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90-year-old tabernacle in Vernal looks to a historic future

Published: Saturday, Nov. 1 1997 12:00 a.m. MST

When The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints decided to turn the historic Uintah Tabernacle in eastern Utah into a temple, it did more than make another sanctuary for the faith's unique form of worship.

The restoration spared the town of Vernal a divisive debate: whether to swing the wrecking ball at the 90-year-old structure that had stood empty but nevertheless remained a beloved symbol of the town's roots."I remember one council member said he would drive the bulldozer to knock it down," said Leonard Heeney, mayor of the town located 125 miles east of here. "For me, it's more than just an old building . . . It's a landmark."

So prized is the structure that when builders replaced the old cupola during the $7 million renovation, the city salvaged the pine-frame, tin-covered original for use as a gazebo in the town park.

Vernal, where LDS leaders on Sunday will dedicate the building as a temple for performance of sacred rites, is not alone in attaching its identity to a tabernacle built by early Mormon pioneer settlers.

At last count, at least 30 of the spacious assembly halls remain standing in towns and cities in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Arizona. And like the Protestant churches that dominate New England hamlets, the finely crafted tabernacles often stand as community statements of pride and devotion, even after the building falls into disrepair.

"The community would be in an uproar if someone tried to tear (the tabernacle) down," said Joe Papa, town manager of Snowflake, Ariz., where the refurbished LDS tabernacle has stood over Main Street since 1884.

In addition to serving as a meeting place for Snowflake's roughly 3,000-member Mormon population, it is a stop on the town's walking tour of historical sites.

The imposing red sandstone tabernacle in Paris, Idaho, is the only stop for tourists passing through the tiny southern Idaho town en route to Yellowstone National Park.

About 9,500 people - nearly 16 times the town's population - made the stop this past year, said Dixie Rich, who coordinates the tours with her husband.

"Everybody loves this building," she said. "It's one of extraordinary architecture."

Most townspeople would say that about their tabernacle. And architects who have researched and restored the buildings agree, particularly considering the time and circumstances in which they were built.

Many of the landmark tabernacles were built around the turn of the century as places where several congregations could meet together for conferences.

Architects say the gothic, federal, Romanesque and other popular designs at the time were incorporated in the tabernacles. But the distinguishing characteristic of each was the building material unique to the area.

"A lot of these places were where the railroad never made it, so the stone was local and the timber was harvested from the local forests," said Allen Roberts, an architect who has researched LDS Church buildings.

The grandeur of the buildings found in the tiny Western settlements can be attributed to the influx of LDS Church converts migrating to the West. The architects, stonemasons, carpenters, artisans and other craftsmen trained in Europe and New England brought their skills, tools and ideas with them.

"They knew how to do great buildings before they got here," Roberts said. "They were living in log cabins and adobe houses and building temples and other kinds of fine buildings."

The time-consuming and expensive effort of quarrying rock, making brick and milling timber meant construction took up to 20 years on some of the buildings. But few corners were cut in quality and craftsmanship.

"The Vernal tabernacle was in surprisingly good condition for sitting empty and unheeded," said Roger Jackson, architect for the building's conversion to a temple. He said the main problems were not so much structural as in safety code violations, such as not enough exits or bathrooms.

Those problems, along with congregations outgrowing their tabernacles, have rendered many of the historical structures useless as church buildings.

Even the grandest of LDS Church tabernacles - the huge dome-roofed home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on Temple Square - has become too small for the worldwide church's conferences. Construction is under way on a modern assembly hall across the street that will seat four times the Salt Lake Tabernacle's 6,000-seat capacity.

Small-town LDS congregations are also moving into nondescript "stake centers" designed more to cut costs and maximize efficiency than stand as a community monument.

But as in Paris, Idaho; Afton, Wyo.; or Manti and Brigham City, the historic tabernacle remains. Like Vernal, the building is sometimes retrofitted to accommodate a new use, restored and used for an occasional meeting or tourist attraction or sold to the city.

"Some of them don't die easily," said Richard Jackson, a retired architect and researcher on the history of LDS Church meetinghouses.

A former architect for the church, he was in the thick of some heated community debates where heritage and practicality clashed.

Church officials declined to be interviewed. But some architects and small town officials believe LDS leaders have given more weight to historical and architectural value since the disastrous demolition of the Coalville tabernacle in 1971.

The controversy in the small community 28 miles east of here embroiled the entire state as newspapers, including The New York Times, chronicled the lawsuits and protests leading up to the Sunday vote in church to tear it down.

Two days after a judge rejected efforts to stop the demolition, Coalville's LDS Church leaders sneaked into the building before sunrise to remove pews and historical relics before the bulldozers arrived. A fight broke out in a local cafe later that morning and police were called in to keep the peace.

"We didn't want another Coalville," said Ruth Maughn, mayor of the tiny Cache County town of Wellsville, which bought its 95-year-old tabernacle from the church in 1982 and housed the city offices there until 1994.

The Wellsville Foundation bought the gothic style building for $100 and has doggedly pursued its restoration with grants and fundraisers.

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