As we prepare to give thanks this holiday season and look toward the upcoming year, the concurrent bicentennial anniversary of the birth of Henry Grow Jr. and the 150th anniversary of the Salt Lake Tabernacle in October 2017 provide a great opportunity to pay homage to one of the unsung heroes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Oct. 1, 2017, will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Mormon pioneer builder Henry Grow Jr. Grow grew up in suburban Philadelphia (around 10 miles from the new Philadelphia Pennsylvania Temple), learned bridge-building techniques from his family, and eventually became superintendent of all bridge construction for the Philadelphia, Germantown and Norristown Railroad Company before traveling out West.
Initially, Grow went to Nauvoo, Illinois, where he worked on building the Nauvoo Temple, and then he moved to Salt Lake City, where he served as the superintendent of the Temple Block (Square) and designed and built many significant buildings, including the Salt Lake Tabernacle, for Brigham Young.
The Salt Lake Tabernacle, home of the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir, has served as an amazing time-tested achievement in both engineering and acoustics. Grow is credited with using his bridge-building skills to create the Tabernacle’s roof spanning its 150-foot width without any support pillars. Grow also built many historic structures, including the Social Hall, the Salt Lake Theater, Assembly Hall, the first suspension bridge in Utah across the Ogden River, the first sugar factory in Utah at Sugar House, several sawmills; the first woolen mills, the New Deseret Paper Mills and the ZCMI Building.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir wrote that, “Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who built many famous buildings, including the Guggenheim in New York City, said the Tabernacle was 'one of the architectural masterpieces of the country and perhaps the world.’” Additionally, in 1971, the Salt Lake Tabernacle was honored as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
It is also instructive to look back Grow’s obituary to learn even more about his lesser known, but just as important, achievements as a business and community leader. In November 1891, The Ogden Standard paid tribute in an article titled “A Pioneer Gone,”, and wrote that Grow “came to Utah with the Pioneers and for many years was superintendent of the church buildings in Salt Lake. It was in this position he made a host of acquaintances and friends: for thousands who came to this country from foreign lands, and who are now the owners of prosperous homes in various parts of the Territory, performed their first day’s work in America under his direction. He was a gentle taskmaster, and all his men loved him.”
While there have been millions of beneficiaries — including people of all faiths — of Grow’s work on behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Grow’s projects have received widespread acclaim and recognition, it appears from my research that there is not much, if at all, public recognition for the superintendent of the Temple Block himself. As such, in my outsider’s opinion as a historian who has studied Grow, I think that this humble pioneer builder appears to be an unsung hero of the Latter-day Saints.
To that end, LDS Living recently published a fascinating article featuring Grow, titled, “9 Incredible Pioneers You’ve Never Heard of.” While the Salt Lake Tabernacle is so well known, including from architectural and engineering standpoints, I feel that Grow should be individually celebrated and recognized as the “architect’s architect” and as the “engineer’s engineer.” In 2017, the bicentennial of Grow’s birth and the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Salt Lake Tabernacle provide an excellent opportunity to honor Grow as the pioneer builder so that visitors to Salt Lake City and Temple Square in particular can reconnect to the lives of pioneers and build a bridge to the past.
Jon Bari is the president of the Constitutional Walking Tour of Philadelphia, which provides guided tours of America's birthplace at Independence National Historical Park (i.e., Liberty Bell, Independence Hall). He and his wife, Leslie, own a home in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, where Henry Grow Jr. was born and grew up.