Access to the Temple

During the three years I was a transportation planning student living in Los Angeles (I completed the final two years of my degree remotely), I had fairly consistent access to a car, but I generally only used it as a transportation mode of last resort since I preferred to travel by walking or transit, and I lived in very walkable, transit-rich neighborhoods (with terrible traffic and limited parking).

I lived in three different apartments during that time. The first was within a marginally reasonable walking distance to the temple; the second was on a transit line that served the temple; and the third was within a very reasonable walking distance to the temple. In those characterizations, I’m referring to what it takes to get to the edge of the temple grounds, without regard to where any of the entrances to the grounds are.

Here’s the problem: The Los Angeles Temple is basically a perfect example of a missed opportunity to accommodate pedestrians and transit patrons. There are other temples that are less pedestrian- or transit-friendly through the circumstances of their locations [fn]. The Los Angeles Temple stands out in my mind as a place where it could have excellent pedestrian and transit access, but it doesn’t.

There is a transit stop right in front of the temple, which is great. What isn’t great is that you can’t get to the temple from the front. There’s an imposing fence around the temple grounds with two big gates leading to sidewalks that go right up to the entrance of the temple building, but those gates are locked at all times, so those sidewalks are mostly decorative. The only way to get onto the temple grounds is through a gate on the east side of the block, which is about a five-minute walk from what looks like the main entrance at the front of the temple grounds — and it’s only as short as five minutes if you know where that open entrance is and go directly there rather than wandering around the neighborhood trying to figure out how to get in. Over the course of that kind of wandering, you’d come across enough other locked gates that you might give up after getting the impression that the temple grounds aren’t open to the public at all.

This isn’t just an issue for those arriving at the temple by transit. If you live or work within a mile or so of the temple, and you want to walk there, you’re most likely to be approaching the temple from the south or west sides (those are the sides where the adjacent neighborhoods have the highest density of homes and businesses). Again, this would work well, since that’s the corner of the block where the temple building is actually located, but all of the gates on those sides of the temple are closed and locked at all times. A substantial portion of your time walking to the temple might actually be spent walking around the block to get to the temple driveway.

Why does any of this matter? Los Angeles is a famously car-oriented city (though it isn’t as car-dependent as its reputation would suggest). “Nobody walks in LA,” and moreover, nobody walks to the temple. The temple was designed as a regional destination rather than as a local neighborhood amenity. I believe when it was first built, it not only served all of California and a couple of adjacent states, but also all of South and Central America (correction: This is not true – the Mesa, Arizona Temple served South and Central America – but the LA temple still served a lot of distant areas for a long time). Today, it serves members of the church as far as three and four hours away by car (I know this because I’m preparing to move to a city that’s three hours from LA, and we’ll be in back the Los Angeles Temple District). Of the thousands of temple recommend holders in the temple district, I’m guessing well under one hundred live within walking distance of the temple (not including those who actually live on the temple grounds) [fn2].

Still, when the access points to the temple are such that it’s inconvenient to arrive by foot or by transit, are we sending a subtle message to potential temple patrons —even the small minority for whom walking and transit could be the best way to get to the temple— that the correct way to get to the temple is by car? Or as Boromir might put it:

Perhaps more importantly, are we discouraging curious neighbors who live and work near the temple from visiting the temple grounds? In addition to the temple itself, the temple grounds are home to a visitor’s center and a family history center. Neither of these public-oriented centers is visible from the street; you’d need to already be on the temple grounds to just happen upon them if you didn’t already know they were there.

There’s an easy solution to this: Just open up all the gates so that people in the surrounding neighborhoods can walk onto the temple grounds from all sides. Maybe if we did that, the local community would start to use the temple grounds as a public park or garden: a nice place to take a walk or to sit and enjoy the flowers or the reflecting pool on a sunny afternoon. Those that do would likely have better awareness of the public events that the visitor’s center occasionally hosts. Maybe they would wander into the family history center. Perhaps they would be more likely to value the temple as a neighbor rather than just as a landmark.

I assume the gates are locked for a reason. Probably security. There’s a fair amount of homelessness in some of the adjacent neighborhoods. Perhaps the locked gates help dissuade people from sleeping on the temple steps. Maybe it’s about keeping people from walking their messy dogs on the temple grounds. But I think we need consider whether we have a stronger mandate to invite people in or to keep the wrong kind of people out.

I’m thinking about literal, physical access to the temple grounds, but maybe there’s a metaphor in there as well. Are there ways of accessing church participation and membership —gates that already exist and were even built into the institution— that have been closed and locked for no good reason?

[fn] Temple and meetinghouse siting is a separate and important topic, but this post is focusing just on site access.

[fn2] That’s a guess. I obviously don’t have access to the actual numbers for how many temple-recommend holders live in the temple district, much less how many live with a given radius.

