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Pioneer edifice fulfilled a pressing need

Tabernacle has undergone substantial changes over time

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The Salt Lake Tabernacle was not the first such structure conceived by the Latter-day Saints.

Richard E. Turley, managing director of the Family and Church History Department, spoke at an Oct. 1, news conference at which President Gordon B. Hinckley announced extensive renovations to the 137-year-old edifice.

"Before the Latter-day Saints left their temple city of Nauvoo, Ill., in 1846, they had bought canvas, contemplating the erection of a tent tabernacle west of the Nauvoo Temple to shelter the large crowds that attended worship services and conferences," he said. "The saints soon abandoned their plan and their temple city, however, and the purchased canvas likely became wagon covers for the westward trek."

After the 1847 arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, two boweries were erected for meeting purposes, and a log tabernacle was constructed in December 1847 at Miller's Hollow (later Kanesville), Iowa, where the recently returned Brigham Young was sustained as president of the Church, Brother Turley said.

In 1849, an upgraded bowery was constructed on Temple Square, later replaced by what became known as the Old Tabernacle, built in 1851-52. The building featured elliptical trusses that eliminated the need for interior pillars, and sloped seating to allow a clear view of the speaker and a choir.

The Old Tabernacle was immediately inadequate for the need, and construction was begun in 1863 on the present-day Tabernacle. In October 1867, it was first used for general conference, and continued to be used for that purpose until the Conference Center came into use in 2000.

"In overseeing the building's design, Brigham Young sought to duplicate the free-standing quality of the Old Tabernacle's roof," Brother Turley said. "This was accomplished in the much larger new Tabernacle by using lattice trusses to create giant elliptical arches."

He said the Tabernacle has undergone substantial changes over time to enhance safety and comfort and take advantage of new technology. A balcony was added in 1869 and 1870. Gas and, later, electrical lighting augmented natural lighting to illuminate the interior. "The speaker's stand, organ casing and choir seats changed to accommodate the growing size of the choir and organ, as well as the need for sound amplification, translation services, and radio and television broadcasting. The original wooden shingles proved a fire hazard and were later replaced by ornamental metal ones. In 1947, the centennial year of the pioneer company's arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, a new aluminum roof was placed on the Tabernacle.

Brother Turley noted that the Tabernacle has long been recognized for its uniqueness and historic character, adding that in 1954, architect Frank Lloyd Wright called it "one of the architectural masterpieces of the country, and perhaps the world." In 1971, Brother Turley said, the American Society of Civil Engineers recognized the building as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

He said every president of the Church after Joseph Smith has spoken from its pulpits, and it has long been the home of the famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir. "As President Hinckley declared at the final general conference in the Tabernacle, 'The Spirit of the Lord has been in this structure. It is sacred to us.' "

E-mail to: rscott@desnews.com