It has been a season of celebration as people have toured the Washington D.C. temple after its major remodeling. The open house ends June 11 in preparation for an Aug. 14, 2022 rededication. President David O. McKay envisioned a magnificent temple in the nation’s capital and the site seemed to be preserved since the earliest founding days of the nation for just this purpose—that a House of the Lord might stand as a beacon to welcome to the people who would come to the nation’s capital. Now the question was, what would this temple look like and who could design a building of this caliber?

What follows is an excerpt from Dale Van Atta’s new book and tribute to the temple called The Washington D.C. Temple, Divine by Design.

Believing that a world-class temple needed a world-class architect, Hugh B. Brown, First Counselor in the First Presidency, and Mark Garff, chairman of the Church Building Committee, flew to New York City after the December 1968 groundbreaking to interview leading American architects. The person they wanted the most for the job was Edward Durell Stone, one of the most renowned American architects of that day.

It is probable that the introduction to Stone was made by J. W. Marriott.5 Marriott’s recommendation of Stone would likely have included an offer to pay the architect’s bill. According to a knowledgeable source, “a half a dozen wealthy members in D.C. including Marriott were willing to come up with good money to get a nationally-known Eastern architect.” Brown felt pressure from local Church leadership to hire someone like Stone, which a Church News article alluded to: “They [Brown and Garff] interviewed several nationally-known architects, who had been suggested for consideration by local Church leaders to design the temple.”

As busy as he was, Stone set aside his other projects to fly to D.C. and inspect the Maryland property, after which he declared: “This is one of the finest sites for a religious building I have ever seen.” His impression was actually greater than that published quote implied. “There is nothing east of the Mississippi River to compare with this property,” he added, according to a local Latter-day Saint leader.

It turned out there was a good reason the Church had never before hired a chief architect for a temple who was not a Latter-day Saint. According to the Washington Post, Brown “had become discouraged in attempting to explain the function of a temple to these non-Mormon architects.” None of the eminent men could ever become familiar enough with the purpose and ceremonies of the temple to be suitable as a temple architect, Brown concluded. Each of the men, including the esteemed Stone, was subsequently given a courtesy call explaining that the Church was going in another direction.

Choosing a Dream Team

Knowing that Church architect Emil Fetzer had no time to design the D.C. Temple because of his work on the Provo an Ogden temples, Brown directed Fetzer to pick a dream team of Utah’s best Latter-day Saint architects. It was a welcome assignment because Fetzer knew the candidates would respond positively. “I can’t think of any assignment that could come to a Latter-day Saint architect that would be a higher honor than working on a temple for our Heavenly Father,” he said.

Fetzer decided on a four-man team; each man was the head of his own firm. (At that time, men dominated the field and owned all the major Utah architectural firms.) In making the selection, Fetzer settled on two criteria: “They had to be mature, distinguished men who had proved their professional competence in public careers, and they had to be men of sufficient spiritual stature to be intimately acquainted with the work of a temple.” Fetzer chose four Utahns: Fred L. Markham, Henry P. Fetzer (Emil’s brother), Harold K. Beecher, and Keith W. Wilcox. The First Presidency quickly endorsed Fetzer’s picks. President McKay and his counselors knew and respected all four men, two of whom were serving as stake presidents.

On the day after Christmas 1968, Church Building Committee chair Mark Garff individually asked the four men to serve, and they were predictably enthusiastic about the project. None of them was told that other architects would be involved.

When Mark Garff summoned the four temple architects to a meeting on January 3, 1969, each was surprised to find the others there. “All of us wondered why we had been called to the same meeting,” Keith Wilcox recalled.

The meeting was short, its main purpose to ascertain whether these men, all the chief designers and principals of their own firms, thought they could work together to design
and build the Washington D.C. Temple. “We looked at each other and accepted readily, and expressed our appreciation for such an honor,” wrote Wilcox. “We were overwhelmed to have been chosen for such a responsible task. We considered it to be the greatest opportunity of our lives.”

Since none of the four architects or Church architect Emil Fetzer had seen the site, they flew to Washington together. Milan Smith drove them to the property, where he related the miraculous manner in which the Church had secured the property. It was still the largest undeveloped parcel in the metropolitan area.

