Wednesday’s Book Review: “Nineteenth-Century Mormon Architecture and City Planning”

HamiltonNineteenth-Century Mormon Architecture and City Planning. By C. Mark Hamilton. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). X-vii + 203 pp. $65.

This is a very poor work. C. Mark Hamilton, a professor of architectural history at Brigham Young University at the time this book was published, takes such an embarrassingly “faith-promoting” approach toward Mormon architecture that I must question the book’s categorization as a work of scholarship. Hamilton begins with an introduction that reads like a missionary tract. His discussion of the church’s development in the nineteenth century reduces the complexity of the events, avoids matters that challenge or contradict a relatively strong Mormon myth of persecuted innocence, views the Mormons as good and their opponents as inherently evil, and ignores the cultural context of the early church. Unfortunately, as an explanation for past events, such platitudes have serious limitations.

More important, the book claims to be “the first comprehensive study of nineteenth-century Mormon architecture and city planning” (flyleaf) and promises to incorporate Mormon building patterns into a hierarchy that interprets Mormon theological and social ideals. Aside from the assertion, there is little evidence that the author took this task seriously, for the work presents more a catalog of buildings than any type of sustained analysis. For example, one of the central features of Mormon town building was its emphasis on a city plan that expressed an unusual worldview shared in some respects with other utopian community building efforts of the early nineteenth century. Hamilton describes the details of several Mormon city plats, but I was particularly struck by his failure to deal with the meaning of the peculiar form they took and by the lack of a connection between Mormon efforts and other community-building efforts.

In this regard, the works of Leonard J. Arrington, Feramorz Y. F ox, and Dean L. May, Building the City of God: Community & Cooperation among the Mormons (Deseret Book Company, 1976), and Delores Hayden, Seven American Utopias: The Architecture of Socialism, 1790-1976 (MIT Press, 1976), are suggestive, but Hamilton is either unfamiliar with them or unwilling to explore the challenging issues they raise. At best, Hamilton’s discussion of Mormon city planning is unimaginative.

The author’s discussion of Mormon temples is also disappointing. If any Mormon building evokes the unique theology of the religion, it is those striking temples. Hamilton begins with a simplistic attempt to define the temple as sacred space, appropriating but neither citing nor explaining Mircea Eliade’s terminology, using instead references from the Book of Mormon as evidence of the importance of the temple “in Judeo-Christian tradition since the time of Solomon” (p. 33). I doubt that the temple has been all that important in the Christian tradition, but I am incensed that his source for that assertion is a Mormon (not a standard Christian) scripture.

From this introduction, Hamilton presents capsule histories of each of the nineteenth-century Mormon temples. They are generally accurate thumbnail discussions, but are noticeably bereft of analysis. He makes almost no evaluation of the relationship of the temples to Mormonism’s unique theological ideals, an appropriate goal for this book because of what it purports to be. And other scholars who have explored these themes are ignored, especially the important study by Laurel B. Andrew (mislabeled Andrews in this book’s bibliography but not cited in the notes), The Early Temples of the Mormons: The Architecture of the Millennial Kingdom in the American West (State University of New York Press, 1978), that provides scintillating ideas deserving consideration in any book on Mormon architecture.

The remainder of Nineteenth-Century Mormon Architecture and City Planning discusses in essentially the same manner Mormon tabernacles, meetinghouses, associated buildings, domestic architecture, and peripheral buildings. Hamilton follows the same pattern he did with city planning and temple construction-facts without analysis, details without meaning. Ultimately, I must ask what have we learned from this expensive book? Unfortunately, not very much, and the serious analysis of Mormon architecture still awaits its historian.

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