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LDS Church scales back hall's seating

After years of sweat and toil, in 1867 the Mormon Tabernacle finally hosted its first general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

No doubt the tired construction workers sagged into their favorite chairs, mugs of sasparilla in hand, weary to their bones, the job done, only to groan upon hearing church leaders say, well, the Tabernacle's nice and all that, but it's not big enough. We'll need another one.So said Thomas Hanson, project manager for the mammoth new assembly building now being constructed on the block north of Temple Square, in a speech to the Salt Lake Exchange Club Wednesday. Even back in pioneer days, church leaders knew they would eventually need a larger building.

Ironic, then, that church leaders have now decided the 26,000-seat assembly hall now under construction is too big. Recently they scaled it back to a "more intimate" 21,000 seats, Hanson said.

Designing the building's revamped capacity delayed the project three months. But when Hanson went in to LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley to plead for more time, President Hinckley simply smiled, held to his April 2000 deadline, and said, "Well, I guess we'll just have to work harder, won't we?"

"I didn't ask who `we' were," Hanson said. "I just said, `Yessir.' "

In addition to general conference, the hall will be used for sacred pageants and other theatrical productions, making even the newly smaller version the largest theater in the world. It will be physically large enough to house a Boeing 747 (though the doors might be a bit of a squeeze).

The hall's great size has "stretched" the project's numerous architects and engineers, Hanson said, complicating the design of such things as spotlights, broadcast capabilities and acoustics.

The hall's ceiling, for example, has been "very difficult" to design satisfactorily, Hanson said. President Hinckley wants it to have superior acoustics, so the usual exposed steel-beam ceilings customarily employed in large arenas won't be used. The ceiling will be an actual, shaped ceiling, with no support pillars in the interior of the hall.

To provide strength, the footings for the 80-foot-high columns on its edges will be no less than 12 feet thick.

"We're taking every precaution to make sure the building stands up when the big one comes," Hanson said.

Hanson said President Hinckley has been easy to work with. The 87-year-old church president has a good grasp of architecture and has definite ideas of how he wants the building to turn out. For example, an artist's rendering of the two-story lobby atrium is now outdated because President Hinckley wanted it all paneled, Hanson said.

"He knows what he likes."

LDS Church leaders had identified the block north of the temple as the site for a large new assembly hall, which they called the Colosseum, as far back as the 1940s. That vision is now being realized - except for the name. Calling to mind the Roman Colosseum, it wasn't exactly the image church leaders were looking for.

Other statements of past church leaders are also coming to pass. Brigham Young envisioned gardens and fish ponds on the tops of temples, and the new assembly hall will have trees and gardens and water features on its roof.

The correct design hasn't come without effort. "I was sure we were in trouble because roofs leak," Hanson said.

Most welcome of all to church members who have stood in line for hours to get into general conference, Hanson said the church is contemplating a ticketing system assigning each audience member a seat number.

"It saves all that standing in the rain," he said.

Local legend has it that if the clouds open only once in April or October, it will be on general conference weekend.