a building with a definite front facing the sea and a back toward the mountains.

In its architectural style, the Hawai‘i Temple reflected many of the same influences as the Alberta design. It bore a strong resemblance to Wright’s Unitarian Church with its rectilinear form and flat roofs (fig. 4). More than the Alberta Temple, the Hawai‘i Temple also borrowed rather literally from elements of pre-Columbian American architecture. Perhaps traditional Book of Mormon connections with Polynesia reinforced the appropriateness of this borrowing. As in some of the handsome engravings in the architects’ reference book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, the temple stood on an elevated platform that visitors approached directly on center. The decorative frieze at the top of the temple with three separate carved panels, as shown in the first published drawing, seems to have been taken directly from engravings picturing a building in ancient Mexico (fig. 5).6

For its interior, the temple also borrowed ideas from antiquity to increase its feeling of monumentality. The concrete walls along the corridors connecting the ordinance rooms were scored to look as if they were made of huge blocks of stone. As a result, the rather small passageways and stairs suggest the feeling that, like tunnels through the great pyramids, they are part of a huge, solid structure.7

Sculptures for the Temple

When the architectural designs were refined and plans were completed, construction began under the general direction of Samuel E. Woolley, Hawaiian Mission president and Lā‘ie Plantation manager, and under the direct supervision of his son Ralph. Several talented Utah artists were brought into the process to enrich and ornament the well-conceived architectural scheme. Two artists who made important contributions in this regard were J. Leo Fairbanks, age twenty-eight, already an established painter and sculptor, and his precocious younger brother, Avard Fairbanks, just eighteen years old. Both were sons of noted Utah painter J. B. Fairbanks. Leo had studied painting and sculpture at Columbia University, at the University of Chicago, and in Paris. Best known for the “crisp, bright style” of his paintings, he eventually became the head of the art department at Oregon State University. (See the front cover, this issue, for his painting of the Hawai‘i Temple.) Avard, the tenth child in the family, was recognized early as an artistic prodigy. He studied at the New York Art Students’ League at age thirteen, and a few years later, he became the youngest artist ever to exhibit work at the prestigious Paris Salon. He had a long and distinguished career as one of Utah’s most well-known realist sculptors and was head of the University of Utah’s art department. The two brothers were assisted by a talented thirty-five-year-old sculptor from Norway, Torlief Knaphus, who worked under their direction and helped to carry out their designs.8 The Fairbanks brothers were commissioned to do sculpture work for the temple in fall 1916. By the following summer, they had worked out the designs for much of their work. Avard had already been in Hawai‘i several months working on the baptismal font when Leo joined him in July 1917, bringing his new wife with him on a working honeymoon. Avard’s fiancée also came to Hawai‘i to be married and assist her husband in his work.

For one so young, Avard’s sculpture work is quite astonishing in its expressive quality. The oxen for the baptismal font appear dignified, strong, and lifelike in their movements, perhaps the best ever executed for a temple. Their harmonious integration with the architects’ design for the font gives the whole composition a marvelously unified sense of religious solemnity. The relief panel at the head of the reflecting pools titled Maternity is another sensitive and mature work (fig. 6). It depicts a Polynesian mother surrounded by children and holding a shell that is the source of water, and therefore life, for the temple gardens—a poetic and symbolically appropriate composition. The model for the mother was a faithful, local Hawaiian member.

The sculpture friezes on the upper portion of the temple’s exterior were the most ambitious of the brothers’ works. The original design for the temple had shown three small panels in this location on each side of the building, with their subjects to be taken from Church history. However, Leo and Avard made a different proposal, larger in size and theme. They received approval to create four long horizontal panels, one for each side of the building, composed of 123 figures from the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and early Mormon history. These figures were executed in high relief, in the style of Greek and Roman sculpture that had become popular for Victorian public buildings and monuments (fig. 7). This important change to the exterior design of the temple increased its classical feeling in contrast to the more geometrically modern Alberta Temple. The deep shadows from the tropical sun make the sculpture panels easy to distinguish even at a distance. The two brothers worked together with Knaphus through July and August on the full-sized models of these panels. Leo returned to Utah in September, leaving Avard to supervise their concrete casting and installation. The small design models for the friezes were placed in the temple chapel and later cast and displayed opposite the visitors’ center on the temple grounds.

