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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News
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.

PROVO — Architect William Folsom probably was relieved when LDS Church leaders in Provo asked him to design their new tabernacle after the Salt Lake Assembly Hall on Temple Square. It made the job a little easier to have a model to build from.

C. Mark Hamilton, author of "Nineteenth-Century Mormon Architecture and City Planning," said three tabernacles in Utah were built in the late 1800s with the same basic underlying design: The Assembly Hall, the Provo Tabernacle and the Coalville Tabernacle.

The Provo Tabernacle had the same basic cross-shaped layout as the Assembly Hall, but with large staircase towers at each corner, which are "reminiscent of the octagonal towers of the Manti Temple," Hamilton wrote in his book. The towers gave the tabernacle "a more imposing presence" than the Salt Lake Assembly Hall.

The building was capped with a large central tower that was removed in 1917 because of fears it was too heavy and might collapse. "Much of the visual appeal of the building was lost when this focal point of the design was eliminated," Hamilton wrote.

The Coalville Tabernacle was torn down in 1971. The Provo Tabernacle was damaged by fire on Friday.

"When you've lost that building, you've lost the large center of heritage for the city," Hamilton said. "In the early history of the church, if you didn't have a temple, then the next building of importance would be a tabernacle. And they put it in the most visual center part as a constant reminder of who they were and what they ought to be about. And to lose that, you've lost your cultural core of Provo City."

Hamilton said he thinks that the Provo Tabernacle's cultural importance is such that it should be rebuilt if it is at all feasible — even though he thinks it probably will never be cost-effective. One of the problems in rebuilding is the quality of the brick. The tabernacle was built with a low-fired brick — a light brick according to Hamilton. "It could be damaged more by a fire than the normal high-fired brick we use today."

Hamilton said one of the arguments used when deciding to tear down the Coalville Tabernacle was that there were two other ones just like it.

Now, with the Provo Tabernacle all but destroyed, there is only one.