34 comments for “Access to the Temple

  1. I work about a mile from the LA temple, and often contemplate its unique perch in its neighborhood, which has seen a lot of changes in the last 50 years. The closed gates and odd entrance are strange and seem to be specific reactions to changes in the neighborhood, etc. An older Jewish attorney who had worked in Century City for years remarked to me, on finding that out I am LDS, that there must be so many Mormons in the neighborhood to justify such a splendid temple. I could hardly contain my laughter, as the temple seems to serve Santa Clarita as much as anywhere else.

  2. Great point. Not only just for visitors but a lot of people might bring their kids to the temple grounds after church on Sunday in order to emphasize its importance. We’ve regularly done that with our kids going up to the temple we were married at. There’s a lot of people wandering around. Making the grounds approachable in that fashion is very helpful. It also has obvious missionary work opportunities.

  3. The Temple grounds stand as a refuge and oasis in the middle of busy commercial and graffiti-covered spaces. While all the ideas to throw the beautiful park land open to public access sound just really nice and dreamy, practical reality says tranquility would not last long if the grounds were freely open and unprotected. The Santa Monica Blvd building is not even unique in this aspect. No modern temple grounds are public open spaces. Even local chapels display a stern warning sign at the entrance to parking. At the Salt Lake Temple, the sign reads, “The Church reserves the right to refuse access to any person, for any reason.”

  4. I’ve lived in close proximity to the DC, Provo, and San Diego temples. Provo most closely replicates the ideal you raise of functioning as both park-like grounds and temple grounds. The difference of course being that overwhelmingly those in the surrounding area are Mormon, and those using the temple grounds as a park, are really using them as a sacred park (but really, go there on a Sunday afternoon and the place is packed!). San Diego and DC are both hugely visible by the main traffic arteries, but are both very imposing buildings (DC can only be called a fortress), which might aesthetically signal something like what you describe with physical space. The main form of public transit here in the DC area is the metro rail system, which drops one off about a 30 min, very non-pedestrian friendly walk from the temple. Interestingly there’s a free shuttle, operated by a non-profit of some sort that one can text and then be picked up at the metro. But it’s very much an insider thing.

  5. Jim – Interestingly, DC’s temple is built on quite a few acres, and there’s a nice path running through the woods around the temple. Similarly, the Prescott and London temples have very large grounds that one can wander. I wonder if we couldn’t simply create larger, but publicly accessible buffers of park/forest around our temples in a way that would both invite visitors and allow the temple grounds to continue as part of the sanctuary.

  6. Did the LA temple really serve South and Central America? When I was a missionary in Guatemala in the late 1970’s it was in the Mesa temple district.

  7. Love the thoughts on non car transportation. It does seem that there should at least be a call box one could use to have the pedestrian gates opened when needed.

    Quibble: The Mesa, AZ temple was built 29 years before the LA temple, so It cannot be claimed that LA was built to serve central America, but CA, parts of NV, South West Oregon, and the Baja pennisula would definitely have preferred the drive to LA, over their previous options.

  8. The Mesa (Az.) temple was THE temple for Latin America for much of the 20th century. My understanding is that the Church doesn’t want non-members strolling the temple grounds, spending much of the last 20 years installing security fencing around any temple that previously lacked fencing (Logan and Idaho Falls, for instance.)

    Similarly, they’ve discontinued the practice of building temple visitor centers. Some blog reader would have a better idea for a timeframe on this one, but IIRC, it was part of Pres. Kimballs cookie-cutter temple building initiative in the early 1980s.

  9. emylime and curtispew: Thanks for the correction – I didn’t think about the Mesa Temple. I’m guessing that South America would have been split between Mesa and LA until the São Paulo and Santiago Temples were built, but I can’t find information on historical temple districts.

  10. I was in Paris, France recently for the events for the temple dedication. I did not have the patience to figure out the bus so I spent 13 euros (twice in two days) for a taxi after arriving from Paris proper via train. The driver of course knew exactly where to go. There is a visitor center at the temple with a garden but I am not sure of unlimited access etc.

  11. Also, I recall that the fortress-like appearance of the LA temples grounds was last proved during the protests on Prop 8 back in 2008. There was a scuffle or two between protesters and security guards at the gates. This experience might justify the fencing and closed gates in the minds of those in charge.

  12. Chet: I’m so glad to hear that a new temple has a visitor’s center, since I was alarmed by The Other Clark’s comment that the church doesn’t build them anymore. I love visitor’s centers! I wish all temples had them.

