“First, What kind of life was lived in this place, that is, Why and how did its builders build as they did?
And second, what rules with general validity and applicability did they follow?”
Carroll William Westfall, Learning From Pompeii.

Sunday, June 15, 2014


Lewis Henry, Nauvoo, 1854
The city of Nauvoo, Illinois, is one of the most fascinating of the phalanx of utopian communities that appeared in the American Midwest in the period leading up to the Civil War.  Gibson Worsham spent two years at 3north Architects managing the development of a strategy for resuscitating urban forms at Historic Nauvoo, a destination heritage site for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, located on the banks of the Mississippi River. Our task was to assist in making sensitive additions to the city in order to house an expanding variety of programs associated with its unusual historic importance, including visitor facilities. The 3north design team began with an analysis of the city's organizing principles set out during the formative period of 1839-1846 and adapted during later periods of development. 


Nauvoo was the home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the six-year period after the followers of Joseph Smith were forcibly expelled from Missouri and lasting until he was killed and his followers left for Utah under the charismatic leadership of Brigham Young. During its remarkably short time of occupancy (late 1830s to 1846), Nauvoo grew with extraordinarily rapidity. Hundreds of masonry buildings, both private and public, were erected on lots placed in an expansive street grid.  As many as 96 buildings survive from the period.   

Following the departure of the Mormons in 1846, the town grew slowly as a local commercial center. The LDS church has re-purchased large portions of the historic city over the past fifty years in order to present an important portion of its history to church 
members and to the general public. The largest project has been the impressive reconstruction (in 2002) of the limestone temple completed in 1846 and later destroyed. The city contains a late-nineteenth-century business area, a large historic district, and the interpretive apparatus of a modern historic restoration, quite effectively informed by the restoration ethos of Colonial Williamsburg. Restored and furnished buildings are staffed by energetic volunteer retired couples, who populate the buildings and provide entertaining musical and theatrical programs. Other important buildings in Nauvoo, inherited by Joseph Smith's family in 1844, are maintained and exhibited by the Community of Christ, a separate branch of the Mormon tradition based in Independence, Missouri.  

Reconstituting the City

Carroll William Westfall in his book, coauthored with Robert Jan van Pelt, titled Architectural Principles in the Age of Historicism has explored the way cities are made and how they can be revived. One of the first principles of classical design, both for cities and the buildings which make them up, is that urban form is derived from political form. When the two work together, the ancient goal of achieving the “good life” is approached. As Westfall has said: “ just as there is only one politics (the art of living together in order to perfect the nature of each individual) so too there is only one architecture (the art of building serving that politics). In that sense politics and architecture are both conducted according to normative principles. Their purpose is to facilitate the good life, the life of happiness, the one in which the individual may aspire to reach the normative.”

Each city is embedded in a complex web of past solutions to the same questions, local traditions of building, and regional climatic and geographic necessities. Over time, principles emerge with increasing clarity about the best ways to build. Cities hold a layered texture of past responses to these principles. This texture forms a civilization’s conventions.  The answers to urban and architectural questions are embedded in their political and physical locales. It is possible to examine, study, and extract the buildings, architectural form, and materials of cities from their contexts.

Classical Urban and Architectural Design 

Nauvoo's classical vocabulary was derived from the common heritage of the west and adapted by Joseph Smith and a small team of architects and builders to fit the city's political structure and the difficult economic conditions under which it grew. 

According to Westfall, the traditional city is made up of a legible hierarchy of building types and building components. As Westfall has observed, “the complementary poles of continuity and distinctiveness accommodated within this system satisfies one of the principal aims of traditional city building and urban practices whether Roman or otherwise" Just as buildings are related by common materials, finishes and patterns of composition, they are differentiated in the urban order by the chosen material, level of finish, and organization of the parts. In the Western city, including Nauvoo, the builders' “kit of parts” and the underlying system of relationships has been provided by the classical orders. Understanding local patterns which had informed building in the Mormon context of the historic of the city will aid in making decisions about the form and materials of new building fabric. 

Temple and Great Tabernacle in Salt Lake City 
Joseph Smith, the chief designer, was driven by a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem (where the good life might be fully manifested both politically and architecturally). Smith’s inspired vision often overcame the literalism of his bookish architects and builders, but the urban and architectural expression was fundamentally American and classically republican, as leaders acknowledged when they affirmed the New England meeting-house roots of the temples, tabernacles, and assembly halls built in the antebellum era. Not until Brigham Young determined the form of the Salt Lake Temple was the special character of the central Temple set apart from the workaday classicism of the Morman city. This was manifested in the use of an otherworldly version of a rediscovered Gothic. Otherwise, classical temple forms continued to be used for civic architecture long after Nauvoo was abandoned. A good example can be seen in the Salt Lake Theater of 1861-62, an elegant version of a Greek Doric "distyle in muris" temple.

