One of the Valley’s top attractions has a shot at national historic prestige, but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is protesting local efforts nominating the Arizona Temple to the National Register of Historic Places.
Walt McIver, a church member and a volunteer at the Arizona Temple, considers the Mesa landmark a piece of every Mormon’s cultural heritage, an embodiment of about 170 years of history.
So he spent more than a year working with 10 other church members to assemble a nomination package to place the temple on the national register.
“It’s the recognition of history, and I think it’s important for the younger generation to have a link to the past,” said McIver, 69.
But a one-sentence letter of protest from a Salt Lake City church official sent to the State Historic Preservation Office in February may derail the whole plan.
And now, Mesa, a city founded by Mormons in 1878, is working in McIver’s behalf to persuade Mormon officials in Salt Lake to put the Arizona Temple on the list, which includes about 77,000 U.S. landmarks including the Salt Lake Temple and four other Utah Mormon temples.
The benefits of the register are many.
The historic label tends to make property values escalate, evident in downtown Phoenix’s Willo District and at least three downtown Mesa districts.
Secular owners of properties on the list are eligible for income tax credits and a lower property tax.
The Arizona Temple, built in downtown Mesa in 1927, was the ninth built by the church. It attracts about 2 million visitors annually.
“I am very disappointed, especially after working so hard,” McIver said. “This was a big shock.”
The city award rests on a shelf in the living room of his 1940 home across from the temple. He heads the Temple Historic District neighborhood, created three years ago by the city.
The district had been rolling with plans.
Work on a new visitors center for the temple is expected to wrap up in November, and members continued to acquire property around it to clean up rundown areas.
But a series of snags followed. The letter from Paul E. Koelliker, managing director of the church’s temple department, coincides with a fund-raising drive for antique-looking streetlights along First Avenue. District members must raise money because block grants could not be stretched far enough to cover the cost of the lights.
Koelliker never gave an official reason for the protest. However, McIver and others say it is because the church does not want to answer to a new set of city regulations for historic properties when it expands or renovates the temple.
St. Mary’s Basilica Catholic Church in Phoenix, for example, was built in 1915 and is on the register. Rev. Vincent Mesi, the church’s rector and pastor, said it’s a delicate relationship between church and state, where one side is concerned about accommodating more worshipers and the other with ensuring a building’s historic aesthetics remain unchanged.
“History is not frozen in time. History continues,” he said. “There need to be additions.”
Koelliker could not be reached for comment. But a spokesman for him said the church is holding up the nomination for a closer look at the city regulations that come with being listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“At this point, the church has made no formal or final decision regarding the historic register initiative in Mesa,” said Coke Newell.
The protest puzzles Mesa and Arizona historic preservation experts because the Arizona Temple must still adhere to any local building codes for updates in plumbing or the structure, for example.
“My understanding is that maybe there is a communication issue with them,” said Victor Linoff, Mesa Historic Preservation Committee chairman, “because frankly, I don’t understand why they would not want to have the designation. That’s the highest label you can get.”
Potential drawbacks include rules governing the exterior of a building on the register. The outside must remain relatively untouched from its original condition to keep its historical flavor. Any changes are subject to special review by a local preservation office: Mesa’s Historic Preservation office and the state office, in this case.
There is also grant money available, but in exchange, the agency issuing them can have a say in development plans.
The status can also alert developers to historically sensitive areas in a city, but it doesn’t necessarily prevent a historic site from being bulldozed, if that is the property owner’s intention.
Garrison said protests of the historic designation are rare, and in the temple’s case, it’s puzzling.
Linoff said the historic label shows pride in a landmark and recognizes its importance to the local culture.
“For the Mormon temple, it’s all pluses and no minuses, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
Members of other religious denominations whose churches are also listed on the national register said the historic label is generally worthwhile.
There is frequent dialogue, they say, between churches and historic preservation officials when renovations come up, whether applying for grant money to help fund the projects or to double-check guidelines.
The temple already enjoys some historic status as a contributing property to the Temple Historic District, near First Avenue and LeSueur.
But supporters wanted it to have its own place on the register, and are now helping the city to convince the church that a new label does not mean new rules for a future expansion. The last temple renovation was in 1975, and membership continues to grow, said Arlene McCabe, who helped nominate the temple.
She says she wants to see it make the national register but she understands the church’s wariness.
“Once you are on a state or national register, that building does not belong to just you anymore,” she said. “You forfeit some rights and privileges, and the church does not want to do it.”