Facebook Twitter

A glimpse into the history, highlights and legacy of Mormon tabernacles

SHARE A glimpse into the history, highlights and legacy of Mormon tabernacles

In the early morning hours of Dec. 17, 2010, flames consumed all but the brick walls of the Provo Tabernacle. Almost a year later, President Thomas S. Monson announced in general conference that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would rebuild the historic icon into a temple, drawing audible gasps from the congregation.

"This wonderful building, much beloved by generations of Latter-day Saints, was left with only the exterior walls standing," President Monson said in 2011. "After careful study, we have decided to rebuild it with full preservation and restoration of the exterior, to become the second temple of the church in the city of Provo."

Today, workers are preparing the Provo City Center Temple for its open house in January and dedication in March. When dedicated, it will join a unique group of temples adapted from existing church buildings, including ones in Vernal, Utah; Copenhagen, Denmark; Hong Kong, China; and Manhattan, New York.

The Provo Tabernacle was one of about 100 such structures of various sizes and architectural styles built by LDS Church members from the 1850s to the 1950s, according to Scott R. Christensen, an area acquisitions manager in the LDS Church History Department who has researched tabernacles in recent years. These magnificent buildings are easily recognized by their pipe organs, handcrafted decor, stained-glass windows and galleries, Christensen said.

“They are grand buildings, bigger than a typical meetinghouse," Christensen said. "Although a single definition has never been completely satisfactory, a Mormon tabernacle is usually a structure that was built by a coalition of congregations, most often under the direction of a stake. Stakes could marshal a large pool of craftsmen and cash. The result was usually a building of sufficient, even grand, scale designed to impress and able to accommodate stake-sized congregations for conferences and other events."

Of those 100 or so tabernacles, about two-thirds (roughly 65 percent) have been demolished, said Emily Utt, a church historic sites curator. Most of those still standing have been renovated several times and remain in use by the church while others have been transferred to new ownership.

These historic tabernacles, built through hard work and sacrifice, continue to be special landmarks in their communities, Utt said.

"They are often the largest and most elaborate structure in the town, an iconic image that gives the community its identity and sets it apart. ... They convey a sense of permanence for these communities and a sense of substance for Latter-day Saints," Utt said. "They demonstrate to the world that Latter-day Saints have style, taste, culture and are good members of society."

In honor of the Provo Tabernacle's temple transformation, here is a collection of interesting facts and highlights from the history of Latter-day Saint tabernacles.

Tabernacle tent

The term "tabernacle" has biblical origins, according to a 1997 LDS Church Ensign magazine article. The Prophet Isaiah prophesied that "Zion would be like an Israelite tabernacle established before Christ's Second Coming" (Isaiah 33:20, see also Isaiah 54:2).

In the Old Testament, a tabernacle was a portable, tent-like house of worship used by Hebrews, Christensen said.

In the 19th century, evangelists and other religious groups in the United States and Canada used large tents as "tabernacles" during the Second Great Awakening, Christensen said.

In 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith of the LDS Church envisioned placing a tent in front of the Nauvoo Illinois Temple, Christensen said. One year after his death in 1845, Orson Hyde of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles traveled east to secure 4,000 yards of canvas. Within a short time of his return, the Saints were preparing to move west and the canvas was used for covering wagons.

From Iowa to Salt Lake City

As the pioneers journeyed across Iowa, meetinghouses referred to as tabernacles were built in Kanesville (Council Bluffs), Iowa, in 1847, and Pigeon Creek, Iowa, in 1849, Christensen said.

The church built a replica of the Kanesville Tabernacle in 1996.

Construction on a large adobe structure, designed by architect Truman O. Angell, began four years after the pioneers settled in the Salt Lake Valley. It was dedicated in 1852 and functioned for two decades until it was destroyed in 1877 to make room for the Salt Lake Stake Tabernacle, now commonly identified as the Assembly Hall on Temple Square.

Perhaps the most famous tabernacle is the dome-shaped Salt Lake Tabernacle. This tabernacle was started in 1864 and completed in 1867. It was officially dedicated in 1875, according to mormonnewsroom.org.