Salt Lake Theatre, 1861-62

Gustavus Hall's Map of Nauvoo, 1842

The Government of Nauvoo

The city of Nauvoo was governed at first by a council of religious leaders. In previous locations the distribution  of goods and land to church members had followed a communal system. By the time they arrived in Nauvoo in the late 1830s, church leaders had instigated a return to private enterprise for a number of practical reasons. In 1839, Nauvoo received a charter from the state similar to that of Chicago, which had been authorized  two years before. The city government consisted of a mayor and council, justices of the peace, and various officials. More unusually, however, the charter granted the city the right to organize a virtually independent militia, the Nauvoo Legion, and a university. 

Although organized as a secular government, in effect many of the church leaders held influential dual roles in the religious and civic spheres. The city was at first divided into four wards that intersected at the northwest corner of the Temple Lot. The Nauvoo Legion, a large and active defensive force, was based in an armory placed at this symbolic and functional center of the city. The wards were the smallest units into which the political and religious order of the city were divided. Each was to provide schools and a community meeting house.

Urban Design in Nauvoo

“No one lot, in this city, is to contain more than one house, and that to be built twenty-five feet back from the street, leaving a small yard in front, to be planted in a grove, according to the taste of the builder; the rest of the lot for gardens; all the houses are to be built of brick and stone [Joseph Smith, Plat of the City of Zion, 1833].”

The landscape at Nauvoo was carefully ordered and organized according to visionary Mormon precepts. The city was built with great energy in spite of unrelenting political and economic pressure. It was still incomplete when abandoned but its pattern was clearly established.  The land in the "flats" along the river owned by the church was laid out in a grid of streets outlining four-acre squares or blocks, each containing four one-acre lots, also square. Smith had set out the church's principles for town planning in 1833, with the revelation of the "Plan of Zion", the layout for a sacred city proposed for a site in Missouri. The main idea embodied in the plan of Zion was that each member family would be ensconced on a lot that was large enough to provide room for gardens, orchards, and other immediate domestic support activities. “An individual plot of ground was viewed as an integral part of the larger concept of “sacred space” [Hamilton 23]. 

As in earlier settlements influenced by the Plan of Zion, the residents were intended to live on large one-acre lots, although population pressure later led to subdivisions. As
uniquely dictated by the plan, the houses on each block faced either north-south or east-west in a checkerboard pattern, not favoring any street with a line of tightly spaced buildings, but giving a suburban openness to the city, a “rural lifestyle in an urban setting” [Leonard 60]. The city was to appear like a garden, with each citizen maintaining crops and orchards on their acre. 

A Nauvoo paper editorialized in 1842 “Let each citizen fill his spare ground with fruit tress, shrubbery, vines, etc., tastefully arranged. . . . Let the division fences be lined with peach and mulberry trees, the garden walks be bordered with current, raspberry, and gooseberry bushes, and the houses surrounded with roses and prairie flowers, and their porches crowned with the grape vine, and we shall soon have
formed some idea of how Eden looked [Times and Seasons, 1 Feb. 1842].” So luxuriant was the summer of 1845, that the twelve-foot-tall corn crop concealed all but the rooftops
of Nauvoo from view. Many had farms on the edge of the city. The community also provided a collective “Big Farm” of nearly four thousand acres where landless citizens could raise crops.

Revised Plan of Zion, 1833, prepared for a city to be built in Missouri. The central  square
 holds twenty-four temple-form public buildings.

In Smith's "Revised Plan of Zion" of 1833, the city is a residential grid centered on several squares holding a core of ecclesiastical and public buildings (a temple, church offices, houses of worship, schools, offices, and government buildings) in the form of numerous temples. These squares were framed by two wide parallel thoroughfares running through the city in each direction. The rest of the streets were narrower and undifferentiated in width. 

Commerce was not envisioned in the Plan of Zion, because its utopian vision included a law of consecration, where all property was held in common and distribution of goods was made from central storehouses. Heavy industry and agriculture were set outside the city in a green belt. The houses in almost all of the cities based on the plan of Zion were to be oriented in a basket-weave pattern so that no house faced the front of any other and each was to be set back twenty-five feet in a garden setting. 

The grid at Nauvoo was largely undifferentiated, with streets slightly less than 50 feet wide. The only exceptions were the 87-foot width of Main Street, running north to south and planned as the main thoroughfare, and Water Street along the southern waterfront, planned to be the site of an important canal (to provide passage past a set of falls in the river) and given a width of 64 feet. No land was originally provided for a temple. In 1841, a central, four-acre Temple Lot on additional land to the east became the center of the city. Joseph Smith did not intend for the land around the temple to become a commercial section. However, over time, businesses gathered in two areas, on Main Street near the river landing on the flats, and around the temple on the bluff and along Mulholland Street, the main route into the city from the east. Tradesmen and craftsmen worked out of their homes or nearby annexes. By 1846 there were as many as thirty merchants in Nauvoo, 25 of whom were in the area around the temple and east along Mulholland Street.

Housing orientation at Nauvoo [3north, 2008]. We were able to determine that a majority of the houses at Nauvoo 
conformed to the unique basket-weave plan propounded in the “Plan of Zion.” The angled plat at the 
upper left is the earlier, failed town of Commerce, Illinois.

