Perhaps the most audacious article about Mormons in New York City that I have discovered is an 1869 article in the New York Times that claimed that a Mormon Temple would soon be built in the city and that $500,000 had been set aside for its construction.
Only it wasn’t a temple the way Mormons today think of it.
The article is long–about 1,300 words–and in addition to describing the proposed “temple” it spoke about Mormon emigration from Europe (which entered the US in New York), the number of Mormons then living in the city and in Brooklyn, and Mormon proselyting in the city at this time. While details of the article could have been sensationalized, enough of its details sound plausible that it is probably not a newspaper fabrication.
[Because of the amount of material in this article, I am breaking it up into several posts. This post will address the proposed building.]
The article describes the “temple” this way:
A Mormon temple is to be erected in this city within the coming: rear. A committee, at whose disposal the requisite funds will be placed by the Mormons in this country, has been appointed to choose a suitable site, and to make the necessary arrangements for the edifice. They have nearly completed their plans, and meet next week to draw up a report of their proceedings, which will be laid before the saints and elders ruling the sect in America.
This building, which will cost at least $500,000, is to be a house of reception for Mormon emigrants from Europe, and a resting place for the traveling brethren of the United States. A portion of it will be set apart for the accommodation of unprotected females, who, because of the general belief that they are polygamists, are looked upon as loose characters, and are beset by men for no other than vicious purpose.
Here, however, it is intended they shall be received, watched over and kept until they can pursue their journey to their friends in safety. Those who are poor and without the means to provide for their immediate wants will here find a home until they get employment and can settle themselves comfortably. Apartments will be furnished also for the use of missionary saints and elders sojourning in this section to watch over the religious welfare of the faithful scattered throughout, the Eastern States. This temple they will make their Eastern headquarters, whence they will journey from time to time to make a circuit North and South among the various Mormon communities. In the centre of the building will be erected a house of worship, from which the whole will take the name of temple. The establishment will be ruled by a resident saint, assisted by a number of elders and a regular board of commissioners, all of whom are to be appointed by the government of Utah.
The enterprise has been on foot for some time, as the maturity of the plan indicates, and the purchase of a satisfactory location will be made within a month or two. The reasons for the erection of such an establishment are the increase of Mormon emigration and the difficulties under which the emigrants labor on their arrival here.
Speaking of the temple he said that the committee had orders to push the enterprise along as fast as they could and to hasten its completion. Being asked how much money, if any, had been appropriated for it, he answered that no fixed sum had been yet set apart for the work, but that whatever the committee having the matter in hand considered necessary would be immediately forthcoming, as the Mormons were well off, many of them wealthy, and a’l prepared to furnish any sum commensurate with their means. Earnestly hoping to meet us in the vale beyond the mountain, he bade our reporter good-by, who departed, obtaining from him the promise that next week he would furnish us with a clear statement of the plan, cost, and location of the Mormon Temple.
I think it is clear from the article that this proposed building was more hotel and chapel than temple. I assume that the reporter simply decided, as many do today, that if Mormons have temples, every worship space must be called a temple. I don’t know if this was the first time this error was made, but in my experience it is common enough.
If the reporter or his source exaggerated, it was probably on the projected cost of the building. The year after this article the Equitable Life building was completed. At 7 1/2 stories it was the first skyscraper and was the first building to include an elevator. It took up most of an entire block on Broadway north of Pine street. It cost $1.5 million to build. Given this, a $500,000 building would have been very large, perhaps the largest hotel in New York at that time.
And it would likely have had to be operated as a hotel also, in order to recover the costs of maintenance and perhaps some of the costs of construction and furnishing. Given the pattern of arrivals of Mormon immigrants at this time (6 large companies averaging less than 400 each arrived during 1869), the hotel portion of this proposed building would have needed 100 rooms–which would have had Mormon immigrants in them for just a couple days each month from May or June through October. And it is unlikely that smaller companies could have become the norm, because passage on the passenger ship line was discounted for large groups like the Mormons.
Nor does it seem likely that operating a hotel in New York would be much less expensive, although it might have provided jobs to those immigrants who arrived in New York without funds to continue the journey–and rapid turnover in those jobs could actually make the costs of running an establishment more expensive than competitors.
All things considered, it doesn’t seem likely that this proposal, if it did come from a prominent local leader as the reporter claimed, was carefully considered or planned. It sounds like an ill-informed member’s fantasy.