A single strip of neon-yellow caution tape encircled the building with the iconic gold-topped spires, the only outward sign of renovations unfolding behind its marble walls.
Recognized by drivers who frequent the Capital Beltway for its Disney-castle-like appearance and revered by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as among the holiest places on Earth, the Kensington temple has become an integral part of the D.C. landscape and a destination for the area’s Mormon community.
Considered by the LDS Church to be earthly embodiments of the house of the Lord, Mormon temples are reserved for specific ordinances, or ceremonies, intended to bring believers closer to Jesus: baptism, eternal marriage and covenants of purity and righteousness known as endowments. It is also where living members open the gates of heaven for their ancestors by performing baptisms on their deceased relatives’ behalf.
Unlike local chapels that house weekly sacrament meetings and are open to people of all faiths, only church members in “good standing” — criteria that include a letter of recommendation from a church leader and lifestyle choices such as abstaining from coffee, drugs and alcohol, smoking and premarital sex — can enter one of the sacred temples.
But after more than half a century, the local landmark is due for a tune-up. The two-year renovation project began in March, at the time closing as an operating temple until 2020 and forcing the roughly 123,000 D.C.-area Mormons who frequent the temple to turn to temples in Philadelphia and New York.
Worshippers with the Frederick stake, or local chapter, of the LDS Church, expressed a mix of excitement at the awaited upgrades and sadness that the familiar and glorified space will be inaccessible until the project is completed.
A HOLY UNDERTAKING
New construction and renovation of these holy spaces is much more complex than a typical building project. From the materials used to the layout to the architectural design, every element of a temple is carefully chosen to reflect its spiritual significance, according to John Stoddard, project manager for the church’s special projects department.
The sprawling 160,000-square-foot D.C. temple — the third-largest of the 159 Mormon temples operating worldwide — is no exception.
Dedicated in 1974, the temple was the first built on the East Coast, according to the church website created to track the renovation project. The 52-acre property in Kensington was strategically selected, representing a return to the region where the church began, founded in 1830 in western New York by Joseph Smith, according to Emily Utt, the church’s historic sites curator.
“Locating the temple near the capital represents the church’s desire to be part of the nation’s religious landscape,” Utt said during a media event at the temple’s visitor center last month.
The stained-glass windows represent purity and clarity, while peeking out from the treetops are the iconic golden spires, the tallest of which is topped with an 18-foot-tall sculpture of the angel Moroni, eyes cast upward toward heaven.
“It’s a beacon,” said Elder Kevin Calderwood, senior leader for the church in D.C. “It’s a message to the world that invites them to Christ.”
But inside the pristine structure are what Calderwood described as signs of the structure’s age. Worshippers were careful to note that the appearance was by no means run-down, but simply outdated.
Martha Marsh, who belongs to the Frederick stake and volunteers at the D.C. temple, noted that whenever she helped clean the ordinance rooms, wiping the walls, furnishings and artwork, there was never any dirt or dust to dirty the rags she used.
But the decor appears plainer than that of some of the temple’s more modern counterparts, including the newly dedicated Philadelphia temple, according to Dr. Wayne Allgaier, who lives in Brunswick and belongs to the Brunswick ward, a subgroup within the Frederick stake.
“Refreshing” the furnishings and decor is just part of the planned renovation, according to Stoddard. Stoddard, along with project architect Roger Hansen of CRSA Architecture Consultants, was brought in from the Salt Lake City area to lead the D.C. temple renovations. Both Stoddard and Hansen are Mormons whose work centers primarily on temple building and renovation projects.
The pair named energy-efficient lighting and structural upgrades to meet modern safety and handicapped accessibility codes as examples of the types of electrical and mechanical work included in the renovation.
Appearance-wise, Hansen emphasized that the updates were subtle, “faithful to the original intent” of the design.
“For people familiar ... it will still feel like a building they know when they come back to it,” Hansen said.
Growing up in Myersville, Hannah Daniels considered the Kensington temple “her temple,” the place where she was sealed with her family in one of the sealing rooms, where she was baptized in the baptismal font.
As a child, she and her siblings would spend hours in the temple’s visitor center, watching church movies and talking to temple leaders while their parents performed ordinances in which they were not old enough to participate. Now Daniels, 20, hopes to one day wed her prospective husband in an eternal marriage ceremony there.
But she’ll have to wait until at least 2020 to celebrate those sacred nuptials in the Kensington temple, which closed March 3 for what church leaders anticipate will be a two-year renovation project.
Once the renovation work is complete, the temple will be open to non-Mormon visitors for a brief spell before it is rededicated and once again exclusive to members only.
Daniels, like other area Mormons, was disappointed that she would be temporarily unable to spend time in the sacred space she’d grown up in and continued to visit in adult life. But while the Kensington temple felt like home, the other area alternatives — temples in Philadelphia and New York — were just as spiritually sound for practices including baptizing ancestors and spiritual reflection.
“The only difference is the size,” Daniels said, comparing the Kensington building with the one in Philadelphia. “The spirit’s the same.”
The geographical distance is also a factor, perhaps limiting the number of journeys for some of Frederick’s most frequent temple visitors. Allgaier, who has served as a volunteer in the Kensington temple — including performing marriages for other couples — anticipated his twice-weekly trips would be reduced to monthly visits because of the longer drive.
While Allgaier acknowledged the “blow” brought on by the local temple’s temporary closing, he noted that area Mormons have perhaps taken for granted the proximity of the Kensington space. When he moved to the area, the D.C. temple had not yet been built. He and his wife traveled to the Salt Lake City temple, the closest at the time, for their marriage ordinances, he said.
“It’s a worldwide church, and here, we forget not everyone has a temple close by,” he said.
In Finland, where Allgaier served as a missionary, for example, the Helsinki temple attracted worshippers from Russia, some of whom came for an entire week to celebrate ordinances they had waited their entire lives for, he said.
In addition to hosting sacred ordinances, temples also offer worshippers opportunities for spiritual reflection, with designated rooms intended for that very purpose. Marsh named the Kensington temple’s celestial room, which spans two stories and boasts circles of sparkling chandeliers hanging from its ceiling, as her favorite place in the building.
“It’s just this place where you can go and sit and contemplate, to pray and receive revelation,” Marsh said. “It’s a very quiet but beautiful room, with a lot of meaning.”
For Braddock Heights resident Rebecca Melby, the entire building holds spiritual significance.
“I don’t need to be in any specific room,” she said. “It’s just a time to be closer to God, that when you step back outside, you feel stronger, more at peace.”