The very first established place of worship for the Mormon settlers was a bowery near what is now Pioneer Park in Salt Lake City. The first real formal meeting place was the original or “Old” tabernacle on what is now Temple Square, constructed in 1852. In new settlements, Mormons did not always immediately build a local meetinghouse; instead, they often held church meetings in small, multi-purpose buildings or homes.
The earliest meetinghouses often appeared similar to larger residences, usually temple form in plan with minor classical design elements. The entrance was on the gable end, and a row of windows lined the two broad sides. If the church had a steeple, it was usually small. The spare interiors typically consisted of a single large room with rows of benches or sometimes chairs, and a small dais or just a podium at the end opposite the entrance. These first-generation meetinghouses were most commonly constructed of adobe brick stuccoed on the exterior. Sometimes as the wards grew in size, members built additions to their meetinghouses, but usually they just replaced the old with a new building.
In time, Mormons built tabernacles for regional meetings. These larger, more architectural and more costly buildings could hold more people. Many early examples have been replaced, but some still stand in larger cities.
By the turn of the 20th century, meetinghouse design accrued more architectural embellishment and took on a more traditional form, including a steeple (which the early forms usually lacked), and sometimes a small room at the rear of the building for office space. Soon, buildings were being constructed with several rooms in which to hold classes. And, as wards were able to raise money, they built “amusement halls” near the meetinghouses, in which to hold dances, socials, and sporting events.
By the 1920s, wards built “cultural halls,” as they came to be called, as part of the meetinghouse. Plans also became somewhat standardized church-wide. Common styles implemented from 1900 through the 1950s included Romanesque, Victorian Gothic, Prairie School, Colonial Revival, and Minimal Traditional, and even some hints of Modernism.
By the end of the 1950s, “ward houses,” as they became known, were fairly large and included a chapel that could be opened up into the cultural hall, classrooms, meeting rooms, and a kitchen. By this time most references to historical styles had given way to a basic, modern appearance. In the early 1980s floor plans changed so that hallway extensions were replaced with a single hall around the perimeter (also known as a “racetrack”) surrounding the chapel and cultural hall. New buildings basically retain this format today, although references to Colonial Revivalism are again popular in the exterior design.