Feature Stories

Close calls and angels in halls: Forgotten miracles from the first DC Temple open house

The Lowe family

Julian Lowe was called to organize the first open house for the DC Temple in 1974, a prodigious challenge filled with unexpected problems, but also unexpected blessings.

Julian Lowe was called to chair the organizing committee for the 1974 Washington D.C. Temple open house and dedication. He wrote in his autobiography, “The more we got into it, the more we realized that the public preview of the Washington temple might well be an event of enormous proportions. [We] came to realize that opening a temple in Washington offered opportunities for the Church perhaps found nowhere else. . . . Here lived the political leaders of the United States and the diplomatic corps representing the nations of the earth. . . .

“As we studied the local situation further, we concluded that as many as a half‑million people might visit the temple during the planned six‑week preview … . The basic control factor, of course, was the issuance of tickets.”1

In those days before the internet, the distribution of tickets was a mammoth task because it was entirely dependent on contact by telephone and mail. In June 1974, the committee opened an office in Arlington, Virginia, with two phone lines. When demand began to build, the operation shifted to the home basement of Lowe’s first counselor, Ira Somers, in McLean, Virginia, where five phone lines were installed in mid-August. One week later, five more were added at the insistence of the local Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company.2

Volunteers issuing tickets to the Washington D.C. Temple open house from a member’s basement.
Courtesy of the Dale Van Atta

It was so noisy in the basement that all the phone ringers were turned off because there was no need to hear them. As soon as the volunteers hung up, they just picked up the phone again and someone was on the line. Not only were people trying for days on end to call for tickets, but all phone lines in the area with the same 533 prefix were crashing intermittently. When one ticket seeker complained to the phone company, she was told: “Madam, if they had 100 telephones, it still wouldn’t take care of the demand that they have for tickets to go through the Mormon Temple.” In the final days of distribution, all-night “ticket parties” of volunteers were needed to stuff, lick, and stamp the thousands of envelopes.3

Members organizing tickets from a member's basement.
Courtesy of the Dale Van Atta

Last-Minute Demands

The first dry-run temple tours were held without fanfare on August 18 for 2,251 young Latter-day Saints who would soon be departing for college.4 It was done on a Sunday because that was the only day workers wouldn’t be on the site trying to finish the temple. The architects’ inspection reports make it clear that even after the student preview, dozens of items still needed installing or fixing. In the bride’s room, the sprinkler system malfunctioned and sprayed water on the velvet upholstery and carpet. The half-ton, 10-foot-long, six-foot-wide chandelier of 10,000 imported Czechoslovakian crystals was moved twice in the run-up to the public open house.

In early August, architect Harold Beecher urged that the chandelier illuminating The Last Judgment mural in the second-floor lobby should be moved to the celestial room instead, which had no central chandelier. He thought it was “too imposing” for the lobby and that the 12 smaller chandeliers between the celestial room columns were not enough. So construction workers carefully carried the lobby chandelier up two stories to place it in the center of the celestial room ceiling.

A week later, architect Henry Fetzer arrived and decided that the shape of the large chandelier didn’t fit the shape of the room. Down it came, and back it went to the lobby.5

It was then time for an all-volunteer final cleanup. Church members from the Washington-area stakes “came to the temple with vacuums, scrub brushes, buckets, and a lot of elbow grease to clean up residue left by the construction workers inside of the temple,” according to Church News. “The number of those volunteering exceeded those needed. One ward solved that problem by drawing names out of a hat.”6

Among the volunteers was teenager Peter Scholz, who recounted: “Two of us in my Aaronic Priesthood quorum were given the task of sweeping one of the tall stairwells. It was very dirty with all the construction debris and drywall dust. So I told my buddy to go down to the bottom and I’d start sweeping from the top: ‘You sweep up and I’ll sweep down.’ We were 14 years old, and we weren’t that smart. It just created a massive cloud of dust in the staircase. After about a half-hour, he came up looking like a ghost—covered in white dust. We just sat there and laughed. When I tell people that I saw an angel in the temple, it was my friend Ricky who I totally covered in white temple dust.”7

There were some last-minute demands from the county’s fire marshal, who threatened to revoke the occupancy permit because some doors were improperly hung. That was Thursday, August 29. The following day was the first of four scheduled days of tours for Latter-day Saints from stakes outside the Washington area to see the temple before the public open house. Buses were already en route from Florida for ticketed tours the next morning.

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To ensure the tours could proceed, local Church attorney Robert Barker swung into action and called his good friend Jim Gleason, a Montgomery County executive. Gleason directed the fire marshal to negotiate “with the Mormons” that afternoon. An emergency meeting was convened with the marshal, the county fire chief, Barker, and builder Sid Foulger. They hammered out a day-by-day deal that required last-minute fixes by Latter-day Saint volunteers working alongside Foulger’s workers. They worked through the evening rehanging doors.8 At 6:00 a.m. the fire inspectors arrived and realized the workers could be trusted to finish the list and the tours were permitted to proceed.9

Over a period of eight days, until the final pre-open house tour ended on Saturday, September 7, a total of 37,262 Latter-day Saints had been able to walk through the temple.10 The day after that last tour was Sunday, and the temple rested while volunteers prepared for the Monday cornerstone laying with President Spencer W. Kimball.

the cornerstone laying press event at the beginning of the VIP week.jpg
President Kimball at the cornerstone laying press event at the beginning of the VIP tour week.

