The Architecture of Polygamy

John W. Taylor once remarked, “Salt Lake City is a curious place.  It’s the only town I know where a man can get off the streetcar, head in any direction he chooses, and end up at home.”  So begins Thomas Carter’s fascinating article on nineteenth century polygamous housing in Utah.(1) 

I came across Carter’s essay in a publication called Winterthur Portfolio which is “an interdisciplinary journal committed to fostering knowledge of the American past by publishing articles on the arts in America and the historical context within which they developed.” He explores several issues including both separate and cohabitational living arrangements, the idea of spatial equality among polygamous wives and the gendering of space within multi-family dwellings.  Most importantly, it underscores the idea that houses play in telling us the story of polygamy.  They reveal how family space was organized and defined and illustrate how homes can be gendered spaces that work differently for men and women.

The architecture of polygamy was in many ways an invention, as it required builders to proceed into new areas of housing design.  Even knowledgeable craftsmen lacked experience in building residences for more than one wife.  Just as “living the principle” varied between families, it is difficult to make generalized statements about the design of multi-family dwellings.

Some polygamists, particularly wealthier ones, chose to have separate homes for each wife.  Often these homes were within a limited geographic area.  Another approach was cohabitation, or having more than one wife in the same house.  Most would adapt a single family dwelling to accomodate two or three families.  Standard double cell houses (2 evenly spaced rooms with two front doors) or three-part houses (1 common room for shared living/dining space, a common kitchen and separate bedrooms and parlours) were most easily adapted to polygamous families.  Some housing situations continued to evolve over time through the ebb and flow of married life including death, divorce and missions.

The least common, yet best known type of polygamous residence was the communally-run dwellings which were owned by only the wealthiest of Mormons.  Heber C. Kimball’s Plantation and Brigham Young’s Lion House are perhaps the most celebrated homes which were constructed specifically for the purpose of plural marriage.   According to Carter, in Brigham Young’s family:

Most daily functions took place on the basement level, which contained the kitchen and dining room where as many as seventy people took meals.  Seating arrangements were precisely ordered:  wives with children were “seated at the heads of the tables in the order they came into the family and had preference over those with no children.” Wives Lucy Decker, her sister Clara Decker, and Emeline Free thus enjoyed “head of table” ranking, an honor that carried over to their placement in the house as well.  Their large, multiroom apartments along with those of the other child-bearing wives were located on the principal floor, while childless wives were relegated to small but equal-sized rooms on the upper floor.  Servants and older children also lived on the upper most level. (p.239)

[See this link to a Google Books version of The Mormon Prophet and His Harem; or, An Authentic History of Brigham Young, 1867, p. 199for the floor plan of the Lion House that Carter uses in his article.   It shows how women like Emily Partridge or Lucy Decker Young had large rooms and parlours on the principal story, while the women on the upper story such as Eliza R. Snow, Harriet Cook or Zina D. H. Young had much smaller rooms.](2)

The final part of the essay is where Carter challenges what has been a prevalent interpretation of the architecture of polygamy. This school of thought sees such housing design as an illustration of equal comforts.  Historians have understood the symmetry of architectural design like doors, or internal apartments as well as exterior features to be an indication of the equitable treatment of polygamous women.(3)   However, domestic space could often be apportioned in ways that implied unequal comforts.  Smaller houses in more peripheral sites for second or third wives illustrate a hierarchy of size and location.  Carter also explores the nature of how spatial structure embodies gender differences and how such distinctions are visible in the organization of household responsibilities.  Polygamous men were primarily property holders while their wives were responsible for household duties such as cooking and cleaning, which were sometimes performed in a co-operative fashion.  He notes that access to privacy was an indication of personal autonomy and illustrates how some houses provided greater amounts of seclusion than others.  Having your own door to exit your home as opposed to sharing a hallway allowed for less supervision of each other’s movements. 

Finally, Carter makes the assertion that polygamous men had access to a special kind of privacy that women simply didn’t.  Men had greater mobility primarily through their movement between wives and often even had their own separate space.  Heber C. Kimball had his own private room, while Brigham Young had his own house.  This resulted in an architecture of accessibility and conversely one of physical confinement — while women’s space was relatively fixed or closed, men were more flexible or open in their comings and goings.  Such an approach raises new questions about what kind of impact such living arrangements had upon both men and women.

Thomas Carter reminds us that it is through the investigation of material culture, specifically the architectural manifestations of nineteenth century Mormons, that we can develop insights into their social world.   Analyzing the homes of polygamous families allows us to peel back another layer of the past which adds more depth to the debate surrounding gender relations in plural marriage.

P.S.  The photos and conjectural drawings in this article are really great. 


(1)  Thomas Carter, “Living the Principle:  Mormon Polygamous Housing in Nineteenth Century Utah”, Winterthur Portfolio, Volume 35, Number 4, (Winter 2000), p. 223-251.   For the Taylor quote see p. 223.  Thomas Carter is an Associate Professor of Architectural History at the University of Utah and Director of the Graduate School of Architecture’s Western Regional Architecture Program.

(2)  Carter credits much of Jeffery O. Johnson’s work on the Brigham Young family for his discussion of the Lion House.  See Jefferey O. Johnson, “Determining and Defining ‘Wife’: The Brigham Young Households,” Dialogue:  A Journal of Mormon Thought, Volume 20, Number 3, Fall 1987, p. 57-70.   Also see, Rickey Lynn Hendricks, “Landmark Architecture for a Polygamous Family:  The Brigham Young Domicile, Salt Lake City, Utah,”  The Public Historian 11 (Winter 1989): 25-47.