The Salt Lake Tabernacle has long been the home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and its weekly broadcast, "Music and the Spoken Word." It has also hosted countless community events and prominent guests, including 18 U.S. presidents, the crown prince of Sweden (1926), writer/poet Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle (author of "Sherlock Holmes") pilot Charles Lindbergh, suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony, conductor and composer John Philip Sousa, Buffalo Bill Cody, Helen Keller, among many others.

The "new" Salt Lake Tabernacle had many sister buildings, along with a few "copies in smaller scale built as recreation halls by a few adoring Mormon communities," Christensen said.

A ward in Draper built a "substantial yellow brick structure with a large oval dance floor able to accommodate 700 dancers," complete with a full stage for theatrical productions, a ticket lobby, dressing rooms and a refreshment parlor containing a soda fountain, Christensen said.

By 1959, the Draper ward complex was in decline.

In 1917, residents of Teasdale, Utah, finished a 40-by-80-foot structure with a dance floor and stage. With the new edifice, they believed there would be "no necessity for the young people to leave their own towns to seek pleasure and amusement elsewhere," according to Christensen's research. The building is still in use by the church today.

"Although the Salt Lake Tabernacle was not Mormonism's first, its presence and importance emphasized the desirability and utility of such structures and encouraged communities to undertake their own monumental building projects," Christensen said.

Fires and earthquakes

The Provo Tabernacle was not the first to die a fiery death.

In 1896, "a faulty furnace belched flames" and "completely gutted" the Box Elder Stake Tabernacle, which was in Brigham City, Utah, leaving only its rock walls, Christensen said. It was rebuilt that year with the addition of red brick buttresses for additional wall strength and support. A different tower was added and the interior was reversed, with the speakers’ stand moved to its west end.

"The Brigham City Tabernacle is one of the finest buildings," Christensen said. "It emerged from the ashes, and of necessity, they had to strengthen the walls with buttresses, which ultimately gave it a signature look that we all love."

The Payson Tabernacle was destroyed by fire in 1902. The tabernacle in Snowflake, Arizona, burned in 1941 but was rebuilt the following year and is still in use today.

Heating and electrical problems have been common in these old pioneer tabernacles, Utt said.

"Most of our current building codes are in place because of fires happening in our buildings," Utt said.

The Sevier Stake Tabernacle in Richfield, Utah, was shaken, not burned. It took 11 years to build (1888-1899) but only lasted for 15 years. The building's last meeting broke up when part of the ceiling fell into the crowd, causing chaos. By 1912, the structure was considered unsafe. It was torn down a few years later, Christensen said.

"It's the worst seismic region in the state (of Utah)," Christensen said. "It was stunning but unstable. We're lucky to have a photo."

1907 to 1997

Construction on the Uintah Stake Tabernacle in Vernal, Utah, lasted from 1887 to 1900, with faithful members donating considerable labor and substance until its dedication on Aug. 24, 1907, by President Joseph F. Smith.

On that occasion, President Smith said "he would not be surprised if a temple were built here some day," Chad Hawkins wrote in his book "The First 100 Temples."

A more modern stake center was built in 1948, resulting in less use of the tabernacle. In 1984, the LDS Church announced it was closing the old sandstone and fired brick pioneer structure due to safety concerns.

The members of the LDS Church in Ashley Valley, Utah, campaigned to save the tabernacle, and the First Presidency listened. At one point, President Gordon B. Hinckley and President Thomas S. Monson came for a tour, and after careful study and prayer, it was announced in 1994 that the tabernacle would be remodeled into a temple. The Vernal Utah Temple was dedicated in 1997.

"We are grateful for this beautiful new structure which utilizes the historic tabernacle built by Thy people nearly a century ago," President Hinckley said in the dedicatory prayer. “The original tabernacle came of a great spirit of faith and sacrifice on the part of those Saints who settled in this area. It was built as an offering unto Thee, and was held in the affections of the people long after it was used as a house of worship. We thank Thee for this sacred structure, and for all who have worked on it. … We thank Thee for their consecrated means, their tithes and offerings, which have made this and other sacred structures possible."

