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.
Elder Jensen said most of the original benches in the Tabernacle have been removed and replaced with real oak replicas, "which is what Brigham Young wanted and didn't ever get." During the restoration project, news that the original benches might not return to the Tabernacle drew mixed public reaction, with some preservationists lamenting their possible removal.
Many other patrons simply hoped the replacement pews would provide more comfort and expanded leg room.
"I hope you will let people know those (original) benches are never going to get us into heaven," Elder Jensen said, adding that a few of the original pews remain inside the Tabernacle. Those that were removed "are in storage ... in a church warehouse." He said it is possible they could be recycled, "but I don't know what the final disposition will be."
Elder Jensen has personal ties to the Tabernacle because the man who directed construction of its roof, architect Henry Grow, was his great-great-grandfather. "To have his work acknowledged is a special thing," he said, adding that family legend has "pushed the truth a bit" in crediting him as being "the architect" of the Tabernacle.
Grow doesn't get that singular distinction from the church, "but he does within our family," he said. The exhibit honors two other Tabernacle architects, Truman Angell and William Folsom, noting the different and critical roles all three men played in its construction.
The Tabernacle was "one of the first buildings where form followed function," Elder Jensen said, noting many people of the time were unhappy with its design. "It was sort of lamentable to some, but over the course of the years it's gotten a lot more respect."Hours at the museum, 45 N. West Temple, are weekdays from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday and most holidays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free. The exhibit runs through mid-January 2009.