The academic study of vernacular landscapes has matured over the past two generations in parallel with the increasingly sophisticated study of Mormonism. This confluence of subject and method reach peak scholarly expression with the publication of Thomas Carter's Building Zion. The summation of a career's worth of work on Utah's built environment, the book exemplifies what happens when the right author with the right project reaches the right publisher at the right time. Carter, a longtime faculty member in the College of Architecture and Planning at the University of Utah, has provided a definitive treatment of the character of the Latter-day Saints’ western settlements. Production by the University of Minnesota Press has enabled him to interweave his analysis with more than two hundred useful photographs, maps, and original measured drawings of individual buildings and towns, allowing his architectural evidence full expression. This evidence is further bolstered by impressive archival research.

The result points to some surprising conclusions. Despite the many controversies accompanying the foundational decades of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Carter concludes that much about early Mormon material life could be rather ordinary. His study spans the years from the founding of the church in 1830 to its newfound stability by the end of the nineteenth century. He takes as his particular field of focus the settlements of east-central Utah's Sanpete Valley, with the city of Manti (founded in 1849) serving as the study's center of gravity. But Carter's study frequently ranges out to Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, as well as Salt Lake City and other Utah locales, for background and comparisons. In a series of eight chapters exploring Mormon beliefs, settlement patterns, economy, and agriculture, domestic fashions, the spaces of women and polygamy, main streets and nonresidential buildings, meetinghouses, and the temple, Carter shows how members of this innovative religious community fell back on what they knew of the old as much as they moved toward what could be imagined of the new. In nearly every one of these categories of construction, he notes, new types were “fashioned out of several strains of existing practice” (243), including the “Judeo-Christian” tradition, bourgeois American consumerism, classical republicanism, and, to a lesser extent, the heritage of Scandinavian immigrants. He demonstrates this tempering most pointedly in his chapter on polygamous housing, where, “presented with the possibilities of change,” Carter finds, “the Mormons chose not to, or at least, not very much” (174). Indeed, he shows that there was no distinctive Mormon domestic architecture, although some families did make ad hoc interior accommodations for the presence of multiple wives.

Nonetheless, as Carter convincingly explains, Mormon theology informed nearly every aspect of the built environment. Central to Mormon architecture and town planning was the concept of the City of Zion, a holy refuge intended to encompass the entire community of the saved, which would bring about the fulfillment of the end times through human hands. The stakes, then, for the subjects and the architectural historian are quite high. Given such Mormon beliefs, everything in members’ lives reflected back to God's purposes, from farmland to barns to parlors to townscapes to the entire line of settlement in Utah itself. Accordingly, Mormon villages were nucleated to strengthen cohesion, fine houses and prosperous businesses were celebrated as signs of God's favor, public works were interpreted as arenas for members’ sacrifices, and temples were used as anchors for the sacred. Interestingly, this sense of purpose corresponds with Carter's own emphasis on the symbolic power generally inherent in human landscapes. Further, Carter sees the Mormon doctrine of continuing revelation as lending fluidity to the group's various architectural solutions. His focus on the Sanpete Valley provides a testing ground for these ideas; here, he can compare relationships among specific buildings and types over time on a human scale while ranging outside the valley when necessary. Beyond Manti, the valley towns of Ephraim, Mount Pleasant, Spring City, Fairview, Fountain Green, and Moroni allow for elaboration of Carter's points as much as Salt Lake City and Mormon precedents elsewhere. Throughout, Carter's study highlights the active hand of church president Brigham Young in directing the nature of these settlements and their architecture. But just as often we learn of architects such as William H. Folsom, whose French-inspired Manti Temple (1877–88) may be “the finest of LDS buildings, past and present” (240), or of the improvisational solutions arrived at by individual settlers.

Carter's material evidence also points to landmarks for change over time that are different from those typically ascribed by historians to the Mormon experience. The death of Joseph Smith in 1844, the arrival in Utah of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, and the disavowal of plural marriage as a church policy in 1890 recede in importance in light of a different chronology. Rather, the landscape shows that by the 1860s an accommodation process was already under way in which the symbolic centrality Mormons pursued during an experimental Zion-making phase shifted to a more “enduring Zion” with “discrete sacred and secular zones” and a less imminent millennium (15–16). Key to the shift toward an enduring Zion was the reorientation of Mormon temples to locations just outside of towns, as at St. George in 1877 and at Manti, a change that reinforced a more differentiated, less unified landscape. In the book's climactic and final full chapter, Carter focuses on the temple at Manti, exploring its background, construction, symbolism, and secretive inner workings at length. He shows how Folsom's building balanced support for the existing social order even as it offered individual believers a new portal to God.

There is room here for more consideration of race and conflict. Carter does little to investigate how Mormon settlements and buildings might have bolstered ideas of whiteness, given the early church's policy of barring blacks from the priesthood and from most temple ordinances. Even more, at times in this book the Mormon experience in the Utah landscape unfolds as if on a blank slate, rather than amid the Ute Indian settlements and resulting tensions that shadowed the steps of the community's growth. For example, readers learn that initial settlers at Manti built and lived within a succession of fortifications for defense, but the settlement's emergence thereafter is described without reference to Indian relations. And although the first residents of at least three different settlements in the valley—at Spring City, Mount Pleasant, and Ephraim at Pine Creek—were driven out by Indian attacks, the return of settlers is described in a similarly solitary fashion. There is no doubt that Mormon communities ultimately prospered on these lands, but this study offers little sense of how such communities engaged with the encampments of the Utes or their subsequent removal from the area.

For its portrait of the Mormon experience, Carter's otherwise thorough book is a notable achievement. It is a useful complement to David J. Howlett's Ohio-based Kirtland Temple: The Biography of a Shared Mormon Sacred Space (2014), with relevance to insiders and outsiders alike.1 And Carter's study fulfills so much of the vision for vernacular architecture fieldwork set out by Henry Glassie, Dell Upton, and others that it received the Abbott Lowell Cummings Book Prize from the Vernacular Architecture Forum in 2016. Lastly, Building Zion convincingly demonstrates the value of applying a material lens when tracing religious belief and conceptions of the sacred. Refusing to settle for easy answers, Carter's holistic approach to Zion will endure.


David J. Howlett, Kirtland Temple: The Biography of a Shared Mormon Sacred Space (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2014).