Special funeral

The Garland Utah Stake Tabernacle, once called the Bear River Stake Tabernacle, was started in 1912 and dedicated in 1914 for the use of Latter-day Saints in Box Elder County.

In June 1948, a special funeral service was held in the Garland Tabernacle for the four sons of valley residents Alben and Gunda Borgstrom, all of whom died while fighting in World War II. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the military to send a fifth brother, Boyd, home from the Pacific, according to a 1998 Deseret News article.

LDS Church President George Albert Smith, Utah Gov. Herbert Maw and Gen. Mark W. Clark, who directed the U.S. invasion of Italy and subsequently was commander of the Presidio in San Francisco, attended the service. Both President Smith and Clark spoke.

President Thomas S. Monson talked about the Borgstrom funeral in his October 1999 general conference talk, "Becoming Our Best Selves."

Go see it

Each tabernacle has its unique story. One example is the Bear Lake Stake Tabernacle in Paris, Idaho.

Mostly farmers and ranchers, the Saints there were not wealthy, Christensen said.

"They were practical people. You would have expected them to build a vernacular structure; a rectangle with a roof on it would have done the job," he said. "But they wanted to inspire their community. They wanted this to be a building that represented a house of worship."

They secured the services of Joseph Don Carlos Young, Brigham Young's son and one of the best architects in the region. They spent years stockpiling materials as they awaited approval from church leaders. The go-ahead came in 1884 after the Logan Utah Temple was completed. The tabernacle was completed four years later and is still in use today.

"In the dead of winter, when the ice on Bear Lake was as thick as it was going to be, they loaded the stone they had quarried during the summer and fall on wagons and hauled it across the lake, and you end up with this magnificent structure," Christensen said. "I think kudos to them. They had a vision for something that was much grander than themselves, and they made it happen."

It's one tabernacle that everyone should see, Utt said.

"This is one of the most untouched tabernacles in the church," Utt said. "It's gorgeous and absolutely worth a visit. I think it would stack up nationally with other buildings built in this decade."

If you get the chance, Utt recommends visiting the Honolulu Hawaii Stake Tabernacle. The building, which features an exterior mosaic of Jesus Christ, was dedicated by President David O. McKay, then second counselor in the First Presidency, about four months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.

In the years that followed the attack, the downtown Honolulu tabernacle became a spiritual sanctuary for Latter-day Saint servicemen, Utt said.

"It speaks to me of the impact a beautiful building can have on people who are dealing with life and living through things," Utt said.

Utt and Christensen also suggested touring tabernacles in Garland; Brigham City; St. George (a "jewel," Christensen said); and Montpelier, Idaho, which recently received a preservation award.

The Granite Stake Tabernacle, where President Heber J. Grant would go to practice singing after playing golf, is still in use.

Renovated earlier this year, the Manti Tabernacle continues to function today.

The last one

By 1953-55, a new tabernacle was built in Ogden adjacent to where the original Weber Stake Tabernacle was constructed in 1856 (it was torn down in 1969 to make way for the Ogden Temple). The Ogden Tabernacle would be the last newly constructed building that would represent tabernacles as a building type in the church, Christensen said.

"In the postwar era, modern construction techniques utilizing reinforced concrete, steel girders and glue-lam beams made it possible and affordable to construct meetinghouses large enough to host stake conference," Christensen said. "With the addition of a small wing to hold stake offices, such structures could then do everything that the tabernacles of the past had done, albeit with less flair."

Christensen and Utt said church leaders also recognized the need to build meetinghouses outside of Utah in the major metropolitan areas, such as New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Hawaii. Temple construction later began in prominent cities such as Washington, D.C., and San Diego, next to the interstate on prime plots of expensive real estate.

"Church leaders realized that a building has great potential to influence people in positive ways," Christensen said. "Not only are they useful buildings, but if you build them in a nice way and in a prominent location, they become a representative for you."

The next major building that led to change was the Oakland Interstake Center, which was built years before the Oakland California Temple was dedicated in 1964. It was intended for the use of multiple stakes in the Bay Area, Christensen said.

"I think this is largely how Mormons came to adopt the new term 'stake center,'" Christensen said.

Email: ttoone@deseretnews.com Twitter: tbtoone