What's changed at Tabernacle?

Published: Tuesday, March 27 2007 12:09 a.m. MDT

Construction is under way at the Salt Lake Tabernacle in June 2005. It will reopen this week.

Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News, KSL-TV Chopper Five

As Latter-day Saints get their first peek into the newly restored Salt Lake Tabernacle later this week, questions about what has changed and what remains the same are inevitable.

Yet curiosity about the 140-year-old building has been a discussion point throughout much of its history and rekindled by its closure for seismic retrofitting and upgrading in late 2004.

The historic building is to be rededicated this weekend during the 177th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Its unique "turtle" shape — under which the acoustics resonate richly the drop of a pin as well as the famed Tabernacle organ — has been lauded for decades by tour guides on Temple Square.

Debate over who came up with the idea for the shape and the architectural plans to accomplish it still circulates. Early LDS President Brigham Young is said to have originated the idea during breakfast one morning as he was cutting a boiled egg, according to a memoir written by his daughter, Clarissa Young Spencer.

She wrote that her father approached Henry Grow, a new convert and architect who had immigrated to Utah, with the unique shape in mind after slicing an egg "end-wise and setting it up on tooth-picks. I was strongly impressed that we might use this plan for the building," she quoted her father as saying.

But historian Ronald Walker notes the Tabernacle's ancestry begins with LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, who had directed a "tabernacle" to be built just west of the Nauvoo Temple, with dimensions roughly 250 feet long and 125 feet wide.

His 2005 article about the Tabernacle's history in the Journal of Mormon History says Smith's followers "took steps toward a makeshift version of that project that required 4,000 yards of canvas, only to abandon their task when they were forced to evacuate." Walker wrote that Latter-day Saints "later used the name 'tabernacle,' shape and approximate size, and layout (west of a temple)" in Salt Lake City.

Grow was credited by many as the architect, but his great-great-grandson, Nathan Grow, published a paper in the Journal of Mormon History in 2005 crediting Young and two other men — architects William Folsom and Truman Angell (architect of the Salt Lake Temple) — for their contributions to the building in addition to his own ancestor.

Folsom, best known for designing the Manti Temple, gets the credit for "drawing the only known plans of the greater structure and supervising the beginning stages of construction," according to Nathan Grow's report, adding his influence waned after 1865, while Henry Grow oversaw construction of the roof as well as other parts of the building.

Work on the building began in 1863, and the church's Semiannual General Conference was held there for the first time in October 1867, though the structure wasn't formally dedicated until 1875.

General conferences of the church were held there until April 2000, when the Conference Center became the new gathering place for the tens of thousands who come from around the world to attend each April and October.

During the Conference Center inaugural, it was noted the church could never build a structure large enough to house all those who wish to attend simultaneously. Apparently the same concerns were being voiced about the Tabernacle, even as its size awed visitors and members alike.

An article published in the journal Scientific American on June 8, 1867, titled, "The Great Mormon Tabernacle at Salt Lake," described the expansive structure and "the mechanical difficulties of attending the construction of so ponderous a roof."

It also noted that "as large as is the extent provided for the accommodation of the people — it is now feared that it will be too small and further accommodations will be necessary."

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