The reality of urban planning at Nauvoo was complicated by its unique geography and by fierce economic and historical pressures, but our analysis and the resulting diagram indicates that the authorities continued to encourage the same pattern. 

Temple Square, Nauvoo, showing the canvas
Tabernacle in front of the Temple in 1842

Sacred Geometry

The builders ignored Baroque axial planning in favor of the Mormon concept of sacred geometry and central enclosed sacred precincts. 

The public buildings on the Plan of Zion were not meant to be arranged like the houses on their lots, but were to be sited in free-standing locations on the public land at the center of the city. Their orientation in unclear, but the sacred buildings were undoubtedly to be oriented in an east-west direction, as seen in the temple design for Zion presented by Joseph Smith.  The central public square was reproduced at Nauvoo as soon as the land on the bluff could be developed. Since the public land  was not as large as those proposed for Zion or the square built later at Salt Lake City, other public buildings were not located on the square. 

Map of Nauvoo today. The numbered buildings are (1) the reconstructed Temple on the bluff (2) the
 modern meeting house or Stake Center, 93) the LDS Visitor Center in the flats below the bluff, and
 (4) a parking deck near the Temple. The large building at the bottom center is the incomplete
Nauvoo House (Hotel), near the historic river landing. Many buildings have been lost and some
 area of the city are empty of historic buildings. Historic Mormon-era structures are located
 throughout the area shown on the map, both east and west of the Temple. The original grid 
can be seen as an underlay behind the modern streets.  

Organization of the City

As previously mentioned, commerce was not envisaged in the Plan of Zion, but it soon became a vital element in Nauvoo. Joseph Smith eventually planned a public market for Nauvoo, but it was never realized. The law of consecration (church ownership and distribution of property) was set aside in the collapse of the community following the expulsion from Missouri. At Nauvoo, a variation on the conventional American commercial relationship between merchant, supplier and customer was required if the growing population was to prosper. The greater width provided for Main Street in the flats suggests that this may have been the principal area of commerce, but this was replaced by the rapid development of stores and businesses in the area on the bluff around the temple as it was opened for development by private owners.  The one-acre residential lots were subdivided over time on an ad hoc basis to provide the narrow sites appropriate to standard American commercial architecture.

In the Plan of Zion, the city’s institutions were housed in 24 “temples” on squares at the city center. No special position was allotted in Nauvoo for schools, social halls, or other institutions. The sides and corners of blocks surrounding the the temple square or "lot" were probably favored places, as the Armory and other structures of the Nauvoo Legion were built on one corner. As in the multipurpose temples shown on the Plan of Zion, the institutional buildings can be seen as temples in miniature. The Seventies Hall and the Masonic or Cultural Hall use the classical orders, incorporate arched openings, and contain rectangular assembly rooms. Schools and meeting houses in later locations in the West used the same rectangular temple-like forms, often with pedimented gables. The Arsenal of the Nauvoo Legion was a rectangular pedimented structure as well.

Other than the temple, the public buildings at Nauvoo were placed on a scattered series of lots, some subdivided from one-acre home sites. The Masonic and Seventies halls were built on the flats near Main Street, while the Music Hall (of which no image survives) and Arsenal were built on the bluff around the Temple. Clearly, once underway on the bluff-top site, the Temple became a draw for other significant new buildings. The area around it would have continued to grow as the civic center of the city as schools and other institutional buildings joined the stores and hotels around the Temple and along Mulholland Street.  Given the industrial and transportation potential of the rapids along the river, that was the site chosen for industrial development.  Similarly, the agricultural fields, including a very large one held and worked in common, were located on the plateau to the east of the city.  In all these ways the city’s leaders tried to remain true to the vision of the city of Zion. 
View c 1846 across the flats toward the Temple
The form of the city is characterized by a clear distinction between the flats and the bluff. The rise on which the Temple was eventually completed was intended to form the center of a larger city that never fully materialized. Economic forces forced distortions in much of the city’s development, but the idea of a civic core surrounded by undifferentiated blocks or squares, each housing four dwellings set in a garden-like setting, was paramount.

Architectural Materials

In keeping with the Plan of Zion, the vast majority of the buildings at Nauvoo were constructed of brick or stone. While the Temple was of neatly tooled and smoothly finished stone, seen in the classical tradition as the best possible building material, secondary public buildings, such as the Masonic Hall and the Arsenal were given an appearance of stone by the addition of plaster to a stone or brick base substratum. Less important public buildings than these, such as the Music Hall and the Seventies Hall, were built of undisguised brick. 

Frame and log construction was used for a number of now-vanished building in Nauvoo, but more substantial frame buildings today are limited in number, at least among those that survive or that were photographed in the nineteenth century. These consist of the Sarah Grainger Kimball House (this predates the arrival of the Mormon community), the Mansion House, the Orson Hyde House, the Sidney Rigdon House, the Joseph Coolidge House, and the City Hotel. Each of these was carefully built and detailed, probably by Joseph Coolidge, who built the Mansion House for Joseph Smith. Almost all of the rest of the nearly 100 buildings for which some record exists were built of brick or stone. Cornices on all houses are usually of wood, but in a few cases, such as the Heber C. Kimball House, the wall is crowned by a brick mousetooth cornice.