The four men walked around in wonder, inspecting portions of the property where a large temple could be erected. They imagined it rising above the trees for millions of drivers from the nearby beltway that circumnavigated Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. When the tour was over, having experienced the natural beauty of the site and hearing the fervent testimony of Milan Smith, Wilcox was moved to comment to his colleagues that throughout the visit he had been “reminded of walking into the Sacred Grove in Palmyra, New York, where Joseph Smith received his First Vision.”

Getting Straight to Work

With the exception of Wilcox, who was finishing previously contracted jobs, the architects went straight to work when they returned to Utah. Three rules were agreed on during the team’s first meeting: first, a prayer would be offered at every meeting; second, they would not vote on the design options but would leave that to the First Presidency, who would make the final decision; and third, constructive criticism was welcome.

Henry Fetzer was first to present a drawing that was similar to the general layout of the Ogden and Provo temples but with different design features. The architects initially leaned toward round buildings similar to those two temples [Provo and Ogden temples], since they were required to use the “carousel concept” and they knew the First Presidency seemed to prefer more modern, circular building designs instead of traditional rectangular ones.

They all praised Fetzer’s offering but were busy working on their own ideas. At the next meeting, Fred Markham presented a striking, single-towered design, with the tower toward the front. Harold Beecher soon developed a design dominated by a single central tower with an impressive cantilever handling the main mass of the building. “Criticisms were given freely, but no attempt was made to amalgamate . . . one design with another. Each design had to stand on its own merits,” Wilcox recounted.

Markham presented two additional renderings, one with a single tower to the front and the other to the side. Beecher refined his design and created a model of it. Fetzer offered additional design ideas. “All of this work had unfolded in a very short time. I was enthralled with the creative capacity of my fellow architects,” Wilcox wrote. But then the boom was lowered on him.

At the morning meeting on February 5, after the latest designs were reviewed, Mark

Garff fixed Wilcox with a stern gaze. “Where is your design, Keith?”
Wilcox offered a valid excuse—he had to spend time on previous commitments, especially the David O. McKay Hospital in Ogden and two other projects which were in the final stages of document preparation. “I haven’t been able to find the time to do a design, Mark,” he stammered. “Besides, all these designs by my fellow architects are great. Any one of these will produce an attractive and striking Temple!”

But the senior Church official did not let up. In a final comment that amounted to a command, Garff said, “Keith, I want your design next week, and I want it to be different from any other plan yet presented.”

Keith Wilcox’s Help

There was no way Wilcox could misunderstand what he had been instructed to do. He left the meeting a bit despondent because he didn’t have a single idea for a design.

The next day, Wilcox sketched a few ideas in his notebook, but he didn’t like any
of them. He called an old friend from his high school and college years, Sid Foulger, a real estate developer and local Church leader in Maryland. Wilcox confided that while the other three architects had come up with designs, he had nothing. Foulger told Wilcox that he had faith in his friend’s ability, and immediately booked a flight to Salt Lake City. Foulger dropped everything because this was an opportunity for which he had long hoped—to influence the temple design. He and the other local Church leaders had a deep-seated fear that the architects would design a larger version of the round Provo and Ogden temples, which they felt was appropriately intimate for small Utah cities but inadequate for a spiritual monument in the nation’s capital.

Arriving in Utah, Foulger picked up his daughter, Meg, who was attending BYU. Together they visited Wilcox in his office. As pieced together from Meg and from the accounts Foulger gave his family and friends, the visit went something like this:

“Okay, Keith, have you decided what you’re going to do?” Foulger asked.

“I’ve been trying, and nothing’s come to me,” Wilcox sheepishly responded. “I’ve come up dry; I’m stumped.”

Foulger had his opening. “When people in the East think of the Mormon Church, they think of the Salt Lake Temple. That’s why they got so many visitors to the Mormon Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair—because we used the facade of the Salt Lake Temple to invite them in. So what we want for the Temple in the East is a contemporary version of the Salt Lake Temple—six towers, less Gothic, clad in marble. That would be wonderful.”

Wilcox lit up with a big smile; he had a place to start.

Wilcox left his downtown Ogden office that Friday afternoon so that he could work through the weekend in the privacy of his home office. After the visit with Foulger, he
felt buoyant but still somewhat unsettled. “Late that afternoon, I entered my study with sketching paper, pencils, charcoal and other drawing materials and sat down to begin to contemplate this great challenge,” Wilcox wrote. He had sketched several ideas in his pocket notebook, each of which had been based on a single tower. With Foulger’s six-spire plan in mind, he started fresh. “I decided to make the problem a matter of deep, personal prayer.”

