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Tabernacle now facing a retrofit

Plans for a seismic retrofit of the historic Tabernacle on Temple Square were formally announced during a press conference Friday as Latter-day Saints prepared for the church's 174th Semiannual General Conference.

General Conference begins at 10 a.m. today in the Conference Center.

President Gordon B. Hinckley of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told reporters Friday that "buildings, like men, get old. They don't last forever unless you look after them." He described his love and respect for the Tabernacle, as well as the Salt Lake Temple, "two venerable old parents: the temple, the father, and the Tabernacle, the mother."

He said he wants the history of the building — begun in 1863 by pioneer craftsmen using wooden pegs and rawhide to hold its wooden lattice framework together — preserved.

"I don't want a modern, 2004-2005 building. I want the old original Tabernacle" to look as it does today, he said, cautioning the builders that once their plans are completed, he will look over them "to see that nothing is destroyed that shouldn't be destroyed."

"I respect this building. I love this building. I honor this building. I don't want anything done here that will destroy the historical aspect of this rare gem of architecture," President Hinckley said.

While there were few concrete details of how the construction will actually proceed, church Presiding Bishop H. David Burton said the project is slated to begin in January, and, barring unforeseen delays, will be completed in mid-2006. Many details have yet to be finalized by FFKR Architects and Jacobsen Construction, in part because of the unique character of the building.

Rumors had circled locally in early September about the project, and news stories appeared in both Salt Lake City newspapers in mid-September detailing what had become public knowledge, much of it from information posted on the Jacobsen Construction Co. Web site.

Bishop Burton said dressing rooms, restrooms and a library will be added to support the 350-voice Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The group is celebrating its 75th anniversary of continuous weekly radio broadcasting from the Tabernacle each Sunday, and once the project is complete, the Tabernacle will remain home to both the choir and the Orchestra at Temple Square. Meanwhile, the performing groups will be housed in the Conference Center.

No decision has been made on whether to reconfigure the Tabernacle's seating, he said. Though the wooden benches were adequate for pioneer Latter-day Saints of smaller stature, today's audiences frequently comment on the lack of leg room. The Tabernacle seats about 4,500, he said, noting possible changes could eliminate as many as 1,000 seats.

Builders anticipate the famed Tabernacle organ will remain in place during the project, but "some of that will be determined when we decide what we have to do with the ceiling." Architects were charged with improving the building's acoustics, he said, adding, the sound "better be better after this than it was before."

The structural integrity of the building "is, in some instances, lacking," and the roof is not securely fastened to the high masonry walls. The wooden latticework that forms the Tabernacle's hallmark oval dome will remain intact, he said, though reinforcement will be added and to the Tabernacle pillars as necessary.

The building's foundation will also be strengthened to withstand ground movement during an earthquake, he said, without giving specific details of how it would be accomplished, and the balcony will also need reinforcing. "That's the most important aspect of what we're doing."

The pioneer plaster used to roof the interior was originally mixed with horse and cattle hair to give it additional strength, and will be retained, he said, as will the wooden pegs and rawhide straps that hold the lattice framework of the ceiling together.

At present, there are no estimates of what the retrofit will cost, Bishop Burton said. "In these kinds of projects, you're never sure what you will find or what you will have to do. It will be fairly expensive."

Once the retrofit is completed, the building will remain "an ecclesiastical venue," hosting multistake conferences of local Latter-day Saints as well as artistic performances.

Richard E. Turley, managing director of the church's Family and Church History Department, said construction on the Tabernacle began in 1863, and in October 1867 the partially finished structure first housed the faith's semiannual general conference.

President Brigham Young, who led the LDS migration west in 1846-47, was the one to oversee the original building's design, Turley said, but no architectural drawings of the building are known to exist.

Its signature style has attracted worldwide attention. Master architect Frank Lloyd Wright once called it "one of the architectural masterpieces of the country and perhaps the world." Along with Temple Square, the Tabernacle has been designated a National Historic Landmark.