Church News - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Life of building

Florence S. Jacobsen honored for preserving Church sites
Published: Saturday, May 1, 2010

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Florence Smith Jacobsen led the YWMIA (forerunner to the Church's Young Women program) from 1961 to 1972. But it was her longtime work in preserving Church historic sites and artifacts that on April 21 garnered for her the Junius F. Wells Award presented annually by the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation.

President Thomas S. Monson and President Boyd K. Packer, president of the Quorum of the Twelve, were among those giving accolades to Sister Jacobsen, 97, at a dinner in her honor at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City.

Among her accomplishments highlighted in the program were rescuing the Lion House from demolition and spearheading the restoration of it and the adjoining Beehive House. As Church curator, she directed the interior restoration of the Manti Utah Temple and supervised restoration of such landmarks as Promised Valley Playhouse in Salt Lake City; the E.B. Grandin Building in Palymra, N.Y.; the Brigham Young home in St. George, Utah; and the Newell K. Whitney home in Kirtland, Ohio.

While serving as YWMIA president and as a member of the Church's Arts and Sites Committee, she assisted with the restoration of several structures, including the Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff homes in Nauvoo, Ill.

In off-the-cuff remarks, President Monson reminisced about his association with Sister Jacobsen, recalling June conferences and dance festivals put on by the Young Women and Young Men MIA organizations.

"I think back to those days, to those girls who participated in all these activities, who learned, loved and performed," he said. "You lifted them to a higher plane, and anyone who's been lifted to a plane of excellence is never again content with mediocrity. That's not a word you have in your vocabulary — mediocrity. You've never known it, and you never will."

Mike Terry, Deseret News
Florence S. Jacobsen is given a standing ovation as the Mormon Historic Sites Foundation's recipient of the Junius F. Wells Award during festivities in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building on April 21. Her efforts preserved and renovated significant historic buildings.

President Packer said that during his 50 years in general Church leadership, he became well acquainted with Sister Jacobsen.

"There's a saying that excellence does not call attention to itself, and that's Florence Jacobsen," he said.

"When the Lion House was being renovated, the Florence you see tonight, the beautiful woman we see, was scrubbing the floors. And that part of her, in all this time, I think has not been understood."

Mike Terry, Deseret News
President Thomas S. Monson is among those honoring Florence S. Jacobsen at an awards ceremony.

President Packer said she and her deceased husband, Ted, founder of Jacobsen Construction Co., which has built many temples and other Church facilities, were a team. In the building restorations, if an item was needed that hadn't been planned or budgeted for, "it came because of Ted's generosity, with Florence," he said.

Mike Terry, Deseret News
Florence S. Jacobsen

In remarks after receiving the award from the foundation's chairman, Kim R. Wilson, Sister Jacobsen spoke of her girlhood as the granddaughter of two Church presidents, Joseph F. Smith and Heber J. Grant.

"I remember as a little girl going down to the Beehive House on Saturday afternoon with a couple of my brothers," she said. "We would go up the back stairs to the second floor, and there would be grandfather Smith with his lovely beard. And he would hold out his arms and say, 'Come here, my darlings,' and we would run over and jump on his lap. What a great experience! Then he'd open up a big drawer on the right side of his desk, and there he would have candy."

She told of the period in the 1960s when "Promised Valley" was produced by the MIA and performed for tourists nightly on a temporary outdoor stage adjacent to where the Church Office Building plaza is now located. Earlier, she and her husband had returned home from New York, where he presided over the Eastern States Mission. An outstanding singer was needed for the lead role. On their mission, they had become acquainted with baritone Robert Peterson, a Church member, while he was performing on Broadway in "Camelot." She telephoned him.

"I said, 'Bob, I have a job for you; you won't get any money for it.' " But he agreed to take the role, and he stayed in Utah, where he continued his performing career until his death in 2003.

"I feel very responsible for bringing Bob out here; nobody's ever thanked me for bringing him here," Sister Jacobsen quipped. The amused audience applauded in gratitude.

In a video presentation, it was recounted that Sister Jacobsen's mentor was Belle S. Spafford, Relief Society general president at the time Sister Jacobsen led the YWMIA. Sister Spafford was quoted as saying, "The Latter-day Saint woman has a significant role in the affairs of the Church. It is expected of her that she will devote her full strength according to the nature of women, as directed by priesthood authority, to the building of God's kingdom on earth."

That principle guided her when, days after receiving her call as YWMIA president, Sister Jacobsen learned the Lion House, home to Brigham Young and some succeeding Church presidents, was to be demolished to make room for access to the Church Office Building, then in the planning stage. She recoiled at the news.

To President David O. McKay, she proposed the Lion House be refurbished as part of a plan to make it financially self-sustaining. He authorized temporary use of Church funds for that purpose. The funds were returned within a few years after the building was renovated into a profitable entity.

Also related in the video presentation was Sister Jacobsen's proposal to President Spencer W. Kimball that a museum be built to house and display the Church's historic treasures. That led to construction of the Museum of Church History and Art, now called the Church History Museum, located west of Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

As part of the program, Gaye Beeson sang and performed on the piano "Tribute to Florence Smith Jacobsen," a Broadway-style tune she wrote expressly for the occasion.

And with "Promised Valley" musical composer Crawford Gates sitting in the audience, Todd Miller sang "Valley Home," one of the tunes from that landmark musical stage play commissioned and first performed for the 1947 sesquicentennial of the coming of Brigham Young and the pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley.

rscott@desnews.com