As he prayed and studied it out, Wilcox came up with six design objectives. First, because the temple visually represented the literal return of the Church to that part of America from which it had been driven, the building “should be a proud and majestic edifice that all can admire and respect.” Second, it should have a “certain timeless quality, relating to the past, present and future.”

His third design objective put him firmly within Foulger’s proposal. The temple should be “immediately recognized as a ‘Mormon’ temple. It suggests and brings to mind the best known and most easily recognized symbol of the Church, the Salt Lake Temple, by means of a new and unique expression and form without the design being a literal copy of the Salt Lake Temple.”

Knowing he wanted six spires, Wilcox focused on his fourth objective: multiples of three as an integral part of the edifice. Latter-day Saints believe there are three members of the Godhead—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. All Church presidencies contain three members, with a president and two counselors in each case. The number three had been a symbolic design theme of the Salt Lake Temple.

Wilcox’s fifth objective was an “aspiring quality,” so he began sketching a hexagon with a tower at each point and six equal interior floors.

Sixth, the design should have great “beauty.” He wrote: “The site is unparalleled in beauty and spiritual quality, akin to that found in the Sacred Grove. As much natural growth as possible should be retained with vistas cleared for best access and view. The building should be beautiful from all directions and distances.

On a large sheet of sketch paper, Wilcox began to draw in charcoal and soon became lost in a transcendent experience. He later explained that he felt “a great surge of the Spirit and creative design. It was a glorious feeling. I felt as if I were being lifted up; my mental faculties sharpened. My mind and spirit were in tune with the challenge. A power beyond my own gave me strength.”

In his Testimony monograph, he related: “Suddenly, I realized that I had spent most of the night on the work and was exhausted. After a few hours sleep, I lost myself again in the drawings. The ideas seemed to flow out of my fingertips without effort. I had visualized the building’s appearance even before drawing.” That single drawing—because it only showed one angle, with a perspective making the temple seem soaring and sleek—matches the resulting building today.

A Stupor of Thought

There was little doubt in Wilcox’s mind that, having been influenced from above, his design would surely be approved at the following Wednesday’s meeting of the architects, but it was not. Wilcox recounted:

No one seemed to be particularly impressed with my design. One of the architects, in studying my recommendation, suggested that I might want to try another design and that he thought I could do better than the one I had presented.

Somewhat discouraged and depressed, I left the meeting. I had experienced a great surge of creativity and had almost felt as if I had been in the presence of Heavenly Beings. Yet, after presenting my idea, I began to lose my confidence. After all, every architectural design has in it, as do all creative activities, that quality most God-like in man, the very capacity of visualizing and creating. Why should my experience be different than that experienced by my friends in their design suggestions?

A stupor of thought was experienced during the next few days. Try as I might, I could not get started on another design.

Wilcox was still wrestling with changes when, at the next meeting a week later, everyone excitedly discussed their preparation for a final presentation. Garff scolded Wilcox about second-guessing himself. “Don’t change it, Keith! Just get it ready for the presentation.” Thus encouraged, he built a two-foot model of his design at home with the help of his wife and children. He also asked his artist neighbor Richard Van Wagoner to produce a watercolor painting from Wilcox’s first charcoal sketch.

Excitement filled the basement room of the Church Building Department on the morning of the presentation, and the array of drawings, models, sketches, and paintings awaited selection. “No names appeared on any, since personality could not enter into the selection. Identification would have made judgment difficult. We didn’t know whether the First Presidency would come or who might be involved. The suspense among the architects was intense,” Wilcox wrote.

Finally, Garff arrived with Hugh B. Brown. Wilcox recalled that Brown made two tours of the room, commenting on each design. Then he stopped in front of the watercolor of Wilcox’s design and said almost under his breath, “I like this.”

“I felt like jumping ten feet high, but managed to maintain my composure,” Wilcox recounted. “My thoughts turned back to my experiences, and suddenly I felt very humble, feeling a confirmation of my experiences through what had been said by a member of the First Presidency of the Church.”