(3)  Paul Goeldner, “The Architecture of Equal Comforts: Polygamists in Utah,” Historic Preservation 24, 1 (1972): 14-17.


  1. nice.

  2. Kris: Thanks for this great summary. You’re right that this opens up new vistas into how early Mormons organized their worlds.

    I think that an argument can be made that space was organized not only by gender, but also by age. My sample size is small (one house, the Lion House), but judging from that adolescent men had small, drab rooms, since they were not supposed to spend a lot time indoors. Adolescent women, on the other hand, had larger rooms with sewing equipment, a small piano, and other niceties, indicating that much of their days were to spent indoors receiving domestic training.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    Absolutely wonderful stuff, Kris.

    My house would be a terrible one for polygamy.

  4. It seems that some of the “smaller house on the periphery” for the 2nd wife phenomenon could be a natural result of financial circumstances, not merely to keep her in her place of less honor. My great-great grandmother was a 2nd wife and was delighted to get her own small house after many years of sharing a house with the 1st wife. Her husband could not afford a 2nd home that was just as nice as the first and my great-great grandmother was the natural choice for the 2nd smaller home b/c the first home had originally been the 1st wife’s (i.e. husband and wife had been living there before the 2nd wife moved in). It probably also made the 1st wife feel a little better since it had been so hard to allow a 2nd wife in. Of course, that doesn’t really explain the Lion House set up.

  5. David G., that’s an interesting point which could bolster the idea about mobility. Perhaps, one gets a nicer room if they are going to spend most of they time in the home. Also, I guess adding interior design to the list of interdisciplinary ways of looking at the past would be helpful.

    jab — I think that’s a really good point and underscores the importance of using a variety of sources to determine the meaning of homes and what they tell about polygamy.

  6. Steve, weirdly enough my home would be a perfect polygamous setup.

  7. My wifes GGrandfather had the first wife in a nice house in SLC and the 2nd wife in a small farm like place on the road to Utah valley post manifesto.

  8. Thanks for the post, Kris. Carter’s essay seems to contain the type of analysis and discussion that Marti Bradley found lacking in Brigham Young’s Homes.

    Another work that comes to mind here is Polygamy in Lorenzo Snow’s Brigham City: An Architectural Tour (Salt Lake City, University of Utah College of Architecture and Planning, 2005).

  9. Also,

    In the older SWK biography from the 70’s. Camilla’s father had custom built a 2 wing rambler after they escaped from Mexico. One wing for each wife. There was a great room between the two wings. The Dad spent a week at a time in each wing.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    Wonderful stuff, Kris!

  11. How very interesting.

    If I try, hard though it is, to imagine living polygamy, I know I would prefer a small house of my own, rather than the dorm-like set-up of Lion House. Economics be damned.

  12. Great stuff, Kris. Thanks. Quite a few gentile travelers to Utah in the late 1860s and early 1870s noted the presence of Brigham Young’s newest home that was under construction, the magnificent Gardo House, which was commonly referred to as “Amelia Palace” because it was believed that Brigham was building it solely for the comfort of his favorite plural wife, (Harriet) Amelia Folsom.

  13. I think my last comment got stuck in the spam filter (it included two links).

  14. Thanks for a very nice write up!
    Are we sure though that this was “venturing into uncharted territory”? Large and extended family were part of the 19th Century. As was having slaves or servants in the house. I don’t think it was that unusual to have a second house built on an estate or ranch for newly married children, or the elderly.

  15. This is cool, thanks Kris.

    Humans are so petty anyway, I can’t imagine the pettiness that comes from both sharing little space for that many people and having those people potentially ranked. Ugh. I know this was supposed to exist as a mirror of celestial life but it would have made me a very small-hearted, small-minded woman.

  16. Wow! So interesting. I know it’s all my modern american bias, but I just hate the elitism of ranking that seems to be inseparable from the practice of polygamy. Issues!

  17. fmhLisa- Here here! I heartily agree. I have to wonder… if one wife wanted to have a talk with the husband but was only the 2nd wife, did she have to wait to speak with the husband if the 1st wife wanted to speak with him privately first?
    And if the children had discipline issues that needed to be taken care of, which set of children were to be taken care of first or was it considered a family affair? Of course based on the seating arrangement in the house and the way the houses were laid out by rank, I am assuming it goes in rank order again based on which wife came first…. ugh. I can only imagine the discussions that may have evoked. Eek. So glad we don’t practice polygamy anymore!!

  18. Ward Organist says:

    One immigrant Welshman among my ancestry had two wives. The family lived in one house in the Avenues in SLC. The husband sat at the head of the table. One wife sat on each side of him with her youngest next to her, then the next youngest, etc. I know many polygamous families had issues but this family got along well. The extroverted wife was largely in charge of cooking and the introverted wife was in charge of gardening and household animals. After the husband died, the two women lived together in peace and harmony for years. I’m sure like any of us, they had to work out the nitty-gritty details of life. But at least in this instance, the members of this family got along and several generations of descendants had contact and were friendly with each other.

    The family home was later divided into three or four apartments.

  19. What I find interesting is how adding another wife is like the 1st wife getting married again — you have to work out how to live and work with each other. I’m sure it is just like modern families. My family doesn’t look like yours — but we may have the same kinds of people in it (parents (husband,wife) sons or daughters ect). Our houses also may be totally different depending on personality. So too, some polygamous families may have thrived with everyone together while others did best with space and still others with some combo of both.

    Absolutely fascinating details though! This is my 1st visit here and this article really got my imagination going.

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