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From ashes to 'blessing'; Provo City Center Temple echoes its legacy as a tabernacle

PROVO — Those who loved the historic Provo Tabernacle will be delighted to see its rebirth as the Provo City Center Temple when the doors open to the public at the open house beginning Friday.

The inferno that raged through the historic tabernacle on Dec. 17, 2010, did more than gut the landmark. It also broke the hearts of the people who adored it.

But last month, exactly five years later to the day, workers completed the tabernacle's astonishing rise from smoldering ruin.

"We turned it into a blessing," said Elder Kent F. Richards, executive director of the Temple Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "It's an emotional thing to be able to retain the spirit and feeling of the tabernacle. It's a literal phoenix rising from the ashes while maintaining the pioneer legacy."

The Deseret News participated in a preview tour of the temple on Monday morning and found that those who knew the tabernacle best will see echoes of it all over the new temple, from the richly colored mahogany wood throughout to the spiral staircases in the building's four corners. Those staircases, and an entirely new grand staircase, now lead not to a balcony but to sealing rooms where marriages will be performed — more than 500 are scheduled already — and to the temple's crowning celestial room.

Hundreds of thousands are eager to see the transformation, which took 43 months from groundbreaking, for themselves. Elder Richards said people gobbled up the 630,000 free tickets for the public open house within hours.

"This temple is unique because of its history as a tabernacle transformed into a temple," said Sister Rosemary Wixom, the church's general Primary president. "The tabernacle is such an icon and landmark. I think the city of Provo is celebrating."

The demand prompted the church to expand the open house hours to run from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays and until 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays through March 5. Church leaders will determine whether they can add capacity after the first week of the open house.

"The great challenge is that the smaller nature of this temple (15,000 square feet) limits how many people can tour the temple at once," Elder Richards said. "We're extending the hours to accommodate more people as we go. We'll do our best."

Powerful sights

The tabernacle was basically a great hall with an organ and large stand on one end, ringed by a balcony. It began hosting meetings in 1883. It even hosted LDS general conferences in 1886 and ’87 before its completion in 1898.

The temple is very different, with three levels, including a new one underground. Once the temple is dedicated on March 20 — serendipitously the 115th anniversary of the death of William Folsom, the tabernacle's original architect — most visitors will enter the building by driving down a ramp into the subterranean parking garage and walking into an entrance there.

Inside the temple, visitors will find numerous large, new, original paintings. Two of the most impressive are wall murals in two instruction rooms, one room by James Christensen, the other by Robert Marshall, a member of BYU's art department. Other new paintings are by Michael Coleman and his son, Nicholas, as well as Elspeth Young and Michael Albrechtsen.

For those who attended stake conferences, funerals, graduations, concerts or community events in the tabernacle, the renovated spiral staircases will remind them of past visits to the temple.

Endowment sessions — where church members are given additional knowledge and understanding of gospel principles and make covenants with God — will be progressive in the Provo City Center Temple, moving from one room to another. The first rooms, with the murals, are on the ground floor. When the instruction is completed in those rooms, those attending a session will take an elevator or walk up a spiral staircase on the University Avenue side of the temple.

As they reach the top of the winding staircase, instead of the old balcony they will find a grand view of the final endowment room, which at the end of a session leads to the celestial room.

Eternal marriage

The top level also includes several sealing rooms, where marriages are sealed for eternity.

"We believe family persists beyond the grave," Elder Richards said.

The sealing rooms and celestial room each have a lovely, inverted-layer chandelier.

One of the standout features of each temple is the bride's room, where women do their hair and makeup and put on their wedding gowns. The Provo City Center Temple is unique because of a design found on a plaster wall in a boarded up room after the tabernacle fire. The bride's room uses the design — a coral-mauve-colored ribbon tied in a bow set among sage-green boughs — along the top of the walls and in a special rug.

"I would call that historically elegant," Sister Wixom said.

One feature that is especially new is the striking mahogany grand staircase that rises from the ground floor to what once were the rafters behind the organ, podium and stand on the west end of the tabernacle.

Another is the use of the Columbine flower, the motif flower for the temple, as detail in carpet or carved into wood on chairs and walls.

Pioneer legacy

Monday's press conference and preview of the tabernacle's makeover was provided by three members of the faith's Temple and Family History Executive Council — Elder Richards, Sister Wixom and Elder Larry Y. Wilson, assistant executive director of the Temple Department.

Work began on the tabernacle in 1882.

"It had been used continuously for 130 years up to the day it burned," Elder Richards said.

The tabernacle wasn't fully completed until 1898. The tabernacle-to-temple transfiguration holds special meaning for Elder Richards, whose great-great-grandfather, Elder Franklin D. Richards, spoke at the tabernacle in 1885 and conducted a session of general conference there in 1886.

"He wrote in his journal, 'I spoke for one hour and 35 minutes testifying of the great prophet Joseph Smith and his great labors for the living and the dead.'"

Other than the exterior brick, only one actual piece of the tabernacle remains in the temple, a 4-inch, handcarved piece of the podium in the temple's chapel.

The chapel and the endowment/instruction rooms are notable for their seating. On first glance from behind, the rooms appear to have long, pioneer-style mahogany benches. But only the seat backs are like benches; in the front, there are individual, cushioned pull-down chairs.

Busy temple

The Provo Temple, built in 1972 three miles to the northeast of the Provo City Center Temple, is one of the busiest in the LDS Church. Elder Richards said the city eventually would have had a second temple, fire or no fire. The new temple will be put to good use.

"It will be instantly busy," he said.

Sister Wixom said her favorite feature of the new temple is the stained-glass window behind the recommend desk at the south ground-level entrance to the temple.

The window is 120 years old and formerly hung in three pieces in a Presbyterian church in Brooklyn.

It is an image of Jesus Christ in a red robe with a blue shawl, carrying a staff in his right hand and a lamb in his left.

The lamb was cracked, but an expert restored it.

"That," Elder Richards' wife Marsha said, "is what Christ does with us. He heals and restores us."