City of Nauvoo Proposed Land Use Map [3north]. The Temple is the large black 
rectangle in the Civic District just right of center.

Building Placement
Like many planned utopian communities, Nauvoo's layout was based in a communitarian approach to civic life. Nauvoo's founding included an original mandate for a Edenic garden setting for each household.
Photographs and drawings of Mormon public buildings built in Salt Lake City and elsewhere in the years soon after Nauvoo was abandoned show a continuity of site planning and material choices, even as the types of buildings multiplied.  The Salt Lake Temple and its subsidiary buildings were placed in east-west alignment on the mud-walled Temple Square. Architectural design remained similar for some years (see the similarity of the Beehive House and other dwellings in Salt Lake City to the finer houses in Nauvoo).
Artist's conception of Nauvoo at its height c 1845. Joseph Smith encouraged the planting
 of shade and fruit trees, shrubs, and
 vines. Many of the houses and their landscaped lots
 face the sides of the houses across the street, in a unique basket weave pattern 
that guarantees oblique garden views [Stephen K. Rogers in Leonard, 140].

Following the Plan of Zion, which remained influential long after the migration from Nauvoo, public buildings were placed on a special square or lot, starting with the Temple and moving down the public building hierarchy to the tabernacles, meeting houses, and other structures needed to make manifest the Mormon polity. Sacred logic governed the placement of the temple on the public square. Just as the four wards centered on the NW corner of the Nauvoo Temple Square, the temple itself was not placed on axis at the exact center of the square. Rather, the center of the square was occupied by the southeast corner of the temple building.
Detail of the current Nauvoo map showing the placement of the SE
corner of the restored Nauvoo Te
mple near the center of the square. 

Lesser public buildings or those whose purposes were temporary, were located on ordinary lots subdivided from residential lots (like the Brick Store and the Seventies, Music, and Masonic halls, or made larger by adding one or more lots together (as at the Arsenal).  In Utah cities, the tabernacles or assembly halls were located, like the temples, near the center of an open square planted with trees and surrounded by fences or walls. Similarly the Council House at Salt Lake City of 1862 was located on a fenced lot. Fences were required to exclude livestock. Entire blocks were kept clear of buildings and used as meeting places- “groves”- or intended as parks.

In the 1838 plan of the interim LDS community of Far West, Missouri, four secondary squares or parks were located, one in each of the city’s quadrants. Several groves were provided in the city of Nauvoo for outdoor gatherings of the population for instruction or worship. One of these, the “West Grove,” was a park-like area directly in front of the temple, and, although shown on official maps as divided into lots, probably intended to stay open to preserve views of the temple from the low ground and vice versa. Another, the “East Grove,” was also referred to as the “Public Green.” Now the site of ordinary building lots, it would probably have become a park had the community stayed in Nauvoo.

By the time the Mormons left in 1846, the city possessed two thousand houses, as many as six hundred of which were “good brick or frame houses.” Of these, five hundred were built entirely of brick [Leonard 131]. Housing in the city ran the gamut from small huts to urban mansions of brick or framed lumber. Even though the city has lost any trace (other

than archeological) of the vast majority of its original housing, what remains standing and in the archival record is a fairly complete representation of the homes and stores of its leading citizens.

Architectural Hierarchy

The designers fully participated in the American building tradition and employed the European inheritance of architectural and urban solutions as it suited their polity and purposes.

Nauvoo was built according to a unique, sacred conception of the urban matrix as a holy order.  At the same time, the city was conceived within the American and European architectural tradition, from which the leaders derived the forms of its buildings. This tradition was based in a classical hierarchy that could to be meshed seamlessly with the top-down structure of the church. Because LDS doctrine embraces all human activities within the sacred zone, all types of buildings and all parts of the city were included in the civic order. Important buildings were given classical form to the degree that they manifested the form and purpose of the church, so that the architecture embodied the theological and political precepts on which the Mormon city was based. As in most traditional cities, basic buildings, such as the homes of ordinary church members and citizens, industries, and shops, were not treated with fully expressed classical orders, but were given forms associated with regional vernacular architectural traditions.  

While classical and biblical ideals dominated the intellectual understanding of architecture on the part of Nauvoo leaders and builders, a less codified grammar of vernacular architectural rules controlled the types and forms of most buildings. This was composed of the types and forms of buildings that constituted the familiar way of building experienced by the community in earlier settings in the east, in Europe, and along the way west. The city's "basic building tissue" was superficially affected by the national adoption of popular ideas typified by the Federal and Greek Revival details advocated by pattern books and designers through the country and the developing Midwest.    
The Ionic Order from Asher Benjamin, The Practice of Architecture, 1830

The classical treatment of the "special" buildings was derived from ancient Western tradition, but it was also colored by contemporary American architectural practice. Just as was the case in other American cities, established methods of detailing and ordering buildings was found cheek-by-jowl with the latest detailing from the most fashionable architectural publications. Unlike other Midwestern and western American communities, however, Nauvoo, and later Salt Lake City, benefitted from a clearer vision of the goals of the city, the knowledgeable involvement in architectural design of the highest leaders of the church, and direct experience of the best buildings of the eastern states and England.