On Tuesday, more than 100 US senators and representatives were given special tours and visited with President Kimball and other Church leaders. Lowe thought everything was going fine—but late on Tuesday, the committee chair faced a new obstacle. The fire marshal was back with a new set of demands, declaring that he was going to close down the tours for the following day, when many dignitaries were expected at the temple—including, possibly, the president of the United States.

The previous spring, when President Richard M. Nixon had been invited to the future temple open house, he and his wife, Pat, said they would be there. Not only was Latter-day Saint hotelier J.W. Marriott a good friend, but Marriott had also chaired both of Nixon’s presidential inaugural committees. Then, on August 8, as a result of the Watergate impeachment inquiries, Nixon resigned his office, and Vice President Gerald R. Ford became president.

Ford was amenable to visiting the temple if his schedule permitted. The First Lady said she would definitely plan to be there, but that almost didn’t happen. A few days before the president was to visit, workers removed temporary railings on the fire exit staircases of the four towers. A shipment of the permanent railings had been expected but was arriving later. Once again, Robert Barker called the county’s executive, who pledged to the marshal that the railings would be in place by the morning, so the open house could continue.

Two men stepped forward to take on the Herculean task: “finish superintendent” Brent Pratt and foreman John Howell. “These were four tall stairwells that needed 110 feet of railing each,” Pratt recalled. “We started at 5 o’clock at night, after all the workers checked out, and we worked all through the night, sawing and hammering those 440 feet of railing into place. We finished at 6 o’clock the next morning. I would say that was a miracle, and perhaps we had a little help like those angels who helped push the handcarts for the Mormon pioneers. I was walking out of the temple as the fire marshal was coming in, and he approved it. I truly believe the Lord watched over that building, and He did watch over us that night.”11

A Tour with the First Lady

First Lady Betty Ford arrived at the temple for the scheduled 3:30 p.m. tour with her daughter, Susan, but without the president. President Ford was dealing with the fallout from the pardon he had issued for Nixon three days before. If he arrived, reporters would have besieged him with questions about that decision. Out of respect for the peace and solemnity of the temple, Ford chose to stay away.12

With President Kimball as the guide for Betty and Susan, they lingered for long moments in front of John Scott’s mural of the Last Judgment, at which point a non-Latter-day Saint in the party said it was a pity that the temple would eventually be closed to everyone but worthy Church members. President Kimball gently responded that “there is nothing secret here—it is only very sacred.” When they reached the solemn assembly room on the highest floor, Mrs. Ford asked how temple officials could tell whether a Church member was worthy to enter. The process of members receiving their recommends from local Church officials was explained.

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“At this point in the conversation, [Utah] Senator Wallace Bennett, who was in the company, took his recommend out of his pocket to show to her,” Lowe recalled. “Following that, each of us in the party took out our recommends. President Kimball was the last one to find his recommend, and there were a few awkward seconds while he searched through his wallet. When he found it, with mischief in her voice, the First Lady said to President Kimball, ‘I’m so glad you’ve got one, too. You had me worried!’”13

Outside the temple, Mrs. Ford spoke to the news media. “This is a wonderful creation of six years, and I think they are very generous [having] it open to the public before they have their own services,” she said. “For me, this is really, truly a great experience. I think the temple is one of great beauty and a great addition to our surroundings here in Washington. It’s really an inspiration to all of us. I don’t know when I have enjoyed anything quite so much.”14

First Lady Betty Ford with President Kimball at the DC Temple dedication crop.jpg
First Lady Betty Ford at the open house of the Washington D.C. Temple with President Spencer W. Kimball.
Courtesy of the Lowe family.

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1. Julian and Nola Lowe, Our Lives, 267–269.

2. Alice Allred Pottmyer, “‘Welcome’ to 500,000 People,” Church News, September 14, 1974.

3. The Washington Temple, October 1974; Mark Henderson, “15th Anniversary of Dedication,”

Nov. 26, 1989; Lowe and Lowe, Our Lives, 273–274.

4. Henderson 1974 Historical Record, 1975.

5. Harold K. Beecher, inspection reports, June 25, 1974, and Aug. 5, 1974; Henry Fetzer, inspection report, Aug. 9, 1974.

6. Lacey Larsen, “1,400 Volunteers Aid Temple Tours,” Church News, Sept. 14, 1974.

7. Peter Scholz, interview by the author, May 28, 2015.

8. Jesse R. Smith, 1983 Eames Report (unpublished manuscript, Oct. 20, 1983), 36–37.

9. Fetzer, inspection report, Aug. 30, 1974.

10. Henderson 1974 Historical Record, 1975.

11. Pratt was not absolutely sure whether his all-night railing fix happened Monday or Tuesday night of VIP week, but either way, important dignitaries were scheduled for the next day (Brent Pratt, interview by the author, May 24, 2015).

12. The Fords’ daughter, Susan, enjoyed the tour so much she returned for a second visit in late October with her father’s sister-in-law Janet Ford. Their guide was chief architect Fred Markham. When the tour was over, Susan invited him to lunch at the White House, which he gratefully accepted and enjoyed (Fred Markham, inspection report, Nov. 2, 1974).

13. Lowe and Lowe, Our Lives, 271.

14. Smith, 1983 Eames Report, 35.

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