  13. p.s. taxi from the Versailles train station in lieu of a 2.5 km walk to the Paris temple

  14. I wish they’d get back to doing more visitors centers. There’s lots of people who ask about what the buildings are.

    I wonder if the security feel of the LA Temple is due to crime? I vaguely recall someone telling me of the security dogs they had to install there years ago. (I don’t know if they still use them)

  15. I was a missionary in LA in the late 90’s and we were bussed there every six months. I too thought it odd the entrance isn’t at the front. My area is getting a Temple and a new building. Neither has been built yet and so far no bus service to that area of the city. It’s in a wealthy area and they all have cars apparently so why bother with a bus? is the thinking. Hopefully that’ll change. The local leaders know this but i’m not sure what they can do. I have to say if there is no bus service then how would a lot of members, with no cars, get to the Temple let alone those that would attend Church every week? Just because one person has a car doesn’t mean everyone else does.

  16. I grew up in Southern California and remember when all the gates were open. I remember as they closed and locked the gates, one by one. Cars were being vandalized and gang symbols were being painted on the driveways. People started bragging about getting out on the huge front lawn at night after the lights went off and holding immoral activities and temple security never discovering them. I too think it’s sad that the gates around the Lord’s House are locked, but back in the 70’s, when this was going on, security had become the priority. It’s a shame they are still locked.

  17. When we visited the Mesa AZ temple a few years ago, it seemed very open and people were sitting around on the grounds. It seemed like a happenin’ neighborhood gathering place. Is it fenced off now?

    They did have a visitors center there.

  18. One question then. Have our meetinghouses become like our temples, “by invitation only?”

  19. And we all presumably remember what happened at Temple Square when they threw all the gates open. Access to the grounds is still pretty easy, but brides are no longer heckled now that most of the gates have been locked again. This world does not deserve to have nice things.

  20. A comment that I left at Times and Seasons nine years ago:

    One enters the Los Angeles temple in degrees, first pulling off a major road into the temple grounds, then walking through the courtyard formed by the main structure and the west and east wings. Entering at dusk or leaving at night gives a beautiful view of West LA which always made me mindful of separating from the ordinary world for a few hours of worship and then coming back into it to live; in no place were my feelings more routinely drawn out in love toward the world (meaning the people I shared the city with). The elevated, slightly isolated position, something like God’s, was part of that feeling.

  21. I and a couple friends, who were all temple recommend holding members, were shoo’ed away from the LA temple grounds 10 years ago because we were traveling through the area and stopped to eat a sack lunch on the grounds. It was sad.

  22. The Copenhagen Temple (at least 10 years ago) was just a block or so away from a bus stop and was accessible by bike, bus, and car. But the character of Copenhagen is such that it needed to be close to public transportation. The Manhattan temple is right next to a subway stop and is actually easier to access by public transportation/foot than by car. It seems that the temple in LA was built considering the norms and needs of the day. Perhaps if they renovate it in the future that might be considered.

    I’m not in love with the temple grounds as a park space. I think it detracts from the sacred ground and holy nature of the temple. Quite frankly the idea of having a picnic lunch on the grounds of any temple seems quite sacrilegious. I think it needs to remain a space where it is kept apart for quiet and reverent reflection.

    I think that visitors centers are marvelous and should be built, especially in areas where traffic is high and would attract visitors. They offer an important opportunity to share the gospel and the important nature of the temple.

  23. I agree with Tiffany’s take on those wishing to use temple grounds like a public park. We forget too quickly that temple grounds are dedicated for a holy purpose. There are very few indications of Jesus demonstrating physical force and scolding people, but one such occasion was when he cleansed the temple at Jerusalem. Temple grounds are sacred spaces and need to be treated as such.

  24. “the idea of having a picnic lunch on the grounds of any temple seems quite sacrilegious.”

    Must be a cultural thing. Families here drive down to the temple with their children. One parent will go in whilst the other looks after the kids and then they swap around. We’ve done it. It isn’t unusual, and indeed is quite lovely to see members picnicking in the grounds on a sunny day. Also groups of primary children visiting the temple grounds as a primary outing.

    The grounds of the London temple include a formal garden with benches for sitting, a wildlife/woodland area, and a meadow (it’s even been known for games to be played in the meadow).

  25. Some of the temples, the LA Temple in particular, have cafeterias in them! If I can reverently pay for a meal inside the temple walls I can certainly reverently eat a lunch I brought with me as I sit in the grounds! It’s not like I’m proposing staging a pickup football game. I’m reverently sitting and eating a sandwich for goodness sake! Are you telling me the only righteous way to eat on temple grounds is to pay for the privilege?

  26. I suspect “Old Man” does not have young kids. Even with the proliferation of temples, much of the membership–such as my family–still live hours from the temple. In my situation, it’s a two-hour drive each way, so an endowment session takes about 7 hours round trip. With four kids and no extended family nearby, the only way I’ve found is the “tag-team” arrangement mentioned by Hedgehog. I do a session while my wife watches the kids, then switch.