These elements of architectural expression were used to augment and express the community’s political order. Much of the large-scale form and detailing was based in stylish Greek Revival pattern books, but the Georgian and Federal roots of American architecture were present everywhere. As was true throughout American architectural practice, the elements were applied without close regard for their historical basis. Arches were used in connection with Greek columns (mostly represented by applied pilasters), without regard to their complete absence from ancient Greek architecture. 

Original design for the Nauvoo Temple by William Weeks with
pediment, Corinthian
entablature, and square bell-tower base. 
The designers of Nauvoo regarded the value of architectural forms to express the community’s structure as more important that any use of them as an historical reference. The idea, commonplace among historians, that the Greek Revival was used in the United States because of its association with democratic and republican "values," does not apply to the theocratic structure of the Mormon polity. The three basic classical orders, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian, were not present in their full variety, in either their Roman or Greek forms. The hierarchy of the orders as understood in the western tradition was, however, used to emphasize the city’s internal order. In this system, Corinthian was the most delicate and expansive and was given the greatest importance and placed at the highest level. It was followed by the Ionic, midway in significance and honor between the Corinthian and the Doric, which was the plainest and sturdiest of orders, usually placed at the most basic position.

Idiosyncratic capital from the Nauvoo Temple

Although placed firmly within the western architectural tradition, the architects of Nauvoo and Salt Lake City displayed one of most unfettered decorative imaginations in the nation. New variations of the architectural orders were invented. Complex and innovative decorative programs helped church members and converts better comprehend the essentials of the faith. On the other hand, the architectural order of Nauvoo is undoubtedly distorted by the city’s extraordinary struggle for political and economic existence and its brief and feverish life.

The reconstructed temple of 2008 with octagonal cupola and 
square attic as originally built.

The central building in Nauvoo was the Temple. As the numbers of faithful grew and new revelations deepened the faith, the nature of the Temple as a public building was transformed and, with it, the city.  

The earliest temple at Kirtland, Ohio, was essentially based on the New England meeting house, adapted to meet the needs of the church for specially designed assembly space, but not set apart from the world.  In Nauvoo, the American church model was radically transformed and merged with that of ancient temple prototypes. The building was designed by William Weeks under the personal direction of Joseph Smith. The temple’s importance as the center of the community was reinforced. Its complex decorative program interpreted its role as center of the city’s life.   

Temple as built with sun orb capital and crescent
moon column bases.
The initial design for the Nauvoo Temple was based in the Corinthian order, considered among the ancients as the highest and most beautiful order. The capitals were adapted to depict a new dawn brought about by renewed revelation. As part of a significant change to the attic story, the unadorned frieze of the Corinthian pediment, was replaced by an assembly with Doric characteristics permitting the placement of third-floor windows. The Temple has a belfry/steeple traditionally used on the most important buildings in the city, those with a role in ordering the timing of public life.  All other structures were subsidiary and deferred to it. 

James Gibbs' St. Martins-in-the-Field (1722-1724).
The temple was given highly symbolic ornament that suited its role as the seat of God and focus of religious life. At that time the temple served multiple roles as the center of community assembly and of special, more private, rituals. The exterior was provided with a unique, specially designed classical order, fully expressed in the form of pedestal, pilaster, entablature, and cornice. The building was also given a set of three massive arches at the entry and a bell tower. The original church design, loosely based on published versions of James Gibbs’ St. Martin’s-in-the-Field in London, was more Georgian than Greek Revival: both buildings had a pedimented front, arched windows, a Corinthian entablature, pilasters among the sides, and a four-stage tower. The removal of the pediment from the design appears to have been related to the specialized functions needed in an enlarged attic story. Although as built, the bell tower was domed and smaller than that called for in the original design, the central tower with its clock and bell regulating the hourly life of the community reinforced the temple’s importance at the heart of the city’s religious and political life. 

The original public building: the Red Brick Store (reconstructed)

Secondary Institutions

Secondary institutions, such as buildings for education, social gatherings, and musical performances, were built as time and funding permitted. All religious and social functions were originally housed in the second floor of Joseph Smith's "Red Brick Store" until the specialized building intended for them were built. Secondary buildings were provided with the classical orders to varying degrees. The buildings were likely thought of as temple-form structures in the sense that Joseph Smith delineated all institutional buildings as temples on the plan of Zion. The orders were never as elaborate as those expressed at the Temple, and did not ever exceed the Temple in scale or form. 

Domestic and Commercial Architecture

Brigham Young House 
Domestic and commercial building observed a hierarchy not unlike that seen in most contemporary American cities. Houses and stores were directly related in form, material, and detail to the wealth and position of the owner. Most of the large and grand houses built by contractors of brick in the city were the homes of those who commanded capital. They usually were successful merchants and also were important in the councils of the church. Joseph Smith, who himself set up and operated a store, did not choose to live in a grand house of his own, but occupied three rooms in what was essentially a church-owned hotel. Similarly, church leader Brigham Young lived in a smaller, unusual three-part brick house which he built himself.

Mansion House, seat of government, hotel, and home of Joseph Smith

Two frame houses are among the most architecturally refined in the city. The Mansion House, the town's principal hotel and the home of Joseph Smith and his family, took the form of a very traditional two-story center-passage-plan dwelling with elegant pilasters across the front (at the corners and flanking the central entrance) and a classically framed central entrance door and window above. The Smith family had a separate entry and internal stair serving what amounted to an apartment within the south side of the building. 

The Orson Hyde House, a one-story, frame center-passage plan dwelling, was built by the community for an honored traveling missionary and one of the twelve Disciples. It features paneled corner pilasters and a tall frieze with inset garret windows.

Amos Davis Store and Hotel
One store was architecturally superior to the others. The Amos Davis Store and Hotel was a brick building of two stories that stood on the southwest corner of the Temple Lot. The building had three arched openings filling the ground floor of the tall rectangular front. It is not clear whether it had a pediment, but it appears likely, based on a photograph made shortly after it burned.

Noble-Smith House
There is a wide variety of house forms in Nauvoo, but there is a consistent clarity and simplicity of form characteristic of the Greek Revival era. In spite of the Greek Revival influence, some less expensive houses, such as the Noble-Smith House have asymmetrical door and window arrangements. Chimneys in Nauvoo were located on the interior. Extra rooms tended to be provided in ells to the rear of the house or in side wings. While the important houses were all designed using the widespread vernacular side-passage and central-passage plans, the smaller houses utilized one and two-room plans familiar to all the settlers. The three-part designs ultimately derived from published models based on the designs of Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580). At least one urban double house was built and a long row of connected single-cell rooms for poor widows resembled the almshouses of the eastern states and England. Interior trim was invariably drawn from up-to-date pattern books, with a few old-fashioned Federal features.

Heber C. Kimball House
Joseph Young House
Among the grandest houses is the home of Heber C. Kimball, a governing Apostle. He lived in a plain log house until just before the departure in 1846, when he completed this elaborate and comfortable side-passage-plan house. The house has the stylish, box-like, Greek Revival form familiar from towns throughout the nation, with paired gable-end chimneys linked by a raised parapet. It is provided with a brick cornice and entablature. It is, however, equipped with very traditional penciled Flemish-bond brickwork and an arched entry fanlight. Like many houses, it combines the bold clear lines of the Greek Revival with the conservative Federal details associated with the previous era. The unusual Joseph Young House, no longer standing, had a central monitor on top of a deep hipped roof and the layout widely recognized by historians as the double-pile, central passage plan. A low upper story was lit by windows built into the tall cornice.

Parley Pratt Store and House
John Young House
Other houses vary according to scale and expense, but none, other than the Mansion and Orson Hyde houses, have fully expressed classical orders. The very substantial John Young House has a full entablature incorporating frieze windows lighting the garret. The friezes at the Snow-Ashby Double House, the Parley P. Pratt House/Store, and the Wilson Law House are partially expressed. Some, such as the John Young House, of the buildings have stepped parapet gables. Some have raised end parapets that slope with the roofs. 

Many houses and stores present a narrow three- bay gable front to the street as is typical in commercial towns with narrow building lots. Some of these have temple-front pediments in the gables. Many have projecting gable eaves with box cornices. Among the few surviving frame houses is the Joseph Coolidge House, with its classical doorframe. Its pedimented gable end contains a fanlight. A few of these with sufficient wall height, have full entablatures expressed on the front. 

John Smith House
Among the more unusual houses in Nauvoo is the John Smith House on Parley Street with its saltbox form. It appears that Smith, president of the Nauvoo Stake, remembered traditional houses at home in Vermont when he built this dwelling. The house has an asymmetrical five-bay façade, a low second floor, and a long “catslide” leanto roof to the rear. 

Aaron Johnson House

Almost all door and window openings in Nauvoo are square headed. Some houses and stores, like the Aaron Johnson, William Weeks, and Wilson Law houses, do, however, have arched entry openings. As mentioned above, the brick store/hotel operated next to the Temple Lot by Amos Davis mirrored the Temple in miniature, with its triple front of arched first-floor openings. An important triple arched porch is inset across the entire front of a small brick dwelling now housing the Icarian Museum. The only other arched openings were the first floor windows in the Masonic Hall as it stood before restoration, the upper windows in the drawing for it by William Weeks, and the entry to the Seventies Hall.

Architects in Nauvoo

While Joseph Smith was the source of many of the ideas for buildings in Nauvoo, architect William Weeks was responsible for the initial plans of the Nauvoo Temple (procured through a competition) and for the drawings and details for the most important other structures, Nauvoo House, the Arsenal, and the Masonic Hall.

