From Tabernacle to Temple

Richard O. Cowan

Richard O. Cowan (richard_cowan@byu.edu) was a professor emeritus of Church history and doctrine, BYU when this was published.

Provo Temple

Utah Valley Saints were devastated when fire destroyed their beloved Provo Tabernacle in December 2010, but they were elated by the announcement the following October that it would be rebuilt as a temple. Richard Cowan was already working on a history of the Provo Utah Temple, so he expanded his project to include the new Provo City Center Temple. The Religious Studies Center will publish Provo’s Two Temples later this fall. Much of the material in this article is drawn from that work.

Early Story of the Tabernacle

Construction on the Provo Tabernacle commenced in 1883. It was designed by William H. Folsom, who had worked on a number of important projects including the Salt Lake Tabernacle and Manti Temple. The Provo Tabernacle’s architecture was Eastlake or late Victorian, noted for many colors and a variety of design details. There would hardly be a plain surface in the building’s interior, even including designs on the ceiling. The tabernacle’s upper windows and corner towers also reflected Gothic revival architecture, which was popular during the late nineteenth century.

The new tabernacle was the largest house of worship in Utah Valley at the time. It measured 152 by 86 feet, and the central octagonal tower reached 147 feet above ground level. Each corner tower contained a spiral stairway connecting the balcony to an outside exit completely separate from the main floor entrances. Architect Folsom “claims that this portion of the plan was revealed to him in a vision.”[1]

Because of the antipolygamy “raid” of the 1880s, five general conferences convened at locations away from Salt Lake City, two of them—April 1886 and April 1887—in the still uncompleted tabernacle at Provo. Construction accelerated to accommodate the anticipated large crowds as best as possible.

After years of struggle and setbacks and at a cost of $100,000 (about $2.8 million in today’s money), the tabernacle was finally completed. On April 16, 1898, over four thousand men and women gathered for the two-day event. Poor health prevented President Wilford Woodruff from attending the dedication (he would die just a few months later in San Francisco), but his counselor, George Q. Cannon, offered the dedicatory prayer.

A popular feature of the new building was its promenade atop the central tower’s square base nearly seventy feet above the ground. It afforded “a grand view of Utah Lake and the surrounding country.” Due to structural deficiencies and winters of heavy snow, however, the central tower began to cause the roof to sag. Therefore, it and the promenade walk were removed in 1917. At this time, stained glass replaced the semi-frosted glass in the windows, perhaps to help compensate for the loss of the tower.

The Provo Tabernacle provided the setting for civic meetings. Probably the most notable political figure to speak there was US president William Howard Taft, who came in 1909. It also hosted a variety of cultural activities. Well-known performers included violinist Fritz Kreisler, and the Minneapolis Symphony. The concert of the famed pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff was briefly interrupted by the rumbling of an interurban train, whose tracks passed just behind the tabernacle. Playing one of his own concertos with “much gusto” he suddenly stopped “held both hands in midair” until the noisy train had passed, “then crashed down on the next note and continued his performance.”[2]

Brigham Young University graduations convened there before 1941 when the Joseph Smith Building was constructed. Since that time, various BYU colleges held their convocations at the tabernacle. Over the years, stake conferences were the most common meetings held there. Thus, for nearly a century and a quarter, the Provo Tabernacle continued to occupy a key place in the life of the Latter-day Saints and others in Utah Valley. An event in 2010, however, would alter the building’s future forever.

The Refiner’s Fire

A special holiday season presentation was scheduled for the tabernacle in December of that year. On Thursday evening, December 16, a large cast assembled in the tabernacle for the dress rehearsal of Gloria, by noted Latter-day Saint composer Lex de Azevedo, to be presented there the following two evenings. The group included an orchestra, choir, and additional outstanding soloists recruited from various parts of the country. Large arches on the stand were flanked by Christmas trees with twinkling lights. Producer Kim Egginton remembered, “It had the feel of old Jerusalem, with the modern-day Christmas. Just gorgeous. It really felt celestial.”

Just after 2:30 the following morning, a security guard at the neighboring Nu Skin facility reported to the tabernacle’s watchman that he saw what appeared to be steam or smoke coming from the building’s roof. The tabernacle guard immediately entered the building to investigate. He saw fire burning in two places—one on the center of the stage near the piano, and the other around the edges of a hole that had burned through the ceiling. At 2:43 he called the fire department. Because the firemen were returning from a call in the area, they arrived at the tabernacle just over one minute later. When they entered the building, they could see that the fire had progressed further up into the choir area. When they observed burning debris falling from the ceiling, the decision was made to fight the fire only from the outside.

