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Tabernacle to close for renovation

Steel will bring edifice to seismic code, but historical character to be retained

Buildings, like men, get old, President Gordon B. Hinckley said at a news conference announcing the temporary closure of the Salt Lake Tabernacle for at least a year and a half while it undergoes renovation to meet seismic standards and provide additional facilities for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square.

President Gordon B. Hinckley addresses media, explaining the need to improve the Tabernacle while maintaining its pioneer authenticity.
President Gordon B. Hinckley addresses media, explaining the need to improve the Tabernacle while maintaining its pioneer authenticity. Photo: Photo by Shaun Stahle

The Oct. 1 news conference also featured remarks from Presiding Bishop H. David Burton, who gave a briefing about the renovation, and Richard E. Turley Jr., managing director of the Family and Church History Department, who sketched the history of the Tabernacle.

"I wonder if, when Brigham Young stood at the pulpit here, he ever dreamed that 137 years later it would still be in use, a viable and strong and wonderful and respected structure," President Hinckley mused.

"I absolutely marvel at President Young's boldness in going forward with this project. Way out here in this then-remote wilderness without steel, with their bare hands, with very little in the way of resources, they determined to construct a building to accommodate their needs for assembly."

He described the structure's 44 stone buttresses topped with a huge roof held together by a latticework of timbers pinned with wooden dowels and bound with rawhide.

"I respect this building," he said. "I love this building; I honor this building. I want it preserved. I want the historicity of it preserved. I do not want anything done here which will destroy the historical aspect of this rare gem of architecture. Now, in the process of working on it, they will have to put in some steelwork, yes, and so on. But I do not want a modern 2004 or 2005 building. I want the old original Tabernacle — its weak joints bound together and preserved and strengthened and its natural and wonderful beauty preserved and strengthened."

The LDS Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City Utah will undergo a seismic upgrade say church leaders. Photo by Scott G. Winterton/Deseret Morning News. October 11, 2004.  (Submission date: 10/11/2004)
The LDS Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City Utah will undergo a seismic upgrade say church leaders. Photo by Scott G. Winterton/Deseret Morning News. October 11, 2004. (Submission date: 10/11/2004) Photo: Dnews

He said the Tabernacle and the Salt Lake Temple "in my mind remind me of two venerable old parents, the temple the father; the tabernacle the mother, parents of generations that have followed, still standing and shedding light and understanding and knowledge and love. I bow before them in reverent respect. I am so grateful for their presence, and with a consuming desire to see that in the course of the work that is done here, when all is said and done, it will be modern in its strength and capacity, but old and beautiful and original and natural in its appearance."

Bishop Burton said he would, of necessity, speak in generalities "because generalities is really all we know at the moment. In projects such as this we take one step at a time."

Because not all of the answers are known yet, Bishop Burton said, the project is expected to take 18 months, but "maybe a little more." Work is expected to begin Jan. 1 of next year and last until at least mid-2006.

"We hope in a very inauspicious way to structurally strengthen the building," he said. As with most buildings built prior to the current building code, structural integrity in some ways is lacking, he added, including the roof not securely fastened to walls in some places, and high masonry walls that need strengthening. Each of the surrounding pillars will be strengthened in its own right, and the foundation upon which it sits will be strengthened, he explained, with the famous roof being more firmly attached to the pillars.

Temple was rising next to Tabernacle in 1881.
Temple was rising next to Tabernacle in 1881. Photo: Deseret Morning News archives

In its character as the home of the famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the building will be augmented with facilities to support the choir, Bishop Burton said. "They will all be accomplished underground, to each side of the Tabernacle itself and beneath the Tabernacle." The additions will include dressing rooms, library facilities and restrooms to accommodate the choir's 350 vocalists and the 100 musicians in the Orchestra at Temple Square.

In addition, the roof structure will be critically analyzed, Bishop Burton said, with strengthening of the milled beams where necessary.

Changes in the interior will largely consist of "renewing what is here," he said. The balcony will undergo seismic strengthening, "but again, for most eyes, you won't be able to detect it."

Noting that the building serves as an ecclesiastical as well as a performance venue, he said "the ecclesiastical opportunities will be increased" and decisions are yet to be made about what to do to accommodate performance and broadcast.

Tabernacle interior is seen at statehood in 1897.
Tabernacle interior is seen at statehood in 1897. Photo: Deseret Morning News archives
Conference attendees leave the last Lds general conference in the historic tabernacle.  Allred/photo
Conference attendees leave the last Lds general conference in the historic tabernacle. Allred/photo Photo: Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred