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Display gives inside story of Tabernacle

Published: Saturday, March 31 2007 12:39 a.m. MDT

The roof of the freshly refurbished Salt Lake Tabernacle gleams in the sun on Friday.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

Latter-day Saints who want the historical lowdown on the newly restored Tabernacle on Temple Square, which will be rededicated today as part of the 177th Annual General Conference, can learn the details of how the unique structure was conceived and built at a new exhibit that opens today.

"The Salt Lake Tabernacle: Gathering the Saints Under One Roof" takes visitors to the Museum of Church History and Art through a three-part examination of the building, focusing on "why we needed a tabernacle, how we built it and how we used it," according to curator Richard Oman.

The exhibit offers a taste of what members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will see when they visit the historic building, from which today's 2 p.m. conference session will originate. The Tabernacle housed the semi- annual confer- ences for more than a century, until the new, larger Conference Center was dedicated north of Temple Square in April 2000.

Elder Marlin K. Jensen, church historian, said intense public interest in the refurbishing project reflects that fact that — along with the Salt Lake Temple — the Tabernacle represents "the Mecca of Mormonism," a spiritual draw for Latter-day Saints from around the world.

As a cultural center, it has hosted some of "the great men and women of the world who have been involved in some way there over the years," he said.

Reporters gathered Friday for a preview of the museum exhibit, which features a towering re-creation of a section of lattice work that supports the Tabernacle's dome-shaped roof. It measures 10 feet deep by 16 feet wide and rises 16 feet high.

Oman said audience surveys asking people what they wanted to see in the Tabernacle "confirmed what we already knew — they wanted to go up in the roof and see the wooden pegs and the rawhide," ingenious construction methods for pioneer builders who had little access to steel nails and bolts to hold the wooden trusses together.

The lattice-work section is constructed with wooden pegs and rawhide, as well as with a few bolts, true to the original construction method. Pioneer craftsmen recycled old ox shoes to create locking washers that helped secure the limited number of bolts they used, Oman said.

Museum specialists re-created the lattice work using some timbers salvaged from the Tabernacle's roof during the refurbishing project. Myths surrounding how the roof was constructed were dispelled during the refurbishing. Museum official Kirk Henrichsen said the timbers were never "bent" or curved by dipping them in hot, steamy water and applying pressure, as some accounts have said.

He also dispelled the notion that Brigham Young got the idea for the Tabernacle's unique dome shape one morning while eating breakfast when he cut an egg in half length-wise. "We like to make myths and think that was inspiration, with him cutting an egg at breakfast."

Though the story appears in a book written by Young's daughter, in reality the early church leader had been thinking about building such a structure "for more than a decade," Henrichsen said, adding Young's inspiration for construction came "line upon line" as he experimented with a variety of different ideas.

"He coordinated the plans with a multitude of people who worked on the predecessor to the Tabernacle," studying the acoustical qualities of the former structure to build the one that stands today, he said.

The exhibit also includes a replica of the original Tabernacle pulpit, which was re-created with recycled wood from the Tabernacle. The pulpit display faces several of the Tabernacle's famed pine-wood benches, painted to look like oak, which were removed from the building permanently during renovation.

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