LeGrand “Buddy” Richards—president of the Provo South Stake, within whose boundaries the tabernacle was located—received a phone call notifying him of the fire. He recalled: “When I arrived at the scene my worst fears were confirmed; smoke was pouring out of every opening. . . . I stood in horror as the flames broke through the roof and when I saw flames appearing over the precious organ. I decided I could not watch any longer and returned to my home, devastated by what I had witnessed.”[3]

At about 6:00 a.m., the entire roof came down with a thundering roar. At this point, fire filled the entire interior of the building.

In addition to the building itself, other losses were substantial. They included one of the finest pipe organs in the western United States plus numerous musical instruments, costumes, and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of video equipment brought in for the Gloria production. Another treasure that was lost was an original painting by Minerva Teichert depicting Peter, James, and John bestowing the Melchizedek Priesthood on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. Fire marshal Lynn Schofield later set the loss at 15 million dollars.[4]

A Surprising Announcement

John Emery, of Jacobsen Construction in Salt Lake City, was sent to Provo Friday morning while the building was still engulfed in flames. His assignment was to stabilize the walls and to give attention to possibly preserving any parts of the building. Church officials needed to know if would be physically possible to save the tabernacle. Like so many others, Roger Jackson of FFKR Architects was shocked by news of the fire. He contacted the Church officials with whom he had been working and urged them not to allow the building to be torn down. Although the flames had gutted the wooden interior, the brick walls had remained sound. Both of these men would play key roles in building the Provo City Center Temple, Jackson as architect and Emery as Jacobsen Construction’s project manager.

Andy Kirby became the Church’s managing director of the project in Provo. He and Emily Utt, Historical Sites curator, spent endless hours on cold winter days sifting through the tabernacle’s remains. “We wanted to look through every inch of debris,” Utt recalled. They found a wide variety of items including newel posts, pieces of railing or wooden molding, hardware from doors, hundreds of nails, and much more. In some cases, the fire had actually uncovered features that had been hidden for decades. It burned away layers of later paint or remodeling to reveal original colors of paint or designs of wallpaper. “My favorite discovery,” Utt concluded, was some original stenciling that had been hidden behind two temporary walls, some mechanical equipment, and four layers of wallpaper—all burned away by the fire. The investigators took photographs and had architects prepare careful drawings of these items that would provide keys to an understanding of the building’s original architecture and character.

As the fall 2011 general conference approached, many in Provo hoped the Church might announce something about the tabernacle. In his opening remarks, President Thomas S. Monson announced plans for several new temples. “First, may I mention that no Church-built facility is more important than a temple,” the prophet emphasized. “Temples are places where relationships are sealed together to last through the eternities. We are grateful for all the many temples across the world and for the blessing they are in the lives of our members.” Then he continued, “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.”[5]

Groundbreaking and Reconstruction

On Saturday morning, May 12, 2012, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve and two other General Authorities came to conduct groundbreaking ceremonies for the new Provo City Center Temple. Elder Holland described an estimated 5,600 faithful Saints crowding the grounds as a “stunning sight.” He believed that there had never been, nor would there ever be again, so many people gathered on this property at once, truly making history. This is a “remarkable moment,” he concluded.[6] Elder Cecil O. Samuelson, Emeritus General Authority and president of Brigham Young University, insisted that a “BYU education is really not complete nor has it reached its heaven-intended potential unless it is joined with a consistent pattern of temple worship and service.”[7]

Church leaders had instructed that as much as possible of the original tabernacle’s remaining structure should be saved.[8] In August 2012 the octagonal conical roofs of the corner turrets were removed and stored off to one side for possible use in the coming reconstruction.

Plans called for temple facilities to occupy two levels beneath the historic tabernacle. Determining how to excavate for this basement while preserving the original brick walls posed a significant challenge. Conversations among the Church’s project manager, architect, contractor, and others developed ideas of how to accomplish this. The inner two layers of brick were removed and then be replaced with concrete six to ten inches thick heavily reinforced by steel rebar. This was completed by the end of October 2012. The result was a reinforced concrete structure with a brick veneer.