A problem arose when Brown focused on Wilcox’s model. He frowned; he didn’t like it as well as the painting. The model was blocky and busy because it was hexagonal. Before he left the meeting, Brown thanked the architects for their efforts and explained that the final presentation for the entire First Presidency would be the day after April’s semiannual general conference of the Church.

Wilcox went back to the drawing table and found a solution that was fairly simple.

He abandoned the equal-sided hexagon of his original design for a new, elongated hexagon. “The bulkiness of the original form disappeared,” he said. The circular carousel concept which had been mandated for the interior design was now transformed from circular to parabolic, which was just as functional but more elegant.

Markham then directed the four men to split into two teams. He and Fetzer would refine the single-tower designs, while Wilcox and Beecher would finalize the multi- towered plan. As Beecher worked on the model, Wilcox produced his own watercolor of an elongated hexagon concept. For several weeks, the architects worked as a team, intent that the final design of each should be presented in the best possible light so the Church officials could make the fairest judgment possible.

Brown invited a committee of Church leaders from Washington D.C. to help make the final selection. Robert W. Barker headed the Washington contingent, which included J. W. Marriott, Milan Smith, Julian Lowe, and a few other members of the stake presidencies in the D.C. area. Sid Foulger was invited to join them.

On the morning of Monday, April 7, the First Presidency, represented by Brown
and Second Counselor N. Eldon Tanner, presided over the gathering in Garff’s office in Salt Lake City. They pored over the exhibits, and then Barker announced that the Washington delegation was “unanimous for the six-spired model.” Garff agreed on behalf of the Church Building Committee. Brown, having conferred with Tanner, smiled and said, “It’s a good thing you Brethren are in tune, because the First Presidency favors that model as well.”

President McKay’s Approval

The model was carried into President David O. McKay’s apartment in the nearby Hotel Utah and placed in front of him on a table. Barker wrote an account of the meeting with the ninety-five-year-old prophet:

At that time, President McKay’s alertness was most profound, but his ability to talk due to trouble with the muscles in his throat was somewhat impaired. President Milan Smith sat right beside him and could understand what he was saying better than some of the rest of us and when Milan would correct the impressions that some of us had, President McKay would nod and thank him.

After looking at the model for a few minutes, he asked Mark Garff whether the temple would be built of white marble and where it would come from. He was told that it would be Alabama Marble located near the Georgia border.

He then looked at the steeples and asked whether they would be finished in gold. This was not apparent from the model and Mark said that was exactly what was planned and explained how it would be of steel with a gold finish.

We discussed for a few minutes the details of the marble …

Even in his advanced age, it was amazing to me how alert President McKay was and how visionary he was in seeing the potential which might be made out of the model.

After the discussion, President Brown told President McKay that the Brethren from Washington and the Church Building Committee have made their presentation, and your counselors are all here if you wish any advice on the proposal.

President McKay chuckled and looked around at his counselors and, with a twinkle in his eye, said “Yes, that is one thing I have plenty of— counsel.”

President Brown then said, “President McKay, we await your instructions as to whether you desire to proceed with the construction of the temple.”

President McKay looked at the model again for a few minutes and then said, “I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t go right ahead.”

Following the meeting, Smith and Barker thought it would be wise to consult with senior Apostle Harold B. Lee, who had initially opposed the project but who had since added his support. Lee and the full Quorum of the Twelve Apostles approved the plan three days later.

But the design work was just beginning. The first phase—an overall exterior design in the form of a rough rendering—made up less than one percent of the work needed to complete a full set of architectural blueprints, with specifications down to the millimeter. The four-man team with the assistance of others took nearly two years to complete the work necessary to prepare it for construction bidding.

It is nothing short of extraordinary that the four architects accomplished their task without major differences or personal animosity. According to Wilcox, much of the unusual harmony came from the example of their unassuming leader, Fred Markham. “Brother Markham provided excellent leadership throughout the entire design and construction process. . . . He took the full responsibility for writing all specifications, an awesome task. He kept our committee moving and took a great personal interest in the success of the project”

In his Testimony, Wilcox hailed the “sweet and happy association with my fellow architects, and with all those who participated in the building processes developed from the very beginning [which] continued all through the design and construction processes. [This] great spirit of unity and love was felt by all who associated with the work [because] this was to be a House of the Lord.”