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Provo Tabernacle remembered for its past ... and presence

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 2:02 a.m. MDT

Provo residents Liz Miller, center, and Stacy Strong, right, were emotional as they watched beloved landmark burn. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) 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 Provo Tabernacle, long the setting for religious, civic and arts events, burns as firefighters try to knock down the flames from above. The cause of the fire is still unknown. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News/KSL-TV Chopper 5) The Provo Tabernacle, long the setting for religious, civic and arts events, burns as firefighters try to knock down the flames from above. The cause of the fire is still unknown. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News/KSL-TV Chopper 5)

"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.

Provo Tabernacle in the 1980s. (Deseret News Archives) Provo Tabernacle in the 1980s. (Deseret News Archives)

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.

Interior of the Provo Tabernacle in the 1890s.  (Utah State Historical Society) Interior of the Provo Tabernacle in the 1890s. (Utah State Historical Society)

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."

Provo Tabernacle structure, approaching its centennial, has presided over wealth of dramatic history, Feb. 24, 1983. (Deseret News Archives) Provo Tabernacle structure, approaching its centennial, has presided over wealth of dramatic history, Feb. 24, 1983. (Deseret News Archives)

Work advanced as far as the laying of a foundation before the project was abandoned on Brigham Young's advice. Provo's center and the location of its first major meetinghouse moved east in 1856 to today's location — Block 66, or "Tabernacle Block."

A structure called the "Old Meetinghouse" or "the Old Tabernacle" preceded the Provo Tabernacle. Facing Center Street and finished in 1861, the first building was constructed of timber, adobe and stone and soon was deemed inadequate. In his 1867 dedicatory remarks, Brigham Young acknowledged the need for a larger edifice.

Titles to public squares in the late 19th century had to be conferred by the U.S. government; President Ulysses S. Grant did just that in 1871 correspondence with Provo Mayor Abraham O. Smoot. Three years later, Block 66's ownership was transferred to the LDS Church for the sum of $40.

The Provo Tabernacle in the 1890s. (Utah State Historical Society) The Provo Tabernacle in the 1890s. (Utah State Historical Society)

Under the direction of LDS President John Taylor, construction on the present-day Provo Tabernacle began in 1883. Even before it was formally dedicated in 1898, the building hosted the LDS Church's general conferences in 1886 and 1887. Designed by church architect William Folsom, the Gothic Revival-style tabernacle was patterned somewhat on the Assembly Hall at Temple Square.

Constructed at a cost of $100,000 with seating for 1,500, the Provo Tabernacle featured a brick exterior, an octagonal tower or turret at each of the four corners, a steep roof, with interior highlights including frosted-glass windows, spiral staircases, exquisite woodwork and a hand-carved rostrum.

The tabernacle originally boasted a central tower rising 147 feet high. However, the roof was unable to support the weight, and the building was partially condemned in 1913 — the center cupola was soon removed and the tower reduced to a center platform or "plinth." That still resulted in roof stress and weight woes, with another partial condemnation in 1949 and removal and roof remodeling in the early 1950s.

Provo Tabernacle, September 1986 (Deseret News Archives) Provo Tabernacle, September 1986 (Deseret News Archives)

An elaborate pipe organ was added in the early 1900s, and during a 1917 remodel, stained-glass windows replaced the frosted glass. Other tabernacle remodels and refurbishings followed in 1927, 1964, the early '80s and the mid-'90s. The cost of the latter — which included new air-conditioning, extensive painting and window refurbishing — totaled more than $1 million.

In 1915, the Utah Stake began leasing parts of the block property, and the tabernacle had commercial neighbors over the years ranging from Naylor-Clark Auto to Woolworths to present-day Nu Skin International. The latter has conducted companywide meetings in the tabernacle and shares a multi-level parking facility.

The tabernacle did survive a business-oriented blitz in the early 1960s, when a developer pushed to purchase the property, raze the building and replace it with a shopping mall.

General conferences were held in the Provo Tabernacle in April 1886 and 1887. The latter year was the last time sessions were held outside Salt Lake City. (Deseret News Archives) General conferences were held in the Provo Tabernacle in April 1886 and 1887. The latter year was the last time sessions were held outside Salt Lake City. (Deseret News Archives)

In September 1986, then-LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson presided over the rededication of the Provo Tabernacle, with President Thomas S. Monson — then a First Presidency counselor — offering the dedicatory prayer.

Lund said the Provo Tabernacle was considered to be in excellent shape for a building of 120-plus years, still retaining much of its original "fabric" in brick, stone and woodwork. The LDS Church, she added, has done well in blending preservation efforts while updating and enhancing the building for ongoing use.

"You want to retain as much of the original fabric and character as you can, but at the same time meet the needs of people who use the building," she said.

And what kind of historical and facility loss has been suffered now on a block that originally sold for $40, a tabernacle that originally cost $100,000 and most recently was updated at a cost of $1 million?

Provo firefighters look at a painting of Christ that was burned in the fire. The fire burned the entire image except the image of Christ near the center.  Provo City Firefighters continue their work at the historic Provo Tabernacle after the building was destroyed by fire.  Saturday, Dec. 18, 2010. Photo by Scott G Winterton Deseret News (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Provo firefighters look at a painting of Christ that was burned in the fire. The fire burned the entire image except the image of Christ near the center. Provo City Firefighters continue their work at the historic Provo Tabernacle after the building was destroyed by fire. Saturday, Dec. 18, 2010. Photo by Scott G Winterton Deseret News (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

"I don't think there's any way you can put a price tag on it," Lund said, adding, "it's like a good friend who is now gone."

e-mail: taylor@desnews.com

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