The church's tabernacle-building tradition

Published: Thursday, July 1 2010 7:00 a.m. MDT

Like pearls in a sea of obscurity, rare Mormon tabernacles dot the Western states desert as reminders of antiquated times of architectural mastery.

While about half of the 100-plus-year-old historic jewels have been razed or sold over the years, many have not only survived the century but are still functioning houses of worship.

The Granite Tabernacle is one of only 20 tabernacles that's made "The List."

Essentially an endangered species list kept by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it comprises only 58 of the church's most valuable historic buildings that are still being used for ecclesiastical purposes.

"Which means they have an additional level of protection and care that's exercised when work is done to them," said Scott Christensen, archivist for the Church History Department. "We're exceptionally careful not to remove important architectural, historical elements. Those are buildings the church probably will never sell or tear down."

Special church historical sites are included on another list.

Besides 20 tabernacles, 10 temples are on the ecclesiastical list, as well as 23 meetinghouses and five other kinds of buildings, like the Colonia Juarez Stake Academy, a private, church-owned high school in Chihuahua, Mexico.

The list sounds more elite when one considers the church operates 133 temples and builds roughly 450 meetinghouses each year.

In total, Latter-day Saints crafted about 74 tabernacles in the past 163 years. Saints started calling the large log meetinghouses in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1847, tabernacles. The last tabernacle was built in Ogden in the mid-1950s.

Between those time periods, but mostly in the 19th century, it was common for several congregations to join efforts under the direction of their stake leadership and construct meeting halls large enough for combined conferences.

Most were built with a unique style, design and budget. They were largely reflective of the fine craftsmanship of their makers, many of whom were trained in Europe and New England. And most of the beloved buildings mirrored their surrounding elements and material.

Saints from the Salt Lake City Stake in 1877 received permission to use discarded granite from the nearby temple to build their tabernacle on Temple Square. It's known today as the Assembly Hall.

Most tabernacles took from two to five years to complete. At least a couple, however, took about 16 years of off-and-on-again work.

Some tabernacles aren't technically tabernacles at all, Christensen said. "Some are pseudo-tabernacles, or ward tabernacles, because they were grand in size or design."

But Christensen said in order to qualify for tabernacle status, at least in Mormon context, it needs to have been built by a coalition of congregations, not just one ward or branch. The five "tabernacles" in question that were constructed by single units were built in Franklin, Idaho; Willard, Moroni, Cedar City and Randolph, all in Utah.

"But they called them tabernacles in the 19th century," Christensen said with a laugh. "So who are we to say they were wrong?"

During the 1930s and 1940s, heritage eventually gave way to practicality and the church found it could build larger, more practical buildings with advanced construction techniques in reinforced concrete, steel girders and glulam beams.

Ultimately, wide-roofed, short-walled, nondescript stake centers replaced the grand, high-walled tabernacle era.

The word "stake" is of ancient origin, but Latter-day Saints only started using the term "stake center" in the early 1960s after the massive Inter-stake Center was completed in Oakland, Calif., Christensen said.

e-mail: jhancock@desnews.com

 

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