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Provo City Center Temple a feat of engineering, hard work and faith

PROVO — Unique, cutting-edge construction technology is taking the burned-out shell of the historic Provo Tabernacle and giving it new and revitalized life as Provo’s second LDS temple and the faith's 16th in the state of Utah.

Fortified by 6 to 10 inches of concrete, a new structure has been created utilizing three rows of original brickwork as the new temple’s façade. That façade appears to be floating over an open pit, but for now it rests on an assembly of steel-and-concrete piles that hold it firmly in place at the precise elevation it will eventually occupy once the temple’s footings, foundations and two below-grade stories are constructed beneath it — a process that should be completed sometime this summer.

“This was not the original vision we had for turning the tabernacle into a temple,” said Andy Kirby, project manager for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “In fact, I remember that on several occasions we specifically said, ‘We do not want to see the entire building in the air — we want to be able to sleep at night.’ But as we worked through several different construction concepts, this approach evolved.

“And yes, there are some nights we don’t get a lot of sleep.”

For Kirby, the work taking place near the intersection of Provo’s Center Street and University Avenue is as philosophically symbolic as it is conceptually unique and spiritually exciting.

“This is a beautiful symbol of rebirth,” he said, referring to the tragic fire that nearly destroyed the 125-year-old Provo Tabernacle in 2010 as well as LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson's announcement less than a year later that the tabernacle's remains would be preserved and included in a new temple to be built on the same site.

“From extreme adversity, the old tabernacle is being reborn to a higher purpose,” Kirby said. “There is symbolism there for all of us. You go through difficult times, even tragedy, and you can come back better and stronger than ever.”

Although the pile-supported elevation technique being employed here has been used in other locations around the world, no one associated with the project is aware of it being used on a building nearly 130 years old.

“We felt this was the best way we could protect and preserve the original tabernacle structure while building a new temple within it and under it,” Kirby said. “As a construction project, it is unique in all the world.”

Monitors and load sensors are being employed so engineers can be constantly aware of any changes in elevation or material stress, no matter how slight.

“We are tracking it carefully — every day,” Kirby said. “We can see an issue before it becomes a problem, and we can make adjustments.”

In addition to the challenges of turning a century-plus-old building into a temple suitable to be considered the House of the Lord, as Mormons believe, construction crews have had to deal with unstable ground and water-table issues.

“Ground water has been an issue at this site,” Kirby said. “The ground water is about 15-20 feet below the surface, and we’re constructing 40 feet down. So we’ve had to de-water the area.”

They have done that by building retaining walls in the ground around the temple and creating a settling pond from which water can be pumped.

“We’re constantly pumping water out of the area, and that process will continue even after the temple is completed,” Kirby said. “It passes through a filtering system before we send it into the city’s storm drain system.”

Crews have also been working on preserving the historically significant wood elements of the tabernacle, including moldings, posts and balustrades that survived the fire and three of the four wood-shingled turrets that gave the building its distinctive exterior look. The fourth turret was too heavily damaged in the fire to be usable.

Completion of the entire project is expected sometime in 2015. At that time the Provo City Center Temple will consist of four levels — two above ground and two below. The temple will have a 50-car surface parking lot and a 245-car underground parking lot. The underground parking will allow church landscapers to turn the grounds surrounding the temple into a place of beauty in the heart of downtown Provo.

“The tabernacle was not just a church facility, but it was also an important place to the entire community for a wide variety of community events and celebrations,” Kirby said. “Our objective is to honor the tabernacle by making the new temple and the temple grounds a significant thing for downtown Provo.”