A New City of Joseph
Mormon Nauvoo, reborn
I spent a fascinating afternoon in the company of Dr. Leroy Kimball, the man who did more than anyone to bring back to life the dead Mormon settlement of Nauvoo on the Mississippi in western Illinois. I had come to learn more about the place for this, another in the series of travel pieces I did for the AAA’s member magazines, which was indeed nice work if you can get it.
See also Woman of the Year about Nauvoo-ite Kay Ortman.
"It was in pretty bad shape when we bought it," admits Dr. J. LeRoy Kimball, wrestling with a balky key to the front door of the old Masonic Hall in Nauvoo, Illinois. Restorers have not quite finished work on the 140-year-old hall. "It was used for many things over the years," Kimball explains as the door finally springs open. "It was the second-largest building in Nauvoo in the old days, next to the temple, of course. It was a sort of community center."
J. LeRoy Kimball is a retired physician, a dapper man in his late seventies whose speech is as closely clipped as his mustache. Kimball's great-grandfather was one of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the period 1839-46, when Nauvoo was a Mormon town. Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., brought his dispirited followers to this bend in the Mississippi River, a dozen miles upstream from Keokuk, after they had been driven from Missouri. Nauvoo (pronounced locally "Naw-uoo") was the name bestowed by Smith; he claimed that it meant "beautiful place" in Hebrew. This beautiful place was a raw malarial flatland bordered by bluffs, and half of Smith's people died during their first summer there. Yet by the time his flock left, seven years later, Nauvoo was the largest city in Illinois, home to some twelve thousand Saints, a prairie metropolis whose streets were lined with solid brick houses, shops, and mills. The town was dominated both physically and spiritually by the gleaming limestone temple that crowned the hill—at 158 feet the most magnificent building in the West.
Most of old Nauvoo is gone now, abandoned when the Mormons began their epochal march to the valley of the Great Salt Lake in the winter of 1846; arsonists destroyed the temple shortly after their departure. Today Kimball and others are trying to rescue what remains. He is president of Nauvoo Restoration, Incorporated, the nonprofit organization established by the Mormon church of Salt Lake City to restore their "City of Joseph." In that role Kimball has been the main driver of what some observers term "the Saintly steamroller."
The town's Masonic Hall, which Kimball is busy showing a visitor, occupies a special place in the Mormon heritage. The Prophet himself, who had recently been elevated through the three Masonic degrees in one step, called it "the most substantial and best-finished of all Masonic temples in the western states"; five hundred Masons gathered to celebrate its dedication.
The hall is thirty feet wide, half again as deep, and three stories tall, designed in the Classical Revival style then popular with local architects. Built of brick, it is faced with what looks like limestone but is actually stucco; using two colors of stucco, workmen made cuts in the outermost layer of plaster to create an illusion of joints in stone.
Inside, the hall is dim. It still smells of fresh-cut lumber and paint. In one corner an identifying sign leans against a bench, ready for hanging. The main floor consists mostly of a single room where rows of pewlike benches are arrayed on the planked floor facing a low stage. One hundred twenty-five people could be seated there, with more crammed into the aisles; when the occasion demanded, the benches could be moved, a band could be installed on the stage, and the room could be converted into a dance hall. The room was also used as a police station, a courtroom, even a city hall.
Like the temple and Nauvoo's other large buildings, the Masonic Hall was in effect a public-works project. Skilled craftsmen arriving from the eastern states and England found little to do. The church hired many of them, and men unable to pay their tithes to the church in cash paid them in labor instead.
LeRoy Kimball points to one of the interesting aspects of the hall, its benches. Although they appear to be oak, the benches are in fact made of pine, and the oak grain has been laboriously painted on by hand. Such artificial wood graining was a fairly common feature of Nauvoo buildings; a door in the restored home of Brigham Young, Smith's successor as head of the Saints, still exhibits such handiwork, and there were more examples in the original.
