NAUVOO, Ill. -- The steady hum of machinery on the hillside just west of the Nauvoo Temple signals progress toward telling more of the community's history.
Grading work expected to be finished this fall is part of the "landscape features" included in the Historic Nauvoo Long-Term Enhancements Plan, outlined some 18 months ago by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and approved by the Nauvoo City Council, to increase authenticity and improve guest experiences.
The plan, in part, called for restoring the home of William Weeks, architect of the original Nauvoo temple, restoring the home of William and Esther Gheen and re-creating the home of Edward and Ann Hunter, demolished in the 1980s, on its original foundation.
"It's easy to see construction on the Weeks home and Gheen Home, but it's easy to forget there were other components to the project, so when we had some framing equipment come in here recently, some folks were like 'what's going on?.' It was all laid out very clearly," said Susan Sims, regional public affairs director with the church.
"It's just that people have gotten used to this big beautiful green space. We're going to make it even more beautiful in lots of ways."
Grading work will restore the historical nature of the area and its roads; level a site for the new Jones Pavilion, named after the temple's first stonecutter, William Jones, to display stones from the original temple; and create an ADA-compliant pathway connecting the Weeks and Hunter homes as part of a new Temple District walking tour expected to launch next summer for visitors.
"The only tour we really have at this time is a wagon tour ,which gives you a real overview of the town, then you pick what you want to go back and see," Sims said. "This will be the first real structurally planned tour of more than one site, which adds to the ability of visitors to gain an even better understanding of what life was like here."
Historic Nauvoo traditionally offers a view of frontier life in the 1840s, but didn't emphasize the vital importance of the temple, which wasn't finished until right before church members left Nauvoo, in unifying and motivating the community.
"This helps bring that story to greater focus for all that visit, certainly for members of our church that visit this is very important, but also for any who come. It helps folks who are not members of our church, who don't go into our temple, to still get an understanding of it," Sims said. "This is Illinois history, not just Mormon history."
The Gheen home has been fully rebricked and is waiting for its roof and windows, which are being redone by a window specialist in Chicago, and brickwork on the Weeks home also is done and "waiting for roofing materials to come in, but is starting to be put back together again," said Regan Willmore, a church member who with his wife, Trisha, oversees the restoration work being done by Salt Lake City-based Okland Construction and subcontractors.
"All these homes will have new landscaping, new fencing to try to make it look like it was in the 1840s," he said. "That's kind of the next step to get the landscaper in here."
At the Hunter home, where work is being done by Young Masonry of Carthage, "our last major hurdle is getting this foundation protected and encased. We've protected the foundation from any further damage from water that comes off the bluff, so we can begin building on it," he said. "We hope within three weeks to start to see a building come back out of the ground."
Based on historical photos, the home will be two stories with a brick fašade and a single-story wood-sided back section.
Grading work not far from the Hunter home unearthed foundations, likely of other period Nauvoo homes, which will be covered until the church's history department "decides how they're going to go about excavating them or leaving them there with some sort of display. They know they want to preserve them," Willmore said. "We think we found some old temple stones. We'll get the historians to evaluate them."
The construction area is off limits to vehicle traffic and pedestrians, but standing at the top of the hill, immediately west of the temple, provides the best vantage point of the project.
Plans call for adding some larger trees to the West Grove on the hillside, and "the whole area on top will be a beautiful garden with walking paths and benches, sort of an extension of the temple," Trisha Willmore said. "People can sit in this area and have a view of the temple and also be part of the walking tour."
The grading work also will provide erosion control on the hillside with new terraces, while a second project, being done by Durand Septic Service of Dallas City, adds new sewer and water lines "to think about the future as well as the past," Regan Willmore said.