    There’s a park adjacent to the Spokane Temple. The nearby stake center is frequently open with access to the nursery and gym. Not optimal, but certainly doable.

  27. Old Man eats little kids for breakfast. Actually, I love kids, my own and others, and I want them playing at the park, not romping around the temple grounds. I’ll bring the frisbee and football.

  28. @Naismith The Mesa Temple is still very open, you can enter through the parking gate on the South side, the reflecting pool entrance on the West (which is the actual entrance after the 78′ remodel), the baptistry gate on the East, and several gates on the North by the visitors center.

    Mesa also has a cafeteria, although I’ve never eaten there. My family has also enjoyed several meals on the temple grounds, although we never bring in a huge meal with a blanket and a basket. We’re more of a brown bag type anyway though…. We do try to be respectful of the grounds though.

  29. I attend Sunday meetings at a chapel on the same property as a temple in an American city noted for its high crime. The fences and security measures around the temple are extensive. However, the youth of the ward have managed to habitually breach these security measures and play freely on the temple grounds while sluffing their meetings. They even changed the words of the favorite primary song from “Follow the Prophet, he knows the way,” to follow Melissa, she knows the way” (to get into the temple grounds).Or the name of whichever youth happened to be most capable of pulling this kind of prank at the time.

    One Sunday morning my sister visiting from Salt Lake (who is generally a very pious and stalwart member of the church) was escorted onto the forbidden temple grounds by my then teenage daughter. My sister was so taken by the sight and smell of the beautiful magnolia blossoms that she had to have one. My daughter pointed out the numerous security cameras and refused to get one. My sister handed over her camera and purse while she climbed the tree in a dress to pluck one. My daughter took a picture of her Aunt stealing a magnolia flower from the temple grounds and told her she should pay double tithing next month as punishment for robbery.

    I find it odd how we Mormons tend to think of the temple as almost like our own personal property. My sister would never stoop to stealing a flower from her neighbors or from a gardening store. But the temple? Well, that is an entirely different matter.

    The LDS church owns the temples and does with them as they see fit and we have no more say in the matter than how our bank controls access to its buildings. And we shouldn’t expect any consideration of our opinions either. If we don’t like it then we need to find something else or somewhere else to go and do our thing.

  30. As I said before it has to be a cultural thing, I think. In Britain it isn’t unusual to see people sitting quietly eating their lunches in the grounds of formal gardens and sacred buildings in our cities, cathedrals for instance, on a sunny day. There remains a respectful atmosphere. No-one is playing loud games close to the building (the meadow in the London temple grounds is a fair way back).
    If we’re teaching our children to sing “I love to see the Temple” then they need to actually see it, and enjoy their time in the grounds. I much prefer eating outside in the grounds than in the cafeteria inside. The atmosphere outside is actually quieter, more reflective, more reverential than in the cafeteria where patrons are packed in close together, with the unavoidable accompanying sounds.

  31. “Quite frankly the idea of having a picnic lunch on the grounds of any temple seems quite sacrilegious.”

    “We forget too quickly that temple grounds are dedicated for a holy purpose.”

    And I think we forget too quickly that the sterile decor and hushed tones of today’s temples are modern phenomena. In both Kirtland and Nauvoo, dances were actually held inside those temples. A family picnic on temple grounds sounds quite lovely to me.

  32. Old Man says, I agree with Tiffany’s take on those wishing to use temple grounds like a public park. We forget too quickly that temple grounds are dedicated for a holy purpose.

    I agree with Gomez on this one, perhaps not to the extent of holding dances. :) I certainly think we might be going a bit too far when we equate a picnic lunch with fraudulent and usurious money-changing on temple grounds. I can’t see Jesus overturning picnic tables and spilling the potato salad, and it could be argued that (subject to the idea of moderation), eating is a holy purpose.

    People are holy, or have the potential to be so. Once you’re inside the temple, there’s plenty of time to speak in a reverent whisper and you can no longer hear the people walking and talking. Enforcing an extended “sacred silence zone” around the exterior of the building seems like just another gospel hobby horse to me.

    Actual security, and preventing violence and vandalism, is a different story entirely.

  33. I agree—it’s interesting that lots of temples seem distinctly car-culture-oriented. The Chicago temple, in Wilmette, is technically accessibly by public transit, but I’m not sure the details. I do know there’s nothing near it that allows walking, and that it requires at least one transfer from the city of Chicago, and weekends can take upwards of 2 hours. (Of course, it takes at least an hour to drive there, given Chicago traffic.) For many Chicagoans, who don’t have cars (or even who do), that’s a significant impediment to going to the temple. New York’s temple, situated on a major subway line and near a number of buses, strikes me as a much better model, especially in or near urban areas.

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