"We want to show people the kind of work the Nauvoo craftsmen were capable of," Kimball explains. Even the "marble" pillars that intersect the room are made of painted wood. "A man named Alfred Nabrotzky did this work for us. It's almost a lost art. He comes in here with a feather, a brush, and a comb, and he makes plain pine look like almost anything." Nabrotzky practices his craft not in Nauvoo but in far-off Utah. His predecessors took their individual skills with them when they trekked west, and many pioneer-era buildings in the Mormon West still resonate with echoes of Nauvoo.
Kimball pulls aside a champagne-colored curtain and lifts himself onto the stage. It is small, perhaps eight feet deep and three times as wide. "Brigham Young appeared on this stage," Kimball notes, looking out over an imaginary audience. In 1844 Young played the part of the priest in Sheridan's Pizarro, "assuming the part with great dignity," according to one account.
Kimball exits stage rear through a door that leads up a set of narrow stairs to the Masons' sanctum on the third floor. This room has a vaulted ceiling and twin brass chandeliers. On the west wall there is a cramped balcony that accommodated musical groups at balls and chamber concerts; on the east wall is a trio of arched windows framed on the outside in stone, an uncommon elegance for Nauvoo's utilitarian buildings.
Kimball foresees a time, not far off, when the restored Masonic Hall will serve as a showcase for Mormon arts of and about the Nauvoo era. The building has been rechristened the Cultural Hall and the third floor hung with paintings—most of them devout works depicting hallowed Mormon events—which signal the room's new role as a gallery.
Downstairs, the main room will be used for plays and pageants. The City of Joseph counted poets and songwriters among its faithful, and Kimball envisions a day when the old Mormon songs—perhaps the hymn "A Voice of the Prophet Came to Me" or the "Cap Stone March," composed to celebrate completion of the temple—will again be heard in the hall.
Mormons wrote only the opening chapter in Nauvoo's history. After the Mormons' departure, the town was resettled by followers of a French Utopian named Etienne Cabet. Calling themselves the Icarians, this band of communalists built distinctive multifamily dwellings—forerunners of apartment houses—and salvaged stones from the ruins of the Mormon temple to build a schoolhouse.
After the Icarian society dissolved, German and Swiss immigrants began arriving in Nauvoo. They helped establish wine- and cheese-making, trades that today, along with tourism, form the town's only industries. The legacy of those settlers survives in an annual grape festival and in the vineyards that still cling to a hillside overlooking the old town. But when people refer nowadays to Nauvoo, they usually have the Mormon period in mind.
Mormon Nauvoo, however, does not mean Salt Lake City Mormonism alone. Members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the Independence Mormons as they are sometimes called after their headquarters city in Missouri—have been residents of the town since 1918. Indeed, they may be said to have started the Mormon resurrection there by purchasing and preserving some of the deteriorating Smith properties. In recent years the Independence group has actually restored two Smith-related buildings: the Homestead, the log house where he lived when he first came to Nauvoo, and directly across the street, the late-Federal style Mansion House, where he moved when his (and the town's) fortunes had improved.
Although the Independence Mormons lack the money and organization of their churchly neighbors up Main Street, they intend to make further contributions to the renaissance of historic Nauvoo. Chief among these will be the reconstruction of Smith's general store and the building of a visitors' center to match the one opened by the Salt Lake City Mormons a few years ago.
Dr. Kimball sits on a bench in the Cultural Hall's theater room and reconstructs a little of his own history. "I first visited Nauvoo when I was on my way to medical school in Chicago in 1929. Many years later, when I was looking for a place to get away from medicine"—he practiced for years in Salt Lake City—"I came back here and bought my great-grandfather's house." The structure was one of some three hundred Nauvoo brick houses, all of them amalgams of Federal and Greek Revival styles. When Kimball rescued the house in 1954, his intentions were strictly residential; but the restoration work attracted attention, and when the new owner held an open house before moving in, a thousand people showed up. "That's when I decided that the interest in the old Mormon places was stronger than I thought. We put a couple in the house as caretakers, and during that first year fifteen thousand people went through it."
