The Oakland Temple. Photo: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

For the first time in 55 years, the public will have a chance, starting Saturday, to tour the Oakland Mormon temple, which is perched atop an 18-acre complex in the Oakland hills.

Church leaders say it’s the first time since the 95,000-square-foot building, at 4770 Lincoln Ave., was completed in 1964 that the public will be allowed inside. Entrance to the temple, even for members of the church, is by permission only.

Luminaries, including two members of the Quorum of the Twelve, which is the second-highest governing body of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, held a press event Monday to announce the three-week open house. Church leaders were quick to note that, while they don’t speak publicly about the details of what happens inside the temple, that’s because it’s sacred, “not secret.”

There are about 1,050 Mormons who reside in Berkeley, according to the church, which says its Bay Area population numbers nearly 770,000 people. About 9,000 of its members live in the Oakland area.

The Oakland temple was the second Mormon temple built in California, and the 13th temple overall. There are now 209 Mormon temples worldwide, including nearly 90 in North America. Only sacred ordinances, such as marriage ceremonies, instructional programs and certain types of baptisms, take place inside the temple. Sunday worship services are held elsewhere, in meetinghouses or chapels, for local congregations.

Monday’s event included remarks from church leaders and supporters along with temple tours. After introductory remarks noting the importance of the event, followed by a brief video about Mormon beliefs, tour participants were taken from a visitor’s center into the temple itself. There, everyone donned white plastic booties, placed over each tour attendee’s shoes by church volunteers, to keep the building clean. Inside, smiling ushers welcomed the tour group as it moved through the hallways and from room to room.

The baptismal font at the Oakland Mormon temple. Photo: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

As part of the tour, church leaders described the building’s notable features, including an array of original artwork and giclée reproductions, as well as basic information about the ceremonies that take place within the building.

The media tours themselves — or at least the one that Berkeleyside staffers joined — were primarily focused on key tenets of Mormon teachings and the main functions of the temple rather than the renovation work that had been done. But church representatives said improvements included updates to the building’s internal systems, new paint and wood paneling in many of the rooms, new dressing rooms and other remodeling work.

Seismic work had previously been done to strengthen the church towers, said Elder Larry Wilson, executive director of the Temple Department, who is based in Salt Lake City.

The Oakland Mormon temple. Photo: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

One big change to the Oakland temple was the location of the main entrance, which used to be on the side of the building. The entrance is now located on the front of the temple, past a reflecting pool and flowering plants, under a massive bas-relief sculpture of Jesus Christ.

The Oakland temple is the only one in the world to have five spires, which “hints at buildings of far-eastern origins, such as the Taj Mahal in India and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and reflects the diversity of the residents in the area,” according to church materials. Asian-inflected designs carry throughout the building in elements such as blossom-patterned wallpaper and carpets, carved wooden mirror frames and Chinese silk-inspired seat cushions.

The tallest spire at the Oakland temple reaches 170 feet, according to the church. Features unique to the temple include a waterfall that cascades down the front of the building, into a series of pools and fountains, and two large sculptures carved into its walls. The north-side carving depicts Jesus Christ during the Sermon on the Mount, while the south-side carving shows a scene from the Book of Mormon.

The Oakland temple also has a massive theater-sized projection screen in one of its instruction rooms. It was one of the first temples designed to handle film presentation, church leaders said Monday. In many other temples, instruction rooms feature murals, they said.

Church materials describe the building interior as “carefully restrained in its ornamentation,” with a largely neutral color palette and clean, elegant lines. Unstained wood shows “the original color and grain,” and “geometric designs are sparingly used.” While many of the rooms reflect an understated elegance, there are a number of stunning features: glowing alabaster altars lit from within, fine-grained marble columns and opulent chandeliers.

The Celestial Room at the Oakland Mormon temple. Photo: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Then there’s the baptismal pool, modeled after Solomon’s temple, which is surrounded by bronze railings and two staircases, and rests on 12 oxen sculptures that represent the 12 tribes of Israel. Only baptisms for the deceased are carried out in the font today.

Church representatives encouraged members of the media to ask any questions they might have. One reporter asked Elder Quentin Cook, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, about a special type of underwear Mormons wear, which has at times been the focus of media interest. Cook explained that the undergarment is simply a “reminder of the covenants” members of the church follow, which include fidelity, chastity and accountability.

Cook said he understood the public interest, though it has not always been kind.

“People will mock faith,” he said. “We understand that.”

Monday, church leaders declined to share the cost of the Oakland temple renovations, which were described as “substantial” in materials shared with the press. A church representative told Berkeleyside’s Frances Dinkelspiel only that the investment had been “very significant.”

The Oakland temple was designed by architect Harold W. Burton. When it was completed in 1964, nearly 400,000 people toured the building during five weeks of public open houses, according to the church. The temple then opened for church members only in January 1965, after a rededication ceremony to sanctify the space.

The Oakland temple, early days. Photo: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Over the years, the temple has been closed at times for smaller renovation projects, according to church material. The current round of work began in January 2018; the temple ceased operations during construction.

After three weeks of public tours that run six days a week (Sundays excepted) from Saturday through June 1, the temple will close to the public again. Free reservations for tours can be made online. Tours will run from about 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. with the last entry at 8 p.m.

In addition to reservations, members of the public can also simply show up if they are not on a tight schedule, said Janelle Wyatt, a spokeswoman for the Oakland temple. She said nearly 250,000 people had already made reservations before publicity efforts began in earnest. The church is anticipating “quite a few” more people to attend, she added.

Wyatt said there was a flurry of activity when the reservation system initially went live, with an estimated 10,000 people trying to get tickets within the first seven minutes. The church has not collected location information from those who plan to visit “temple hill,” but Wyatt said calls came in from Canada, New York and Mexico from people expressing interest.

Mormon history in the Bay Area dates back to July 1846 when 238 pioneers arrived by boat to San Francisco, according to church materials. Church members set up the earliest school, bank and newspaper in the area, church leaders said Monday.

Following the public events of the next few weeks, the Oakland temple will be formally rededicated Sunday, June 16.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...