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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
The Provo City Center Temple; photo taken during a media tour on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015.

PROVO — The long, complex conversion of the burned-out, historic Provo Tabernacle into the Provo City Center Temple is nearly complete, and it will be stunning, the new presiding bishop of the LDS Church said Thursday.

"We realize there is excitement in the community," Bishop Gérald Caussé said. "I went through the temple on Monday, and I can tell you people will not be disappointed. It is a magnificent structure and a rare gem in the community."

A free public open house is scheduled to begin Jan. 15 ,2016, and run through March 5. The temple will be dedicated on March 20.

On Thursday, church officials invited media to tour the outside grounds and talk to the principal architect, project managers and historians about the remarkable transformation of a 112-year-old tabernacle gutted by fire in December 2010 into what members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints consider a holy temple.

"One important objective was to preserve the historicity of the former tabernacle," Bishop Caussé said. "So we put together a team of church historians, archaeologists, architects and contractors to combine their talents and work together to find a way, despite the fact most of the original tabernacle is gone, to reflect the faith of the early pioneers who settled the valley and worshipped here."

The project team succeeded, he said.

"I trust that when the doors open to the public, they will be stunned by the beauty of this blending of historical preservation and modern construction."

Gathering talent

The phone rang at 3:30 a.m., on Dec. 17, 2010, "a tragic and difficult day," said Brent Roberts, managing director of the special projects department, which had responsibility for the tabernacle. His first priority was to save what he could of the building where he graduated from BYU — twice — and had attended LDS stake conferences.

A principal architect at FFKR wanted to save the building. Roger Jackson quickly sent a letter to Roberts.

"I felt like an ambulance chaser," Jackson said, but he wanted church leaders to know that his group had been part of the team that took the shell of the Uintah Stake Tabernacle and designed what is now the Vernal LDS Temple in Vernal, Utah.

The difference, Jackson said, was that the Vernal project didn't use flames to gut the building.

Enter Jacobsen Construction, which was on-site the day after the fire, beginning to remove what would be 14 tons of debris. Soon it would be involved in some astonishing engineering feats, but not before a committee that included Roberts submitted recommendations to the LDS Church's First Presidency about what to do with the site.

In October 2011, to audible gasps in the Conference Center in Salt Lake City, LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson announced a temple on the tabernacle site.

A temple on stilts

Jackson said FFKR had an idea for how to excavate tons of dirt from underneath the tabernacle to make room for two underground levels of the temple and a parking garage, but Jacobsen Construction had a far more audacious plan — put the 6.8 million-pound shell of the tabernacle on 40-foot-high stilts.

"That seemed kind of harebrained," Jackson said. "I thought, 'Wow, really?' But they did the engineering and it turned out to be quicker and better. Once they got it on stilts, I came out and walked under it."

One European newspaper called it the levitating church.

"That image is certainly the most profound illustration of many engineering marvels that were employed throughout the course of the project," said Kirk Dickamore, the project executive for Jacobsen Construction.

Jacobsen first had to attach concrete to the inside of the brick walls to stabilize them.

"In my career," said Roberts of the LDS Church, "this is by far the most complex project I've seen. The engineering of this was well beyond what we'd ever done before. ... Instead of building it from the ground up, we had to build from the ground down and then back up."

The temple rose literally from the ashes, Dickamore said, and transcends its original splendor.

"The craftsmanship of this magnificent structure is painstaking, breathtaking and unmatched," he added.

Honoring history

"Our charge from church leadership was that this needs to be like the old building," Jackson said.

So they studied the old building, with its Victorian architecture. Jackson also turned to the original architect, William Folsom, who designed the Assembly Hall on Temple Square and the Manti Utah Temple.

"We studied him and asked what he would have done. What would have been in his design vocabulary that would have come into this building?"

The project took longer than expected because of the engineering and the effort to make sure the inside didn't feel like a modern building, Roberts said.

"Everything inside is shiny and new," Jackson said, "but it should feel like an old building."

The outside of the temple is true to the old tabernacle. During the open house, visitors will see how the inside of a temple is different from a tabernacle.

"The tabernacle was a large meeting hall with a big horseshoe gallery," Jackson said. "Now that it is a temple, the spaces inside are smaller. There isn't a single, large space. But there is a room inside we deliberately tried to have be more characteristic of the style of the tabernacle."

1850 to today

"In many ways, this building was the heart of Provo," said LDS Church historian Emily Utt. "The first structure was built here in the 1850s. Latter-day Saints have been meeting here weekly since then."

The pioneers who settled Provo in 1849 soon built a baptismal house on the corner of University Avenue and Center Street, a meetinghouse and a small tabernacle.

"This was the public square of Provo," said BYU archeologist Richard Talbot. "That original tabernacle was the center of not only Provo life but Utah County life."

Brigham Young asked for a larger tabernacle, and work began in 1882. Completed in 1898, U.S. President William H. Taft spoke in the tabernacle, as did LDS prophets.

"Wilford Woodruff spoke at the tabernacle pulpit," Utt said, "the same pulpit President Thomas S. Monson spoke at."

Utt and Talbot said the deeper and richest part of the history of the tabernacle, and in the future the temple, is the hundreds of thousands of regular people who sang and worshipped and attended concerts and civic events there, right up to the day of the fire — a light fixture placed on a speaker in the attic during preparation for a Christmas concert caused the blaze that did $15 million worth of damage.

"I constantly hear stories from people who say they got their testimony, met their spouse or graduated from college at the tabernacle," Utt said.

The new chapter begins soon.

"We are so pleased to see the temple construction come to completion," Bishop Caussé said. "We cannot wait until January to see the doors open for the public open house. We hope to see thousands and hundreds of thousands come to visit."