Credit: Douglas Pulsipher / Utah Images
Driving the short distance into Salt Lake City from the airport a visitor is treated to a truly sumptuous tableau. Straight ahead, sticking out among the office blocks, are the six glistening spires of the Salt Lake Temple, signifying to all that something holy is happening here. Slightly to the side is the massive granite dome of the Utah State Capitol building. And towering behind them, like a curtain stretched across the horizon, are the snow-crested peaks of the Wasatch Range.
The one thing you don’t see are any salty lakes, which seems strange under the circumstances. Yet of course there is one, and it’s huge, but it’s some 60-km away, nowhere near the downtown.
All of that seems perfectly fitting in retrospect, as this is a place where things aren’t exactly as anticipated. Yes, this is the epicentre of the Mormon faith, yet the city is flourishing with brew pubs and new distilleries, neither of which are Mormon passions. Nor is the community particularly keen on ‘alternative lifestyles’, yet Salt Lake City’s Pride Festival, now in its 43rd year, is one of the biggest in the country. (And to this list of oddities, you could add the city’s most famous sports team, the NBA’s Utah Jazz. An unlikely name, given that there’s no history of jazz in the state. However at least here there’s explanation: The team moved from New Orleans. And, in fairness, the city’s music scene is now fast catching up.)
A mecca in the midtown
Surprises aside, this is still, unambiguously a Mormon stronghold. The city literally revolves around Temple Square, a four-hectare, spotlessly-maintained sanctuary smack in the centre of downtown. All of the main streets and avenues in the city are numbered and labeled – north, south, east or west – according to their proximity to this spot.
The square is the area’s most popular tourist attraction, drawing up to five million people a year. Indeed, it’s besieged with so many tourists that there are now two separate – and immense – visitors’ centres, as well as multiple smaller museums.
Without question the most intriguing building, at least among the open ones – the actual temple being off-limits to the public – is the Tabernacle, the 7,000-seat oval-shaped home of the famed Mormon choir. It’s said to be the most acoustically advanced auditorium in the world, a point championed during tours with the ritual dropping of a pin at the pulpit…. and then a hush as the sound reverberates along the backs of the furthest pews. I can only imagine how powerful it would be to experience the 360-member choir perform here. Unfortunately they’re frequently on the road and rehearse only on Thursday nights when they’re in town. (There is, however, a daily organ recital on weekdays and Saturdays at noon.)
Outside of the Tabernacle, the Temple Square is an incredibly tranquil setting, especially early in the morning before the tour groups arrive en masse. The grounds are scrubbed clean and gardens meticulously groomed. There are fountains, reflecting pools and plenty of quiet, shaded spots to sit down. Yet as soon as you land on any benches, a few hard truths will become quickly apparent. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the official name of the Mormon faith, and the owners of everything within sight, don’t want people to simply visit the square. They want them to convert. So unlike, say, when you go to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Tibet’s Potala Palace or the Vatican in Rome, here you will be quickly approached by a church member “hastening the work of salvation” as they say. And here, that’s exclusively women’s work. While all young Mormons are strongly encouraged to spend two of their teen years working as missionaries, only ‘sisters’ are permitted to do their stint in Temple Square. If you’re a visitor interested in learning more about the church, know that you’ll not have to wait long.