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Provo City Center Temple is an example of 'beauty for ashes'

PROVO — Symbolism abounded as the Provo City Center Temple was dedicated March 20 — symbolism pointing to resurrection, rebirth and renewal.

It was the first day of spring as the sun emerged above the Wasatch Mountains to the east, bathing the building’s red sandstone bricks, conical towers and art-glass windows with brilliant light.

With Easter just a week away, it was Palm Sunday, the Christian world’s observance of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when multitudes waved palm fronds and shouted “Hosanna,” an event alluded to during a portion of each Mormon temple dedication ceremony.

For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the temple is a place of renewal. They return frequently to recommit themselves to standards of goodness and righteousness as they serve God and their own ancestors.

The night before the temple dedication, more than 4,500 youths had converged in the Marriott Center on the nearby Brigham Young University campus for the traditional cultural celebration that in recent times has been associated with each temple dedication.

The theme chosen for the spectacle was “Beauty for Ashes,” taken from the Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 61:1-3, “The Lord hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; … To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.”

The scriptural passage could hardly have been more apt. There had indeed been mourning and heavy hearts five years earlier, when the Provo Tabernacle, a landmark edifice constructed between 1883 and 1898, perished in an early morning fire.

The Dec. 17, 2010, blaze gutted the structure, leaving only scorched upright walls with ashes and collapsed roof on the interior.

Brent Roberts, managing director of the church’s Special Projects Department, received a telephone call at 3:30 a.m. informing him of the three-alarm fire. A resident of Provo, he was soon on the scene.

“It was a tragic and difficult day,” he recalled. “I remember individuals on the street asking questions: Will the church rebuild? Will it make a difference? What will happen? This is the gem of our city.”

Emily Utt of the Historic Sites Division in the church’s History Department said the edifice, originally called the Utah Stake Tabernacle, “was built so Latter-day Saints in Utah County could have a central meeting place for stake conferences and other needs. It was also built as a community gathering and cultural space for Utah County residents.”

Over more than a century, the tabernacle had hosted funerals, lectures, concerts, graduations and numerous other events.

Roberts recalled the moment the roof fell in, about 7 a.m. He telephoned Jared Doxey, the church’s director of construction for North America, to ask what protection could be given to the walls, which had remained standing.

“Within a few minutes, he made a phone call to Jacobsen Construction Co., who pulled their superintendent off a difficult job to be here, and within 24 hours, we had stabilized the walls of the temple, which we didn’t know then would be a temple,” he said.

Roger Jackson, a principal architect of the FFKR architectural firm, said when the fire occurred, an architectural historian called him, knowing the company had done work for the church, and said, “Do not let them tear that building down.” From pictures he had seen on the Internet, he knew it could be saved.

Jacobsen Construction Co. stabilized the walls until a decision could be made as to what to do.

Kirk Dickamore, company vice president, said that over several weeks, the company removed 14 tons of debris from the site.

Meanwhile, discussions ensued among experts and church leaders.

Then came the memorable announcement by President Thomas S. Monson at general conference on Oct. 1, 2011:

“Late last year the Provo Tabernacle in Utah County was seriously damaged by a terrible fire. This wonderful building, much beloved by generations of Latter-day Saints, was left with only the exterior walls standing. 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. The existing Provo Temple is one of the busiest in the church, and a second temple there will accommodate the increasing numbers of faithful church members who are attending the temple from Provo and the surrounding communities.”

With that announcement, “the tragedy turned a joyful corner, and the Jacobsen team continued our work with a renewed sense of hope,” Dickamore said.

Architect Jackson said his design team was guided by the memory of William Folsom, the man who had designed the original tabernacle. They asked themselves, “Had William Folsom known this little building was to be a temple, what would he do? What would he think?”

On May 12, 2012, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland presided at a groundbreaking for the temple and dedicated what he called “already sacred ground for an even more sacred purpose — the construction of the Provo City Center Temple.”

Dickamore said countless opportunities for innovation presented themselves as the burned-out tabernacle became a temple.

The exterior structure was strengthened by removing two of five layers of brick from the interior and securing the remaining layers with steel ties. A two-layer grid of rebar was then erected inside the perimeter and filled with concrete.

Another innovation seemed to defy gravity, as the entire 6.8 million-pound exterior shell was placed onto 40-foot-high stilts, enabling the excavation of the ground beneath for construction of a basement and an adjacent underground parking garage on the west side, from which templegoers would enter the building directly.

“For many weeks, it appeared as if the building were hovering in midair,” Dickamore remarked.

“Finally, it was time for this 126-year-old structure to literally rise from the ashes and transcend into a facility that exceeded its original splendor,” he said. “Original sandstone brick, salvaged at numerous stockpiles in the area, was sourced to create a seamless exterior.”

African mahogany and walnut wood characterize the temple’s interior, and the majority of the millwork came from China. Rose-gold granite from India was used in the baptistry.

A character-defining feature of the building of the tabernacle, a central tower, had never been seen by most people now living, as it was removed in 1917 due to structural problems. Replicated from photographs of the tabernacle, the central tower once again crowns the structure.

Part of the painstaking attention to detail are the art-glass windows, replicated from photos of the tabernacle and, in some cases, designed anew. Eighty of the original windows in the tabernacle survived the fire but were not used in the temple construction. Instead, they were manufactured anew by Glass Images & Creations, the contractor that restored the deteriorating windows in the tabernacle back in the 1990s.

On Dec. 17, 2015, exactly five years to the day from the fire, the structure was finished and turned over to the Temple Department of the church.

“We are a temple building people,” declared Elder Kent F. Richards of the Seventy, the executive director of the Temple Department, four days prior to the commencement of public tours of the building that ran from Jan. 15 to March 15. More than 800,000 people would tour the structure.

On March 20, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles began the first of three dedicatory sessions that day by ceremonially applying mortar to seal a cover to the building’s cornerstone, formally signaling completion of the temple’s construction.

“The purpose of building temples is not just to construct beautiful buildings, but to provide an opportunity for members around the world to come and receive sacred ordinances that we consider necessary for our eternal salvation,” Elder Richards said at the Jan. 11 news conference. “If we didn’t have a belief in the eternity of the soul, there would be no need for temples. But because we believe what we do here carries on into the next life, that’s the reason we have these beautiful temples.”

And so it is with the Provo City Center Temple.

One observer commented that the new temple’s history is a parable. The structure has been salvaged from the ashes and ruins of the Provo Tabernacle and transformed into the newest House of the Lord.

Similarly, church members see in temple attendance the opportunity to emerge triumphant from challenges and adversities that beset them, to have their lives transformed, and, in Isaiah’s words, to receive “beauty for ashes.”

Email: rscott@deseretnews.com