William Weeks (1813-1900) was born in Massachuetts, where he trained under his father, a builder, and moved with his family to Chicago in 1835. It is clear that Weeks had some training in architectural draftsmanship. His drawings of the Temple and the Nauvoo House show a grasp of detailing and form that indicates a background and familiarity with great buildings from books and personal experience. His design work, though not always completed as drawn, shows an acquaintance with architectural theory as well. If it is assumed he did most of the design for public buildings in that period, and there is a strong likelihood that he did, he was heavily responsible for the physical manifestation of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s vision of the city of Zion at Nauvoo. 

Original design for Masonic Hall by
William Weeks
The Masonic Hall as built

While the governing aspects of civic order in Nauvoo issued from the prophet, the implementation fell to the architect, who carefully adapted the forms of ancient and European classical architecture to the unique structure of the Mormon city. His work was taken up by his assistant at Nauvoo, Truman Angell, when the saints relocated to Salt Lake City. There the planning genius of Brigham Young united with the architectural skill of Angell to produce a new and even more integrated civic architecture, closely allied with the changing fashions of later-nineteenth-century historicist architecture.

Architectural Catalog

Building types in Nauvoo were not dissimilar to those found in most antebellum American towns, except for the disparities caused by the rapid development and harsh conditions of settlement.  The religious requirements of the LDS church were taken care of by the Temple, supplemented by the groves and a proposed canvas tabernacle in the form of a "temple forecourt" for large groups.  All buildings in Nauvoo were originally subsidiary to and related to the Temple. 

William Weeks' final drawing of the Temple front

THE TEMPLE-  The most important building in the community, given the religious focus of both the political and spiritual spheres, was, of course, the Nauvoo Temple. As prescribed by classical tradition and official revelation, the temple was given the central position, the most expensive and elaborate scale and finish, and the highest level of decoration. As was the case in the larger western architectural tradition, the buildings of the city were ornamented in ways that elucidated and strengthened the position of the institutions that were housed in each.
  • Originally Corinthian entablature on drawings
  • Cornice changed to resemble the Doric
  • All windows arched  
  • Ashlar stone exterior
  • Temple form building
  • Original pediment changed to flat attic story
  • Location near the center of the Temple Lot
  • Large scale
  • Clock tower and belfry

A conjectural sketch of Nauvoo House as might have appeared if it 
had been finished. Only a portion of the building was completed 
and incorporated into a later structure. 

NAUVOO HOUSE- The second most important building in the community was the Nauvoo House. The building was related to the more architecturally sophisticated hotels that formed the commercial and social center-pieces of many American cities. It was called for in the same 1841 revelation that designated the schedule of the temple building, which gave it great significance and momentum. During the struggle to complete it in 1845, it was referred to as “next in magnificence to the temple [Leonard 477].” It was to serve not only as the introduction of visitors to Nauvoo and the housing of travelers, but as the home of the prophet and a symbol of the success of the city. The Nauvoo House, which was likely intended to serve at least symbolically as a
seat of government as well as a residence for the community’s leader, was never completed due to the pressures of time and economics. As the surviving section
indicates, the enormous, four-story building was to be provided with three-story attached pilasters. A drawing by Nauvoo architect William Weeks shows that it was at one point intended to receive a full Roman Doric entablature.
  • Full Doric pilaster order
  • Windows not arched
  • Brick construction
  • Stone lintels 
  • Three-story (with raised basement) urban building
  • Large scale
  • Located at river entrance to city

Sketch after the original design for the Masonic Hall. 

MASONIC HALL- The Masonic Hall, built on a lot on the west side of Main Street, as built (see above), was provided with three-story Roman Doric pilasters and a shallow pediment. In an earlier  proposal by William Weeks, the hall had been given symbolic decoration appropriate to its function, including a low dome surmounted by a statue and a painted "all-seeing eye," derived from Masonic literature, in the pediment. As at the Temple, arched openings, a crowning feature on the rooftop, and applied ornament were used to convey the higher purpose of this building used for the social and intellectual pursuits of the community. The more workaday Doric order was selected, rather than the festive Corinthian used at the Temple.

  • Full Doric pilaster order on principal facade
  • Upper floor windows arched
  • Brick 
  • Two-story temple-form building in original design
  • Sculpture on roof
  • Medium scale
  • Pediment and central dome (in original design)
  • Painted symbolic image in pediment
  • Located mid-block on side of Main Street

HABS drawing of the Mansion House

MANSION HOUSE- The elegant, frame Mansion House was built near the river landing to serve as a temporary substitute for the functions in the Nauvoo House, including its uses as the residence of the Prophet and a hotel. Its political significance, as opposed to the religious importance of the Temple, was underlined when the Nauvoo Legion gathered in strength to hear an address by Joseph Smith during a tense time. The setting was the area in front of the Mansion House and beside the rising walls of the Nauvoo House. It used the popular architectural order adapted by American pattern books from the Choragic Monument of Thrasyllus in Athens. 
  • Full Greek pilaster order 
  • No arched windows
  • Painted weatherboard
  • Two-story free-standing dwelling
  • Medium scale
  • Located major intersection near boat landing