Murals for the Temple

The story of painting the temple murals is a rather complicated one mixed with elements of tragedy, frustration, and success. The commission for the murals in the three ordinance rooms was first given in 1916 to forty-four-year-old Fritzof E. Weberg. He was a convert to the Church, baptized in his native country of Norway in 1899 at age twenty-six. His artistic talents had come to the attention of Church leaders after his immigration to Utah. He had completed several mural paintings in Utah before being invited to work in Hawai‘i. His realistic and dramatic landscape style reflected his European training. Utah painter Lewis A. Ramsey was also commissioned by the Church to go to Hawai‘i to assist Weberg. Ramsey, forty-one years old, had studied in Paris along with J. Leo Fairbanks in 1902 and 1903 and had established himself in Utah as a skilled landscape and portrait painter. The contract he signed with the Church to assist Weberg reflected the likelihood that a collaboration with the older artist might not be easy. It stated that “it is absolutely imperative that [Ramsey] work in harmony with F. E. Weberg and that [his work] . . . be done under the immediate direction of and to the entire satisfaction of said F. E. Weberg.”9 En route to Hawai‘i with Weberg, Ramsey quickly discovered that working harmoniously would be difficult indeed. Weberg was irrational at times, subject to wide mood swings and uncontrolled outbursts of temper. While the two artists were visiting the volcano on the island of Hawai‘i, Weberg became enraged over sharing some of Ramsey’s sketching materials and seemed on the verge of violence.10

The situation was serious enough for the Hawaiian Mission leaders to cable the First Presidency on January 2, 1917, for instructions. They wrote that Weberg was “at times very disgruntled at Church” and “says [he] can’t work with Utah people” and that he was willing to complete the paintings “but not as a member of the Church.” The reply from Salt Lake City was short and clear: “Send Weberg home.”11 A follow-up letter authorized Ramsey to complete the contract “as though nothing had happened.” Some bitter feelings resulted from this unfortunate incident, with Weberg making accusations about Ramsey and Ramsey being obliged to defend himself. Three years later, an Ogden judge declared Weberg insane and committed him to the state mental hospital.12 Ironically, Ramsey felt that his association with Weberg resulted in his being passed over for future temple commissions, while Weberg, apparently fully recovered, received the commission for the creation room in the Arizona Temple a few years later.

In January and February 1917, Ramsey developed his sketches for the murals. He completed all three rooms before returning home in the early summer. Some photographs of these murals have survived in Ramsey’s scrapbook.13 In the murals for the creation and garden rooms, the ocean and tropical foliage suggested local Hawaiian scenery. For the lone and dreary world, however, the scene shifted to the Rocky Mountains, complete with deer and bears. Sadly, the murals were as ill-fated as the artists’ relationship. Ramsey had recommended against mounting the canvas for the murals directly on the walls, fearing moisture problems, but was overruled. His fears proved to be justified. Not long after his departure in summer 1917, the newly completed murals began to deteriorate from moisture and mold.

Providentially, another talented artist appeared on the scene at the right moment. A twenty-four-year-old missionary named LeConte Stewart had recently arrived in the Hawaiian Mission. Already an accomplished painter, he had received excellent training at the New York Art Students’ League. During his ocean voyage and his spare moments in Hawai‘i, Stewart painted some charming views of the ocean and the islands. Stewart had met architect Harold Burton in Salt Lake City before his mission and had the chance to renew his acquaintance during Burton’s 1917 visit to Hawai‘i. According to Stewart, Burton watched him paint some children playing on the Lā‘ie beach and was impressed with his ability. The two talented young men spent hours talking about artistic philosophy and found that they thought much alike. Burton recommended that Stewart be placed in charge of the interior painting of the temple and other decorative work.14

