Just over 30 years ago, the call went out: "Save the Heber Tabernacle," cried news releases from the Utah State Historical Society. Concerned members of the community established a "Save the Tabernacle Fund."
"So the fight was made," recalls Dr. R. Raymond Green, a retired Heber surgeon and long-time community historian.Built by Heber Valley residents from 1887 to 1889, the 19th-century church with its white-topped steeple seems today a handsome hybrid of New England tradition, native cinnamon sandstone and pioneer pluck. But by 1964 the structure was deemed too limiting for use as an LDS stake center, the original function of Utah tabernacles. Worn by 75 years of heavy use, the building needed to be replaced, church leaders decided.
"There were groups that fell into the idea of destroying it, but there were other groups that strongly resisted," Green says. A similar outcry at the time had followed plans to raze the tabernacle in Coalville; the Heber story ended more satisfactorily for those who favored preservation.
Today the building that was once the Heber Tabernacle still stands at 75 N. Main, a testament to the valley's sense of its heritage. After a few more decades' delay it was renovated, with extensive adaptations to its interior, and became Heber's City Hall in 1989.
Visitors who stop to get a closer look at the building are rewarded when they discover other historic artifacts displayed inside as they step through the massive front doors.
There they'll find photos of early Mormon leader Heber C. Kimball, for whom the area is named, and of Abram Hatch, the Wasatch Stake president a century ago, and his wives. Dresses and formalwear of the late 19th century repose behind glass, as do such items as a fire chief's helmet circa 1880, combs, scarves, gloves and household necessities and conveniences. A painting by Vernon Murdock transports viewers to another time via "Stake Presidency Meeting 1910." In it, a half dozen horses beside two carriages wait patiently in front of the Heber Tabernacle; green-leafed trees frame the scene.
The city staff still has copies of the commemorative program printed for the rededication in 1988. The pamphlet quotes the May 4, 1889, edition of the Wasatch Wave, which trumpeted the completion of the building:
"The Stake House is finished and cleaned in beautiful style ready for dedication tomorrow," the local paper reported. "Conference visitors are expected to clean their feet before entering the building and leave their knives and pencils and tobacco at home."
The building was a culmination of years of pioneering effort, Green said. The first settlers had come to the Heber Valley in the late 1850s, but Indian conflicts had forced the settlers at times to hunker in forts. By the 1880s times were better and Hatch spurred the citizens to build what some considered "the finest church building in all of Utah."
Hatch; Elisha Averett, a master mason, and Alexander Fortie, master architect, were the project's leaders, Green says. They got their sandstone from a quarry east of town, and called upon their neighbors for donated labor and materials. The completed structure sheltered about 1,500 of the faithful at a sitting.
Obviously, the 1964 "Save the Tabernacle" campaign succeeded. After a few fits and starts, $60,000 was finally raised to buy property nearby for the new Wasatch Stake Center; the city was handed the deed to the old tabernacle. For a few years the building was used as a community theater. In 1970 it was placed on the National Historic Register, as was the turn-of-the-century community social hall behind it.
But, neglected again, the tabernacle's future seemed uncertain - until Heber City residents approved a proposal to renovate it as a city hall. The bond issue passed and, with the aid of a federal grant, restoration began in 1988 and the city's administrators moved in on July 18, 1988.
On a plaque among the memorabilia on display inside is a poetic tribute to "The Old Heber Tabernacle," by Donald J. Tuttle. He begins rhetorically wondering, "Why save it? Why keep old things that are past their time . . . ," and concludes:
Old things have their own innate special worth:
character and a sense of class
an aura of time distilled,
qualities that ennoble and enrich
the lives of us all.