Sketch of the Seventies Hall as reconstructed 

SEVENTIES HALL- The Seventies Hall, a structure built as a gathering place for a religious leadership group, was also used for educational and social purposes. It was pushed to completion to serve as a preparatory school for missionaries [Leonard 500]. Together with the Masonic Hall, the building resembles a miniature of the temple-type as first manifested at Kirtland, Ohio. It perhaps relates to the twenty-four temples housing civic institutions prescribed in the Plan of Zion. The relative significance of the Seventies Hall within the civic hierarchy can be read from the lack of an exposed order but the provision of an arched doorway and an arched fanlight in the gable parapet.
  • No expressed order
  • Arched Door
  • Brick 
  • Two-story gable-fronted building
  • Medium scale
  • Located on conventional lot

Reconstruction drawing of Arsenal Building, home of the
Nauvoo Legion, 
which stood across the street from the 

Temple. Note the pedimented gable ends.

ARSENAL- The Armory of the Nauvoo Legion, as is appropriate for the sober character of a defensive organization, was a plain, two-story building with minimal exterior ornament, located on a block next to the Temple Square at the center of the city. It was completed in mid-1845, built of stone, and probably treated with exterior stucco designed to portray the superior ashlar stonework called for by in a governmental institution. The arsenal was intended to store the powder, ammunition, and public arms of the legion. Since the arms of the legion had already been surrendered to the state during its construction, the building was completed, appropriately, for use as a school [Leonard 478]. 
  • No expressed order
  • Flat lintels
  • Stucco ashlar over rough stone
  • Pedimented gable ends
  • Two-story free-standing buildings
  • Medium scale
  • Located on two corner lots facing the Temple Lot 
  • At  the center of the city. 

CONCERT HALL- A concert hall was built north of the temple in 1845. The 30 by 50 foot brick building had
a curved ceiling and a curved sounding board for the musicians [Leonard 579].
  • Architectural  order unknown 
  • No surviving drawing or photograph
  • Brick construction
  • One-story free-standing building
  • Medium scale
  • Near the Temple Lot 
  • At  the center of the city. 

Davis Store and Hotel on important corner facing the Temple Lot. It burned at an early date. 

IMPORTANT STORE OR DWELLING (TYPICAL)– Conventional temple-fronted house or store. 
  • Pedimented roof
  • Brick or frame
  • Stone lintels
  • Two-story urban building
  • Medium scale
  • Pediment and sometimes full entablature 
  • Square or arched stone openings
  • Located on conventional lot, often at corner

HABS drawing John Tayor House
Habs drawing of Heber C. Kimball House


  • Full Entablature sometimes with frieze windows
  • Brick or frame
  • Stone lintels
  • One or two-story freestanding or urban bldg.
  • Medium scale
  • Located on conventional lot

HABS drawing of Wilford Woodruff House


Many modestly scaled houses were well-built of brick and detailed like their larger, wealthy neighbors. The one-story Lorin Farr House and the nearby duplex Winslow Farr House are examples of the middling character of many small-scale house with very plain detailing. The George Laub House, the Hiram Clark House, and other similar brick structures with

small, three-bay, two story forms, wood lintels, and two-room floor plans may be considered the best of the homes of those of middling wealth and skills. Laub worked as
a joiner.
  •   Box Cornice
  •       Brick or frame sometimes with arched openings.
  •       One-, or two- or three-story freestanding bldg.
  •       Medium scale
  •       Located on conventional lot

Commercial Streetfront


  • Overhanging or flush eaves 
  • Brick, log, or frame 
  • One- or two-story freestanding or urban bldg.
  • Small scale
  • Located on conventional lot
  • Often closely spaced along commercial street.

HABS drawing of Brigham Young's House with accretionary wings

  • Gable front 
  • Brick or frame
  • One or two-story freestanding bldg.
  • Medium and small scales
  • Located on conventional lot
Howard Cory House, one of numerous early log
dwellings, no longer extant


Little information survives concerning the form of the houses of the least wealthy and the manner of their detailing. Less expensive houses and stores, such as the brick office of the Expositor and the adjoining frame structure, had little overhang at the roof eave. The gables were finished with a simple rake board. Log buildings were similarly finished. The Charles C. Rich and James Hendricks houses were among the more modest brick houses to be recorded. The Howard Coray House, a modest log dwelling not far from the Temple Lot, survived long enough to be photographed.

  • Overhanging or flush eaves
  • One-story, log or other inexpensive material
  • Small scale 


  1. Gibson, this is a fantastic post with a plethora of documentation. Have you done any other similar research or writing on other Mormon settlements?

  2. It is interesting to see the growth of this community. No doubt there are a lot of freight scales as well. Those can be very handy on many occasions.


  3. Thanks very much, JRD. I have only researched other settlements in relation to Nauvoo, which is one of the most remarkable towns I have been privileged to explore. Nauvoo's special history can serve to illuminate, one might almost say in a raking light, the kinds of choices that have always been possible in less exceptional communities located in other parts of the American nation.