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Provo Tabernacle remembered for its past ... and presence

Published: Friday, Dec. 17 2010 4:00 p.m. MST

Provo residents Liz Miller, center, and Stacy Strong, right, were emotional as they watched beloved landmark burn.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — In the wake of its fiery destruction early Friday morning, the Provo LDS Tabernacle is being remembered for its past, its present and its presence.

Downtown Provo has lost its century-old sentinel that stood face-to-face with the historic Utah County Courthouse across University Avenue on the 100 block.

More importantly, the city lost a beloved landmark — owned and operated by the LDS Church and on the National Register of Historic Places — that had long hosted church conferences, community concerts and college convocations, with more scheduled well into next year.

"The fire at the Provo Tabernacle is tragic. The building not only serves our members and the community, but is a reminder of the pioneering spirit that built Utah," said Scott Trotter, spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"The damage appears severe, and until we make a structural assessment, we won't know whether this historic treasure can be saved."

In the second half of the 19th century, the LDS Church constructed scores of tabernacles. Larger than a traditional meetinghouse, they were designed to accommodate multiple congregations and double in housing civic events.

"The Provo Tabernacle is one of the gems of the church, and it feels a little bit like a personal loss," said Jennifer Lund, manager of historical sites for the LDS Church's Church History department.

She listed it as one of the top 10 most architecturally significant Mormon meetinghouse-type structures of the 19th century. "Plus, it was the heart and soul of Utah County — an icon in the center of Provo," Lund added.

Over the years, the Provo Tabernacle has hosted not only presidents of the LDS Church, but also presidents of the United States, with William H. Taft's 1909 speech the first such visit.

It has welcomed myriad musical performances, from classical symphonies to lively Dixieland jazz, and concerts from Christmastime choruses to elementary school choirs.

And it has served as a venue for high school and college commencements and convocations, as well as high-profile funerals, interfaith gatherings and patriotic services.

"Our congregation has been welcomed to that facility on many occasions… It was not only a beautiful, historic building, but a place where we were all part of a greater community," said Provo Seventh-day Adventist pastor Carlos Garcia and head elder Brad E. Walton in a statement Friday. They offered their facilities as a substitute for scheduled events.

From the city's earliest days, it took many years and a relocation for Provo to gain its treasured tabernacle.

In September 1849, LDS Church President Brigham Young and counselors Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards headed a small caravan of three carriages and five horsemen, departing Fort Utah to find a location to start a city.

Plans were for a city a mile square, with four-acre blocks comprised of eight half-acre lots each and streets five rods wide. The center block was reserved as a location for a chapel and a schoolhouse.

The group traveled about two miles southeast of Fort Utah — but stopped short of Provo's current center. Instead, they marked the original "Public Square" at present-day Pioneer Park, at Center Street and 500 West.

Besides concerns about the lack of necessary building materials, conflicts and complaints also slowed the meetinghouse work. The city was absorbed in clashes with Native Americans during the Provo Indian War of 1850-1868 and there was grumbling from residents that the building as planned would appear too "Presbyterian."

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