In collaboration with the architects, Stewart prepared miniature sketches for new creation room murals, a series of long narrow panels framed in moldings rather than filling the whole walls. This decorative approach integrated the paintings with the horizontal moldings around the room in a manner similar to interiors by Frank Lloyd Wright and some contemporary European architects. Stewart made a model of the creation room with these murals and sent it to the First Presidency for approval.15 Several weeks later, he received word to proceed. Eventually he completed the creation and garden rooms and assisted in selecting carpets, furniture, and paint colors for the temple’s interior. With his missionary status changed, he received permission for his fiancée to come to Hawai‘i to join him. The couple were married, and the new bride began teaching second grade at the Church school in Lā‘ie. In later years, Stewart also painted murals in the Alberta and Arizona Temples and pursued a distinguished career as a landscape painter and art teacher. He served for many years as chairman of the art department at the University of Utah, and when he died at age ninety-nine in 1990, he was widely considered the “dean” of Utah landscape painters.

The Interior of the Temple

Stewart’s murals were painted in a different style from Ramsey’s. Stewart had learned the impressionist technique, pioneered in France by such artists as Monet, Renoir, and Seurat. Like the French and American impressionist masters, Stewart sometimes used small brush strokes of unblended pure colors to build up his images, thus imparting to them a shimmering quality—a technique called pointillism. He used this technique particularly well in the creation murals where the unfocused, broken brush strokes in the early panels of the earth’s formation give way to more detailed and realistic depictions of the later events of the Creation. The larger and lusher paintings in the garden room depict a paradise that resembles the hardwood forests of the eastern states, where Stewart had studied landscape painting.

Meanwhile, Church leaders in Salt Lake City arranged for Alma B. Wright, professor of art at the LDS University, to go to Hawai‘i to assist with the mural work. Wright, at forty-one, was the same age as Ramsey. He had studied in Paris at the same time as Ramsey and Leo Fairbanks. During that time, Wright had been honored by having some of his work displayed in the Paris Salon. In Utah he had become well known for his portraits. In Hawai‘i, Wright painted in the world room and the baptistry. His murals of the lone and dreary world were done in a hard-lined style quite different from Stewart’s work. They depict broken, rocky mountains, storm-swept landscapes, gnarled trees, and wild beasts in combat. Some of the background areas have a softer, more impressionistic feeling, suggesting Stewart’s assistance or retouching of those places. Wright’s six paintings in the arches of the baptistry depict gospel principles and ordinances in a colorful illustration style.

The completed ordinance rooms were carpeted with heavy velvet-pile rugs. The windows were draped with Japanese silk. Unpolished oak moldings ornamented most of the major rooms. One of the sealing rooms was paneled in precious Hawaiian koa wood.16 The high windows in the celestial room were leaded in a geometric pattern in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright. The furniture for the temple was made by Fetzer Furniture in Salt Lake City to the architects’ specifications. In keeping with the temple’s architecture, the chairs and tables were straight and geometric, like the furniture of Frank Lloyd Wright and other modernists. The furniture was made of oak to match the architectural woodwork, with some contrasting wood inlays on more prominent pieces. This furniture must have complemented the architecture in a sophisticated harmony that has been lost in later years as the furniture has been replaced with more massive, elaborate, and colorful pieces, and the oak moldings have been painted.

A Paradise

It is easy to forget that Lā‘ie was not always covered with lush, tropical foliage. Photographs of the Church’s plantation show much of the land in cultivation, mostly in sugarcane, with the rest of the area rather barren. (See LeConte Stewart’s painting of Lā‘ie, this issue, back cover.) As the temple took shape in this open landscape, it must have looked small and lonely. The architects worked out a brilliant design for the temple grounds to remedy this impression. Their grand conception of the temple as the climax of an arrangement of terraces, reflecting pools, waterfalls, and tropical plants arranged along a formal axis was one of their most powerful ideas—a concept that would take many years of patient care to realize completely (fig. 8). From the driveway and gatehouses at the lower end of the site to the delicate fern houses and pergola behind the temple, everything was composed in a unified symmetrical scheme. In selecting the plants, the architects had the assistance of Joseph F. Rock, botanist of the College of Hawai‘i, who volunteered his services. Rock had traveled extensively, visiting the exotic gardens of India among other places, and contributed his expertise in tropical plant selection. Couple missionaries planted the lawns from small starts.