The next step was to sink piles ninety feet into the ground and then shift the weight of the structure, an estimated 6.8 million pounds, from its historic foundation to the system of piles. This process was completed just before Christmas. Excavation for the temple’s basement then took place during the opening weeks of 2013. As the earth was carefully removed from around the piles, the tabernacle walls appeared to be gradually lifted up in the air, standing on tall stilts, but they actually had remained in their original position. This unique process attracted worldwide attention and evidenced how the Church honored the pioneer builders by preserving as much of their work as possible.

The temple’s foundation, over five feet thick from top to bottom, was put into place during the early spring. As soon as this mat footing had dried, the process of erecting the two-foot-thick basement walls started. They were built between the inside and outside sets of piles, directly under the tabernacle’s brick walls. By August the original walls rested on this new foundation, so the piles could be removed.

Most of the weight of the temple’s floors and interior walls would be supported by a network of steel beams constructed inside the existing brick shell. On the morning of August 20, 2013, the first of these beams was put into place. This steel network was completed during the fall. The metal components of the 35-foot central spire were assembled on the ground north of the tabernacle, and a large overhead crane lifted this whole assembly into place on December 5, 2013, a cold but sunny winter day. Workmen celebrated this as the “topping out” of the steel framework. When the last of the four turret roofs was put into place the following month, the building had the basic form of the future Provo City Center Temple.

On March 31, 2014, the statue of the angel Moroni was lifted through the air to the top of the tower promptly at the appointed time of 2:30. Applause erupted from the crowd of about one thousand eager onlookers. Some sang “An Angel from on High” or “I Love to See the Temple.” With the angel in place, the former tabernacle now truly looked like a temple.

Stained-glass windows, a beloved feature of the tabernacle, became an important part of the new temple. Their style was described as “Americanized Victorian,” featuring abstract or stylized designs. The Gothic arch of the second-story windows was repeated many times in the temple’s interior.

Grounds of the Provo City Center Temple occupy the majority of two city blocks. In addition to the temple, there were to be two other structures. One was a mechanical building measuring twenty by sixty feet. The other was a pavilion located in the gardens south of the temple. Patterned after a Victorian garden gazebo, this octagonal structure was about forty feet wide. It was provided primarily for the convenience of groups waiting for wedding parties to emerge from the temple. The Victorian fountain, constructed in the south garden between the temple and the pavilion, was positioned so that motorists approaching the temple on 100 South would see the beautiful fountain directly in front of them.

Open House and Dedication

In July 2015, Steven J. Lund, executive chairman of Nu Skin Enterprises and a former Area Seventy, was appointed to direct the open house and dedication. Richard Cowan would head the subcommittee responsible for history. During that same month, Allen C. Ostergar Jr., who had presided over two stakes, a mission, and MTCs worldwide, was called to become the Provo City Center Temple’s first president. During the fall, finishing touches were completed on the temple’s interior and grounds so that all would be ready for its open house and dedication. Anticipating great interest in this reconstruction of a historic and beloved building, a longer than usual period was scheduled for the open house. Dedication of the Provo City Center Temple was set for Sunday, March 20, 2016.

Notes

[1] Salt Lake Herald, as quoted in The Territorial Enquirer, April 6, 1886,.

[2] N. La Verl Christensen, Provo’s Two Tabernacles and the People Who Built Them (Provo, UT: Provo Utah East Stake, 1983), 147.

[3] A. LeGrand Richards, “For the Temple of God Is Holy, Which Temple Ye Are,” remarks written December 8, 2011, to be given at stake conference December 11, 2011, 1–2; typescript in possession of Richard Cowan.

[4] Jim Dalrymple, “Officials Put Final Damage to Landmark at $15 Million,” Daily Herald, April 1, 2011, A1.

[5] Thomas S. Monson, “As We Meet Again,” Ensign, November 2011, 4–5.

[6] Sarah Jane Weaver, “‘Out of Ashes’ Ground Broken for Provo City Center Temple: Church to Build Temple in Shell of Provo Tabernacle,” Church News, May 20, 2012, 3–4.

[7] Weaver, “‘Out of Ashes,’” 4.

[8] Most of the material in this chapter is based on personal observations of the authors as well as repeated conversations with the contractor, John Emery; the site manager, James Bruce Hansen; and the construction missionaries, Jay and Silvia Newitt. Many details of chronology are confirmed by newtempleinProvo.blogspot.com, by Julie Cannon Markham.