SALT LAKE CITY — As the LDS Conference Center embarks on its second decade, some may talk of what it might have been — a massive domed arena — or of its lesser-known amenities, like the collection of wood, welding and machine shops and the adjoining 900-seat theater.
Others may focus on its unique features, such as the roof top gardens and multi-acre meadow. Or perhaps the trivial — that a Boeing 747 jet could easily fit inside the massive main assembly hall. Maybe the topic would be the wide range of events held there over the past 10 years, including elaborate productions, musical performances, religious programs and even a barbershop-quartet convention.
But the first and foremost purpose is found in its name — as the 21,000-seat venue hosting the semiannual general conferences of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Presiding Bishop H. David Burton's responsibilities include oversight of church properties and facilities, and he has watched the 21,000-seat Conference Center grow from concept, announcement and ground breaking to construction, completion and function.
"We could go from stem to stern about the various aspects of the building," Bishop Burton said, "but it was a prophetic vision, founded out of years of concern that Latter-day Saints have an opportunity to attend and participate in general conference."
In the 1940s, church leaders considered an assembly building — with 10,000 main-floor seats and another 9,000 in a balcony — that would double in providing the arts and amusement offerings of the old Salt Lake Theater and Social Hall.
The current Conference Center resulted from the prolonged ponderings of then-LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley during the early 1990s, as he worried how to drastically increase the typical conference-session capacity of 6,000 to 7,000 in the historic Salt Lake Tabernacle.
Officials were sent scouring the world for possible prototypes as he mused about domed arenas and capacities of upwards of 30,000 and more. Nothing offering the size and seating was found.
Ultimately, the church ended up with its own architecturally renowned design on a full, 10-acre downtown block. Digging into the hillside resulted in a massive building and parking edifice of 1.5 million square feet that still fits under the city zoning's 75-foot height restriction.
President Hinckley first hinted of a new assembly hall in April 1996 general conference, with the groundbreaking on Pioneer Day the following year. Three of the state's major construction corporations — Jacobsen, Layton and Okland – joined to create a 4,000-strong Legacy Construction workforce that over 20 months completed the primary construction effort.
President Hinckley's April 2000 conference weekend deadline for occupancy was met, although the building was not entirely finished. More than 100,000 people total attended the five conference sessions that Easter 2000 weekend with only minor inconveniences. For example, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had to be accompanied by prerecorded tracks since the 7,667-pipe organ was not completely functional.
The Conference Center was dedicated at the following October general conference, punctuated by the "hosanna shout" used at LDS temple dedications.
In the 10 years since it opened, the Conference Center, sporting the same spotted-grey granite quarried from Little Cottonwood Canyon as the neighboring Salt Lake Temple, has fulfilled President Hinckley's pronouncement, which Bishop Burton labels as the center's constitution and clarion call.
"It will be primarily a house of worship, but it will also be a place of art," said President Hinckley, speaking during October 1998 general conference. "There will be concerts and other public offerings that will be uplifting and wholesome and spiritual. It will be a gift to the Master, whose birth we will commemorate at that season."
The rooftop gardens, trees and meadows — accompanied by walkways, waterways and fountains — fulfill another prophetic statement, when Brigham Young in 1853 spoke of a vision of a downtown building "and on the top, groves and ponds."
Mention the Conference Center, and most visitors and broadcast viewers first think of the huge assembly hall; the expansive, art-laden lobbies; and the signature exteriors and spire complete with a three-level, spring-fed waterfall.
"Architecturally, structurally, yes, there are some unique features — but what goes on here is like no other building in the world," said David Miles, the center's manager of facilities and event services.
What isn't seen are the scores of translation booths, the several audio-visual studios and the huge storage area that can accommodate not only dozens of semi loads of equipment and staging for major productions but also the 100 modules that make up the rostrum that seats the church general authorities and other leaders and the choir for conference.
The rostrum pieces can be broken down and moved on an air-caster system — "it's the air-hockey concept," Miles said. Only a couple of workers are needed to easily relocate pieces that weigh several tons. The process usually takes two weeks but could be done in four or five work days if necessary.
As the rostrum mode gives way to the orchestra mode, an open stage half the size of a football field can provide ample area for major set performances such as the Tabernacle Choir's Christmas concerts and other big-stage productions such as "Light of the World" performances in conjunction with the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics.
"We're putting on world-class events in this building," Miles said, "and rightfully so — it's a world-class facility."
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