The enduring value of the temple builders’ work is evident in the temple’s ability to inspire awe and admiration through the decades. Its design achieved a sense of timelessness that has not gone out of fashion. As the gardens have matured and the outbuildings have expanded, the temple has continued to dominate its surroundings. Architect Harold Burton returned to Hawai‘i in the 1960s to design the expanded visitors’ center facilities, preserving the strict symmetry of the gardens through the extravagant device of balancing the portico of the large visitors’ center building with an equally large portico to an open courtyard on the opposite side. The great axis of the garden from the temple to the sea received its logical completion with the construction of Hale La‘a Boulevard down to Temple Beach. The basic idea of placing the temple at the climax of an axial composition proved to be flexible enough to allow for change and growth as the plantation buildings and fields disappeared and a town grew in their place.

The temple and its grounds demonstrate the spiritual power of an artistic vision. This small building could have become an insignificant structure lost in the development of later years. However, the quality of its design, the artistic success of its decorations, and the beauty and arrangement of its gardens have all combined to make it a memorable landmark for both the Church and Hawai‘i. It is a kind of artistic miracle that in this remote place, at a time when relatively few Latter-day Saints lived outside Utah, the builders were able to make this small temple into a fitting symbol of their grandest spiritual hopes and ideals—a vision of harmony and completeness in the gardens of paradise.

About the author(s)

Paul L. Anderson is Head of Design at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art. He received a B.A. from Stanford University in 1968 and a M.Arch. (masters of architecture) at Princeton University in 1972. This article appears as a chapter in Voyages of Faith: Explorations in Mormon Pacific History, ed. Grant Underwood (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2000). For more information, see p. 228.

The Hawai‘i Temple is a subject that will be featured in an exhibition at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art: Mormon Moderne: New Directions in Latter-day Saint Architecture, 1910–55. Paul L. Anderson is the curator of the exhibit, which runs from March 1 to September 15, 2001.


1. C. Mark Hamilton, The Salt Lake Temple: A Monument to a People (Salt Lake City: University Services, 1983), 54–55.

2. “Approved Design for Temple in Alberta Province,” Deseret Evening News, January 1, 1913, 9.

3. “Diary,” Presiding Bishop’s Office, no. 4, Presiding Bishopric Journals, 1912, pp. 26–27, Church Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City (hereafter cited as LDS Church Archives).

4. Harold W. Burton to Randolph W. Linehan, May 20, 1969, LDS Church Archives.

5. John H. Widtsoe, “The Temple in Hawaii,” Improvement Era 19 (September 1916): 953–58.

6. John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, 2 vols. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1858), 2:390.

7. Some of Frederick Catherwood’s illustrations of the interior of pre-Columbian temples show this effect with walls made of large stones. See Stephens, Incidents of Travel, 2:317.

8. Biographical information about these artists can be found in Robert S. Olpin, Dictionary of Utah Art (Salt Lake City: Salt Lake Art Center, 1980).

9. “Agreement” between L. A. Ramsey and Joseph F. Smith, November 28, 1916, L. A. Ramsey Papers, LDS Church Archives.

10. Elizabeth Ramsey to David O. McKay, June 11, 1941, LDS Church Archives.

11. First Presidency to Ralph Woolley, Letterpress Copy Books, Joseph F. Smith Papers, LDS Church Archives.

12. “Artist Adjudged Insane,” Salt Lake Tribune, March 27, 1920, 9.

13. Lewis A. Ramsey Scrapbook, ca. 1897–1940, LDS Church Archives.

14. Interview by author with LeConte Stewart, 1983.

15. Zipporah Layton Stewart, “A Labor of Love,” 1978, LDS Church Archives, 2. Although this reminiscence suggests that both Pope and Burton were in Hawai‘i in 1917, the L. A. Ramsey correspondence makes clear that only Burton and his wife were there at that time.

16. The koa wood paneling, mentioned in early descriptions of the temple, was apparently removed when this sealing room was combined with an adjacent room to make a single larger space. Koa wood is a very rare, red hardwood.

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