As an 8-year-old boy, Clarence Walker remembers purchasing a button that read "I bought a brick."
As a missionary in Texas, he saw the building on a celluloid film and immediately thought of home.
As a member of the bishopric, he helped construct a second chapel so more stakes could use the building.
As stake president, he represented the sentiments of many stake members who did not want the building to be torn down.
Now, Walker oversees the use of the building that continues to give him a feeling of home.
The Granite Stake Tabernacle has served as an integral part of life for many people who, like Walker, have grown up in the Salt Lake area. Thousands of members have attended meetings in the tabernacle, located at 2005 S. 900 East.
It took eight years to dedicate. It's been witness to a prophet's singing. It's home to rabbits, rams and safes filled with paper plates. It has echoed with the voices of dozens of general authorities. It's been surrounded by flood waters. Most importantly, it has survived 80 years to tell its tale, earning its undeniable status as a historical landmark.
The beginning: building and budgeting
Early in 1929, the Lincoln Ward was formed in the Granite Stake. Additionally, stake divisions caused the old Granite Tabernacle to fall within the Grant Stake boundaries instead of the Granite Stake. Built in 1903 and torn down in 1956, the old tabernacle was located at 3300 South and State Street, where the Century 16 Theaters stand today.
A new ward chapel and stake tabernacle were necessary, so the stake saved money and accommodated both needs by constructing one building.
A ceremony was held March 29, 1929, to break ground for the tabernacle. The stake's published history states that four houses were demolished for the new building, including the childhood home of Stephen L. Richards, who later became first counselor to President David O. McKay.
It was common practice at the time for a ward to pay 40 to 60 percent of the cost to construct a meetinghouse, said Emily Utt, historic sites researcher for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Lincoln Ward therefore held multiple fundraisers to help with the cost, including the button fundraiser Walker remembers. Other events, such as dance parties and organ recitals, also helped defray construction costs.
Although construction on the building was completed in March 1930, the building was not dedicated for eight years. Utt says the building could not be dedicated until it was paid in full, and the Great Depression slowed the pace of payment.
President Heber J. Grant, who often used the tabernacle to practice singing after his morning game of golf, dedicated the building in June of 1938.
Remodels, renovations and repairs
In 1951, 13 years after the dedication of the tabernacle, then-Elder Harold B. Lee visited the Lincoln Ward, where Walker served as a counselor in the bishopric.
"We had been in the bishopric for a week, and Elder Lee came down and said, 'If you brethren would build a little chapel here for Lincoln Ward, we could move nine stakes in this building upstairs to hold stake conference and save the church $1 million.'
"So we built a little chapel," Walker said.
For the exterior of the second chapel to match the rest of the building, the ward bought terra cotta from California. Members provided labor in order to save on construction costs, but they still needed outside professionals.
"We couldn't find a stonemason at first, but then we found the one who had worked on the original (building)," Walker said. "He was 80 years old when he came back to do the stone work like it was on the original tabernacle."
For the next 30 years, the Granite Tabernacle endured weather and wear. During the floods of 1983, sandbagging efforts of the members minimized interior damages to the tabernacle. It was still surrounded, however, by approximately 5 feet of muddy water, Paul F. Mecham, former president of the stake, told the Church News in a 1989 interview. This forced members to attend church in another building while the parking lot was inaccessible, Walker said.
At one point during Walker's time as stake president, church leaders considered the idea of tearing down the building to construct a new one in its place. Due to his sentimental feelings toward the building, Walker made it known he did not approve of the plan. Taking his feelings, the opinions of the stake members and the building's historical nature into consideration, church leaders chose to keep the Granite Tabernacle intact.
By 1985, additional weather damages served as a final catalyst for refurbishment. The roof was repaired; heating, air-conditioning and electrical systems were improved; and the rooms were repainted to the original colors. Oak paneling in the back of the chapel was also removed to reveal a concealed feature.
"(The paneling) was removed, and we could make out that 'The Glory of God Is Intelligence' was there and that was restored as much as possible to the original nature of the work," Andrew Peters, who was in charge of the gold leafing, said in the stake's published history.
Modern conveniences such as an elevator and handicap entrances have also been added in recent years to make the building more user-friendly.
Old and new
The Granite Stake Tabernacle contains elements you would find in almost any modern LDS meetinghouse: plastic chairs, floral couches and accordion-style room dividers. What gives the building its charm, however, is the synthesis of modern amenities and original architectural elements.
Choir seats have replaced the pews and additional lighting supplements the original fixtures. Behind the pulpit, with its modern sound system, is a detailed mural of an outdoor scene painted by Lee Greene Richards shortly after the tabernacle was completed. Close examination reveals peacocks, rabbits, rams and a turtle emerging from the vegetation.
In the cultural hall, a polished basketball court lies in front of a large stage with ornate molding around the archway. The site where Walker remembers elaborate operas, musical comedies and road shows being performed is now more commonly used for church basketball games.
A large safe is nestled in the wall near the stake offices. Although it was once used to protect tithing money and important documents, it is now home to paper plates, pans and party supplies.
The Relief Society room is still arranged around an elaborate fireplace, with a blue and yellow carved mantel displaying a crest with an "R" to represent the organization. A grand piano, which was purchased from actress Mary Pickford's estate, sits majestically among the simple table and chairs that fill the room.
Utt said that in terms of the tabernacle's size and grandeur, it is unique compared to both today's standards and those at the time it was built. As was practice at the time, the stake, its members and the financial backing available determined many of the architectural details. "Every member had a contribution, and we just don't do that anymore," Utt said.
Because of its distinct features, Scott Christensen, historian and archivist for the Church History Department, said the tabernacle is on a short list of ecclesiastical buildings still used by the church that are stringently protected.
Today, the tabernacle is home to the Forest Dale and the Japanese Dai Ichi wards. Only the Granite Stake meets there for conferences. The original Lincoln Ward no longer exists.
Although times have changed, the Granite Tabernacle remains a standard in the lives of those who have devoted countless hours of service there. Walker understands that as much as anyone.
"It's home," he said.
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