KIRTLAND, Ohio – When Joseph Smith arrived in Kirtland with a group of followers in 1831, they built a community to serve as headquarters of the fledgling religion that would become The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
By the time they had moved on seven years later, they had built the church’s first temple and organized a Mormon faith that today includes nearly 7 million people in the United States and millions more worldwide.
Now, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is restoring the house that was Smith’s home for several years — a site in suburban Kirtland considered sacred by the church’s congregates.
The house, a two-story wood frame building located on Ohio 306 near the Kirtland Temple, was Smith’s home from 1833 to 1838, when he and his followers moved west.
Work on the building, expected to be finished next year, will contribute to a collection of historic places that already draw tens of thousands of visitors to Kirtland each year and helps bolster the local economy.
Scope of the project
The church acquired the property in 2012 for $128,000 and spent considerable time doing architectural and archaeological research to determine what was part of the original construction and what was added later.
Work began in May. The goal of the extensive project is to return the building to its original configuration from 1833, said Gary Walton, site president for Historic Kirtland.
Already a large addition on the back of the house and a porch across the front of the building have been removed.
Still to come is the reduction of the roof line. The original house was one and a half stories tall and was later expanded to two stories.
Other parts of the project will include restoring the exterior of a small store Smith operated across the street from the home and reconstruction of part of the foundation on property adjacent to the house that was the site of a home occupied by Smith’s parents.
Walton did not have an estimate of the total cost. But Kirtland Mayor Kevin Potter said that until now, the church has not hesitated to spend money on its projects. He cited extensive infrastructure improvements made when Historic Kirtland was developed.
“The church has invested a lot of money into Kirtland,” Potter said. “Everything they do is first rate, first class.”
The church in Kirtland
Smith arrived in Kirtland in 1831 and the town served as the church’s headquarters for the next seven years.
Converts flocked to the region, with more than 2,000 followers present by 1838, according to the church. A year later, all but about 100 had moved west.
In 2003, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dedicated Historic Kirtland, a $15-million project that restored several buildings from the settlement and built replicas of others, such as a sawmill, that were lost over time.
In an interview with The New York Times, a historic sites curator for the church said the project was an attempt to clearly show the town’s significance.
“When Joseph Smith arrives in Kirtland in 1831, he’s the head of a loosely organized group of followers,” Steven Olsen told The Times. “When they leave Kirtland in 1838, the church has a fully recognized ecclesiastical organization.”
Among the restorations is the Newel K. Whitney & Co. Store, where Smith and his wife, Emma, lived prior to building their home. The church’s first Presidency, the church’s governing body, was organized in the store. And it is there that Smith is said to have received a command from God to build the Kirtland Temple, which is just south of the Smith house.
There now are several branches of the Mormon faith, but they were one when Smith and his followers were in Kirtland, said Roger Rose, the director of the visitor center and museum for the Kirtland Temple. The temple is owned by the Community of Christ, one of those branches.
The largest of them, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints based in Salt Lake City, has nearly 17 million members worldwide with more than 6.7 million followers in the United States alone.
Visitors from across the country make pilgrimages to Kirtland each year, Walton said. Last week, for example, five loaded tour buses pulled up to the village on Tuesday.
Emerging from the pandemic, the site expects 40,000 to 50,000 visitors in 2022 — up from about 21,000 a year ago, he said.
There are estimates that pre-pandemic numbers exceeded 75,000 a year.
The temple also draws thousands annually. Nearly 6,000 people visited last quarter, Rose said. About 3,000 reservations have already been received for July.
Restoration of Smith’s house will only serve to heighten those numbers, Rose and Walton predicted.
The visits make a significant contribution to the economy.
Visitors support restaurants not just in Kirtland but also in neighboring communities, said Karen Tercek, president and CEO of the Willoughby Western Lake County Chamber of Commerce. Nearby downtown Willoughby, for example, is a beneficiary, she said.
Lydia Mihalik, director of the Ohio Department of Development, said heritage tourism is a major contributor to the state’s $47-billion tourism industry.
“We see visitors coming to explore and learn about national historic landmarks, such as the Kirtland Temple and other attractions, ranging from the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta to the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museum in Fremont,” Mihalik said. “Many of those visitors stay in nearby hotels and support local restaurants and retailers in Ohio.”
Kirtland leaders are mindful of that, as they try to accommodate visitors to the historic sites and to other nearby attractions, such as the Holden Arboretum and Lake Metroparks sites, Potter said.
“We have a real opportunity in Kirtland to showcase our best,” Potter said. “We’re not just looking to get people to open their wallets. … We want them to enjoy and remember their visit to Kirtland.”
Cleveland.com reporter Brenda Cain does pro bono communications work for Historic Kirtland.