Kimball quickly acquired other derelict properties, including the houses that had once belonged to Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff, who like Kimball's great-grandfather were among the original Twelve Apostles of the church. "Pretty soon I had a hundred thousand dollars sunk into Nauvoo," Kimball recalls. "I knew then that it wasn't going to be a one-man job. I talked to David McKay, who was head of the church in Salt Lake City. I told him we had maybe forty places that were worthy of restoration. He asked me what I would do if I had the money, and I told him, and he looked at me and said, You've got the money.' "
Kimball soon had an organization as well: Nauvoo Restoration, Incorporated (NRI), organized in 1962. Funded largely by the Salt Lake City church, NRI bought the rest of Kimball's forty sites and adjoining lands until it owned more than a thousand acres of Nauvoo, including most of the original 1839 town area. The modern town, which by the early 1960's had only a tenth of its 1846 population, had taken root atop a hill overlooking "the flat," the benchland alongside the river. Except for the newly restored shrine of the Prophet at the Independence Mormons' end of Main Street, however, the flat was populated by ghosts. Old Nauvoo was a town that had died, but no one had bothered to bury it.
The spirit of reconstruction soon changed that. Old streets were cleared of post-Mormon structures, and restored buildings opened at an average rate of almost one a year. Now the flat has six houses, a gun shop, a print shop, a newspaper office, a bakery, and the Cultural Hall. The Mormons have returned to the City of Joseph.
For fifteen years Steven Baird and his Salt Lake City firm of restoration architects have been shuttling between the old Mormon capital and the new. Thanks substantially to their efforts, Nauvoo has earned the reputation of a Williamsburg of the Midwest; in fact, A. Edwin Kendrew, then senior vice president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, was one of the first men appointed to NRI's board of directors.
Nauvoo's restorationists have tried to emulate Colonial Williamsburg's meticulous methods of historical preparation. Research is the key. Stored in Salt Lake City are the vast Mormon archives. Every paper relating to Nauvoo's rise and fall was trundled west in wagons, and researchers sift that mountain of documents, diaries, and letters to learn who built Nauvoo, why, when, for how much, and for what uses.
Then come archaeological investigations, usually conducted by staff members of Brigham Young University. At each site, layers of sod are carefully peeled back like the tops of sardine tins, exposing old foundations, privy pits, and the like.
Reports of all those investigations are forwarded to architect Baird and his staff of six, who make a brick-by-brick inspection of the building in question. Scale models and blueprints follow. (Although only sixteen sites have been restored, some of them comprise half a dozen individual structures, from log cabins to stone smithies.) Baird has worked on each of the Nauvoo sites restored or reconstructed by NRI since 1962. He is now working on six more, including a country store and a carriage house.
Even NRFs thorough research cannot answer every question Baird must ask about a building, especially one like the Cultural Hall, which was extensively remodeled over the course of a century and a quarter. Inevitably, the knowledge and imagination of the restorationists must fill the gaps. "I quickly learned that there is no such thing as 'pure' restoration," Kimball notes wryly. "What the restorers don't know, they guess." Outside experts have criticized the work at Nauvoo for lack of authenticity—not in building facades but in furnishings and interior decor. The complaint most commonly heard is that the furnishings are too recent and too elegant to be representative of Nauvoo life in the mid-nineteenth century.
Kimball's ancestral house offers a perhaps-too-obvious example. In its restored state, open to the public, the house still features a distinctly nonperiod bathroom. While Baird worries about such inconsistencies, he maintains that overall the quality of Nauvoo's restoration has been good.
In 1959 the National Park Service put Nauvoo in the National Register of Historic Places. Its importance goes far beyond being a site of historic buildings. With the Saints' exodus to Utah along the Mormon Pioneer Trail, the character of westward migration changed: the Mormons were colonizers, not adventurers. "It's been said that the history of the United States, the real United States, didn't start until the Mississippi was crossed," Dr. Kimball explains. "Nauvoo is as important as St. Louis as a gateway to the West." Nauvoo and the West are inextricably intertwined. Indeed, Nauvoo is the Salt Lake City that failed. ●