The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has added another exclusive venue to Manhattan. The church recently installed a temple inside its building across from Lincoln Center, bringing one of the faith's holiest and most restrictive spaces to the Naked City.
The New York version of a Mormon temple bears little relationship to its out-of-town counterparts, with their ambitious spires and triumphant steeples intended to inspire a closeness to God.
Often these temples are set near a highway -- as with the temple along the Capital Beltway in Kensington -- to let those passing by marvel at their architectural glory.
The New York temple, by contrast, lies within a windowless, drab-looking, modernist building on Columbus Avenue in the city's Upper West Side. With real estate selling for $60 a square foot, Mormon elders decided to settle for the practical and constructed their temple inside an existing meetinghouse, which they built in 1975, before the area became a hot property market.
The temple, the only one between Washington and Boston, is the second Mormon temple constructed within an existing building. The other, in crowded and pricey Hong Kong, was consecrated in 1996.
Church members in the New York area will now be spared the four-hour drive to Boston or Washington to participate in the church's most sacred rites, including marriages and family "sealings," in which a family is bound together for eternity.
To church elder A. Kim Smith, the creation of the Manhattan temple cements the arrival of Mormons in the New York City area and reflects the religion's changing demographics.
"Years ago, the church was not known" in the city, said Smith, who spearheaded the renovation and whose day job is as an executive at Goldman Sachs. "We were strangers."
In the past decade, the New York regional Mormon population has tripled to 42,000, fueled largely by immigration and aggressive proselytizing in black and Latino communities. During the same period, membership in the Washington area has grown 24 percent, to about 68,000.
The church reports membership of 5.5 million in the United States and has grown to 12 million worldwide, largely due to recruiting efforts in Latin America and Africa. As immigrants arrive in New York, they bring the religion to this country, Smith said.
Two years ago, church President Gordon B. Hinckley, 93, satisfied that the New York membership had grown large enough to warrant its own temple, announced that the city would become home to the religion's 119th temple.
Church leaders started renovating the six-story building to create two worlds: a meetinghouse for the day-to-day aspects of religious life, including youth programs and Sunday worship services, and a temple with its own entrance and elevator reserved for sacred ordinances and advanced religious instruction.
A church spokesman declined to release the renovation price tag but said that member tithing covered most of the costs. The Mormon law of tithing calls for members to donate 10 percent of their income to the church, one of the requirements for becoming worthy of accessing the temple.
Few exterior signs hint at the significant addition to the interior. Construction workers have added a cubist look to the marble entrance and installed decorative branch-etched glass panes above the door. A spire topped with the church's signature statue of the angel Moroni is scheduled to be added in the fall on the corner of the roof. It will extend 60 feet, nearly equal the height of the building.
"The Mormons are bucking the trend here," said Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, whose sacred sites program monitors the status of historic religious buildings. Mainline denominations are losing membership, and many congregations are being forced to shut down or move, Breen said. "You're finding more churches than the population can sustain."
The city's growing evangelical population often takes up residence in abandoned theaters, factories or storefronts. But the Mormon temple is unusual for dividing a building for two different purposes, she said.
For the Mormons, the temple's construction represents a homecoming of sorts. The Mormons trace their religious roots to 1830, when the church's founder, Joseph Smith, established a temple in Fayette, N.Y., 300 miles northwest of Manhattan. But religious persecution drove the Mormons to the West, and after Smith was shot and killed by a mob in Illinois, the church settled in Utah.
After church officials consecrate the temple on June 13, only Mormons who have achieved a certain status will be allowed to enter. But in the weeks leading up to the formal dedication, Mormon leaders opened the doors to the public and invited religious and community leaders to preview a place Mormons call a "metaphor for heaven on earth."
Ushers and tour guides reflected New York's diversity as Filipinos, Caribbean immigrants, Africans and Latinos led guests on tours, as did the blue-eyed, blond-haired young men and women in their traditional proselytizing uniforms -- white shirts, nametags and black pants.
Each door is marked with beehive molding, a common Mormon architectural motif symbolizing industriousness. Door handles resemble the Statue of Liberty torch "to make it a little local," said Smith.
On a recent tour, visitors took an elevator to the second-floor baptismal font, which is set above a sculpture of 12 oxen.
Mormon baptisms have attracted criticism over the years after it was discovered that the church had baptized deceased non-members by proxy. Smith said the New York temple will be used to baptize deceased ancestors of church members who were not Mormons, uncovering their identities through the church's genealogy database of 400 million names.
"When you see the interconnectedness [of people] it's amazing," he said.
The temple's rooms, distinguished by penetrating white lights, high-back chairs and plush carpets, feel like elegant sitting rooms. On all floors, soundproofing muffles the noise of the surrounding city.
The endowment room, where church members receive religious instruction, is spartanly decorated with walls painted to depict a wooded setting.
"Since we don't have grounds as in other temples, this is a nice substitute," Smith said.
The tour culminates on the sixth floor with the sealing room, a rectangular space with seating for about 20 people. Large gold-trimmed mirrors mounted on either side create countless reflections representing eternity.
Jade Borowski, a Mormon who lives in New Jersey, emerged from the tour looking refreshed and excited. The temple, he said, brings a religious home nearby and a respite for an urban flock.
"It's a way to get away from the world to find peace and get away from the big city," he said.