NAUVOO, Ill. -- Standing on the steps of the William Weeks Home and overlooking an empty grassy field, Steven Olsen sees not only Nauvoo's past but its future.
The two are intertwined for Olsen, senior curator for historic sites in the church history department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Olsen engineered a master plan for Historic Nauvoo, approved by church leaders in 2014, designed to feature core messages, integrate historical landscapes, increase authenticity and improve guest experiences by 2039, the bicentennial of Nauvoo's founding.
The plan, outlined Tuesday, extends beyond bricks and mortar in Nauvoo, the largest of the church's historic sites.
"There's no way we can recreate the brick and mortar sort of environment that was here in the 1840s. Even if we could we wouldn't want to because bricks and mortar only go so far to tell the whole story, the experiential part," Olsen said. "I suspect, that done right, this will be quite an addition to the local cultural environment and not just the Mormon religious heritage."
Mayor John McCarty said the changes sound "promising" for the community.
"The fact they're looking to enhnace the experience will definitely make an improvement for Nauvoo," McCarty said. "What they're hoping for is to get new people and more people to return. As far as a tourist point of view, it will enhance our numbers."
The plan's first phase focuses on the roughly 20-acre "Temple District" and calls for restoring three historic homes, recreating another home along with the West Grove and other landscape features and adding a building housing original stones of the Nauvoo Temple.
The projects not only will extend the visitor experience in Nauvoo but help integrate the Visitor's Center and focus on the temple, the "spiritual center" for Latter-day Saints.
"Visitors could go to each of our restored properties and listen to everything the missionaries had to say and not learn anything about the temple," Olsen said. "The temple wasn't part of the interpretative landscape, and yet it was absolutely central to the historical city."
By 2020, visitors will be able to tour the home of Weeks, the temple's architect, and "imagine Joseph Smith meeting with William Weeks to discuss what the temple would look like," Olsen said
Exhibits at the restored Gheen home just across the field "will help people get properly oriented to this part of Nauvoo," and a new building, planned on property once owned by a temple stone mason, will be designed "so that people who come here can get an understanding of the spiritual significance of the temple," Olsen said.
"It will make Nauvoo significant not only for Latter-day Saints all over the world but for people who might come here for other reasons – cultural tourism, historical preservation. If we communicate that significance, we'll strengthen the faith of Latter-day Saints that come here but also share the spiritual significance of our faith that many people don't particularly adhere to but want to appreciate."
The projects will be financed by the church with no additional property purchases anticipated.
Initial landscape changes, including new walkways, "will help make it more user-friendly for walking," McCarty said.
"Over the next few years, there will probably be much more construction activity just in this 20 acre area than there will be in the next 20 years in the rest of Nauvoo," Olsen said. "Most of the rest of it will be quite small scale, and most will be done inside the structure instead of part of the landscape."
Phase Two, wrapping up in 2028, will focus on the Historic Nauvoo "flats" and outdoor stages, while Phase Three will target additional projects in Historic Nauvoo between 2025 and 2039.
"The greater emphasis that we're going to be focusing on is to take our existing homes and other structures and remodeling them so that they're more accurate. The landscape itself may not radically change, but the visitor experience will hopefully become much more meaningful," Olsen said.
"We're more mindful of participatory learning as opposed to going from room to room and hearing the missionary tell you what happened in that room. We'll engage in more participatory learning activities, maybe more group activities and other kinds of things to enrich, enliven and make the experience more memorable."
Among the possibilities could be ongoing investigations to highlight the research required to create a historical environment, offering participatory learning experiences for visitors and even repurposing properties deemed no longer crucial to the historical experience.
"We're not here to create an antiquarian environment. We're here to create a setting that will have sustained spiritual value for Latter-day Saints perhaps for centuries," Olson said. "The messages communicated here will be just as valid in 2218 as they are in 2018 as they were in the 1840s."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints plans enhancements to Historic Nauvoo with several projects through 2039.
Highlights of Phase One include:
Restoring the home of William Weeks, architect of the original Nauvoo temple. Weeks worked to put into reality the design instructions Joseph Smith gave him. Weeks kept detailed drawings of his work, which were used to reconstruct today's Nauvoo temple.
Restoring the home of William and Esther Gheen. He worked on the temple construction nearly every day between 1842 and 1845. Exhibits in the home will help orient visitors to the Temple District of Historic Nauvoo.
Restoring the home of Orson and Marinda Hyde. He was an early convert to Mormonism and later became one of the Twelve Apostles in the Church.
Recreating the home of Edward and Ann Hunter, demolished in the 1980s, on its original foundation. Hunter was a businessman and loyal friend of Joseph Smith, and his home was a place of refuge for Smith when he was in danger. While in hiding in the home, Smith had one of his most significant revelations which led to the doctrine of salvation for the dead, a key tenet of the Mormon church.
Adding a new building to house a display of original Nauvoo Temple stones along with displays about the temple's significance.
Recreating the West Grove, a wooded area used by Joseph Smith and the early Mormons for large public meetings and services.
Trees planted in 2014 will mature in 20 to 30 years and create "a very powerful place where Latter-day Saints and others can go and experience the kind of spiritual awakening that their spiritual ancestors or other residents here experienced," said Olsen. "When the trees reach a certain height, we'll go in there and create seating areas, a speaker's stand so people can imagine what it was like to have Joseph Smith speaking."