SAN DIEGO — You’ve driven past it countless times on the freeway — a castle-like structure with towers that rise impressively above Interstate 5.
Some kids — OK, adults too — call it “Disneyland” for its resemblance to the Sleeping Beauty Castle. Others use it as a “we’re almost home” marker on the drive back from a trip up north.
But do you actually know what it is?
The eye-catching structure is a temple for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon church. Located right off the freeway near La Jolla, it’s an iconic image even to those who aren’t familiar with its purpose.
Rebecca Davies, communications director for the church’s San Diego region, shared some information about the building’s history and function in a phone interview with FOX5SanDiego.com this week.
She also highlighted something San Diegans might not realize: While you can’t go inside the temple if you’re not a member of the faith, you are free to explore the grounds and take photos when it’s open.
Crews broke ground on the temple back in 1988, guided by the plans of design architect William Lewis Jr. A Roman Catholic couple — Dennis and Shelly Hyndman — served as project and interior design architects despite having little previous familiarity with Latter-day Saint temples.
The resulting structure became “one of the larger” temples the church has built, Davies said.
Sitting on a roughly 7-acre site just south of Nobel Drive, the temple is 72,000-square-feet. Two towers rise nearly 200 feet in the air, with four smaller spires framing each tower’s base. A star-shaped atrium connects the two larger spires, home to a verdant garden.
All temples are built with the intention of drawing a visitor’s eyes to the sky, Davies said, but the San Diego location wows even those who have visited many temples.
“They walk in and their jaws drop,” she told FOX 5. “It’s stunningly beautiful.”
Davies knows the striking exterior has also made quite an impression on the broader public.
“You’re going down the freeway and you’re like, ‘Woah, what is that?'” she said, mentioning the Disneyland comparison as a most-commonly cited description.
When the temple opened in 1993, there was a several-week open house where the building was accessible to the general public, Davies said. That’s a standard practice for new temples before a final dedication, at which point only members of the church can go inside.
“Sacred, not secret,” Davies said of the structure, saying that the church isn’t hiding anything fantastical within its temples.
The buildings host a variety of ceremonies, but not traditional church services, as you might assume. The buildings are actually closed on Sundays, with services held at separate chapels in the area.
Temples, meanwhile, serve as a gathering site for sacred religious ceremonies called ordinances, which include baptisms, marriage ceremonies and confirmations. The church has a dedicated website that goes into more detail about the buildings’ significance and function.
While the San Diego California Temple is now only open to members, visitors are welcome to walk the grounds surrounding the building during operating hours, Tuesday through Saturday.
Davies said she often sees people approach the open gates but appear timid about visiting. “I tell them, ‘Come on in,'” she told FOX 5.
Visitors are welcome to stroll the gardens, take photos and admire the architecture. Davies said people of all faiths even arrange family photoshoots or wedding pictures on the grounds.
“I believe every person could walk on the grounds and feel peace,” she told FOX 5.