Inside the New Mormon Tempe in Gilbert

I visited the new Mormon temple in Gilbert. The big, beautiful art glass windows were worth the trip. The wall-to-wall interior limestone was stunning; the crystal chandeliers were magnificent. The building's castle-like, three-story neoclassic façade, layered with concrete and white quartz and topped by a 195-foot spire, is straight off a movie backlot or maybe one of Disney's better theme parks. There are water features and a pergola, and massive gardens filled with native plants. Where curb appeal is concerned, the Latter-day Saints have really delivered this time.

What's more, the temple might be the cleanest building I've ever been in. Having grown up in a home run by a housewife from Ohio, that's saying a lot. The marble floors were gleaming; the sunken baptistry spotless; the shiny entry hall neat as a pin. Even the shafts of light pouring through all that colored glass appeared to be dust-free.

"All areas of the temple are beautifully and carefully maintained to preserve a spirit of reverence," the temple's website explains. "You show reverence and respect for the Lord and His house and invite the Spirit by being clean and presentable."

Of course. But this temple was more than clean and presentable. It appeared shrink-wrapped, as if it were being preserved for later use.

Which, in a way, it was. LDS churches — or meetinghouses, as Mormons typically refer to them — are open to anyone who wants to attend a Mormon religious service. But their temples, considered "houses of the Lord," are only accessible to dyed-in-the-wool Latter-day Saints. The 85,000-square-foot Gilbert temple has been open for public tours all month, but will be closed to non-Mormons following its formal dedication on March 2.

The Gilbert Temple is the 142nd operating LDS temple in the world, and the largest the Mormon Church has built in nearly two decades. It's one of four LDS temples in the state; the others are in Mesa, Snowflake, and the Gila Valley, and a fifth is currently under construction in Phoenix. Another, in Tucson, will be built in a few years.

I couldn't help wondering whether the other 141 temples resembled maniacally tidy Marriott Inns. This one's meticulous interiors are done in the muted tones of an upscale hotel chain — ivory and peach and off-white and palest olive. There's no attempt to replicate the rustic charm of Old World churches here; pillars of pre-cast concrete and limestone offset stunning botanical-themed art glass windows in muted colors. (In the Catholic churches of my youth, the windows always depicted torture and wretchedness; the people depicted were either nailed to a cross or looking sorrowful, their eyes turned heavenward with misery.) The wide, polished lobby held a giant kiosk that looked like a hotel check-in desk; I wondered if maybe Mormons had to register before attending a worship service. The room where those services will be held looked, to my untrained eye, more like a conference room than a place where prayers were offered up. Even the parochial murals, by Queen Creek artist Howard Lyon, screamed "Holiday Inn!"

I didn't feel closer to the Lord after my visit to the LDS temple, but it did make me want to stop off at the dollar store for a case of Lemon Pledge. Instead, I played Donny and Marie's Greatest Hits on my iPhone as I headed back to Phoenix, passing, as I went, church after church filled with dust mites and scratched mahogany and windows framing mayhem and melancholy.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela