Life is full of ironic twists. No one knows that better than Peter Lassig, a landscape architect who oversees the planting of flower gardens during the summer and the Christmas lighting on Temple Square.
Lassig, who has worked to beautify the square for more than 37 holiday seasons, loves the beauty and the glow of thousands of miniature lights. But he did not always feel that lights were an appropriate decoration.In the late 1960s, Lassig was working part time as a gardener for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His supervisor, the late Irvin T. Nelson, was so against the idea of putting lights on the square that he asked Lassig to write a letter to the general authorities to persuade them against the lighting plans.
Lassig agreed to write the letter for Nelson. But the letter and personal pleas from Nelson were unheeded by President David O. McKay and other church officials.
The story of Nelson and Lassig, who came to realize that the lights greatly beautified the square and helped the church tell the Christmas story, really had its beginning elsewhere and with other individuals.
Lassig, who says he is looking forward to another lighting ceremony at 6:10 this evening on Temple Square, recalls that the whole idea for lighting the square originated with the late E. Earl Hawkes, former Deseret News publisher, and was supported by advertising executive the late David W. Evans and others.
Hawkes, who was general manager of the Hearst Corp.'s Record American-Sunday Advertiser in Boston and who had become intrigued with the lighting of the Boston Common, worked closely with Evans to make the lighting a reality.
Evans, whose staff at Evans Advertising had considerable experience in designing dioramas and other materials for the Mormon pavilion at the New York World's Fair and for church visitors centers, maintained that lighting would help to attract visitors to the square and to Salt Lake City.
As a starter, the advertising firm designed a Nativity scene, which was built by the Evans group about 1967. That scene, located between the Tabernacle and the North Visitors Center, is still part of the decorations that will be viewed by visitors tonight and through the holiday season.
"In 1966, 1967 or 1968 (actually 1965) the lights were put on for the first time. It was done under the direction of Earl Hawkes, who commissioned Evans Advertising to make it all happen," Lassig said.
Recalling Nelson's opposition to the lighting idea, Lassig, who was then working on a master's degree in landscape architecture at Utah State University, said Nelson asked him to write a letter. After signing the letter, Nelson also met with President McKay and told him the lighting would desecrate Temple Square and make it too commercial.
"You can't put lights in those trees. Lights will ruin the trees," Lassig quoted his boss telling President McKay.
With a twinkle in his eye, President McKay responded, "I'm putting you in charge of making sure those lights don't ruin those trees."
Despite Nelson's pleas, the lights went up anyway, and Nelson found himself enjoying the lights, even though he had to be persuaded that Christmas lighting of the square would be a plus for the church.
After the initial lighting ceremony, Nelson, an avid photographer, enlisted the help of Lassig in photographing the lights for use in presentations that he gave to civic and other groups. On one occasion, Evans showed up unexpectedly on the square and couldn't resist good-naturedly reminding Nelson that he was now supporting a project that he once strongly resisted.
Initially, church electricians were in charge of the mammoth lighting project. Later, church gardeners, who "had time on their hands" during the winter were placed in charge of the project.
The lighting has grown to include not only lighting the Temple Square grounds but decorating the visitors centers and the inside of the Tabernacle for Tabernacle Choir and other concerts.
Lassig, who credited the work of Hellmut Bork, Tim Benedict and others for installing the lights again this year, said he has come to appreciate the Christmas lights and the way they bring joy and happiness to hundreds of thousands of people every year. Even though there are fewer lights now than years ago, the installation - requiring "cherry pickers" and other equipment - takes two months.
"The public loves the lights. Temple Square has become a winter destination for people from all over the United States (and throughout the world). We have a chance with these lights to send a message to the far corners of the world that Mormons do things right," Lassig said.
"People are constantly writing to compliment the church on this display. My thinking has changed about the lights because I see the lights on Temple Square as reflecting in a physical way the light of the gospel. A holy city like Temple Square should be a light to all the world in a physical sense - as well as a spiritual sense."