The Provo Tabernacle has risen from ashes to become what will be dedicated March 20 as the Provo City Center Temple, but it has taken a host of talented and skilled experts to help bring that about.
Some of them were on hand on the temple grounds Nov. 12 to converse with news media representatives for a “Morning with the Experts” event hosted by the Church.
“We recognize there is excitement within the community and the Church about this particular temple,” said Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé, who noted that he had already toured the temple.
“It’s a magnificent structure; it’s a beautiful temple, a gem in the community and truly worthy to be titled ‘a House of the Lord,’ ” he said.
Bishop Caussé noted, “There are only a small handful of temples in the Church that are transformations of other buildings, like tabernacles or meetinghouses, but none like this one. Because of the difficult process that transpired, more than a thousand people have contributed their best talents, gifts and experience to this beautiful structure.”
He added, “We have tried to preserve the historicity of the original building and the legacy of the early pioneers who first came to the valley and settled here and worshiped in the old tabernacle,” alluding to a previous tabernacle that predated the one that was in use for more than a century before being destroyed by fire in 2010.
Emily Utt of the Historic Sites Division in the Church History Department briefly sketched the history, saying the Provo Tabernacle, originally known as the Utah Stake Tabernacle, has been a city and Church landmark since its construction. “The tabernacle was built so Latter-day Saints in Utah County could have a central meeting place for stake conferences and other needs,” she said. It was also built as a community gathering and cultural space for Utah County residents.”
She said its construction began in 1882, following the designs of Church architect William H. Folsom. “The tabernacle’s style closely is tied to the popular late Victorian gothic style of the time and is among the best tabernacles built by the Church.”
A character-defining feature of the building, a central tower, has never been seen by most people now living, as it was removed in 1917 because of structural problems.
“The building has been renovated several times since its completion, most recently in the mid-1980s, but has remained true to the original style of architectural detail through the years,” she said.
“The Provo Tabernacle was a public meeting space for almost a decade before its dedication in 1898,” she said. “Two of the first major events in the building were LDS Church general conferences in 1886 and 1887.
“In the century since, the tabernacle has been home to almost weekly Church meetings, including innumerable stake conferences, and has hosted civic events like funerals, lectures, concerts and graduations, and that list goes on and on.”
Sister Utt said the devastating fire that began in the attic in the early morning of Dec. 17, 2010, and ravaged the interior and collapsed the roof, left many wondering if the cultural landmark could be saved. “Had Provo lost its heart? Were the walls stable? Was anything left of the interior of the building?”
She said the event caused several Church departments to scramble to figure out what was salvageable.
“Research in archives and architectural plans revealed that we knew surprisingly little about this building, considering its age and general significance. So our focus turned entirely to the building itself. We were hoping there was enough detail left to understand the building’s history and change over time. Where many saw rubble and mess and chaos, we found hundreds of small and significant details.”
These included changes to the floor plan and style of the building, paint colors, wallpaper hidden behind painted walls, and dozens of items such as a baseball that had been dropped long ago and forgotten.
The Provo Tabernacle is now one of the best documented buildings in the Church, Sister Utt said.
Richard Talbot, director of the Office of Public Archaeology at Brigham Young University, said his team’s role was primarily to examine the architectural features that pre-dated the tabernacle.
“Specifically, we excavated the remaining foundation of the old original tabernacle that was located directly north of the temple,” and the foundation of the wooden baptismal font that was located in that building, he said. “We also briefly examined the foundation of the caretaker’s cottage that was here on the property.”
That smaller tabernacle stood from 1861 to 1919, briefly overlapping the existence of the later edifice.
“An abundance of artifacts were recovered that are still being studied,” Brother Talbot said.
Brent Roberts, managing director of the Church’s Special Projects Department, told of receiving a phone call about 3:30 a.m. on the day of the fire.
“It was a tragic and difficult day,” he said. “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.”
Soon thereafter, he said, the Presiding Bishopric petitioned the First Presidency, and a committee was created to look at the potential of rebuilding the edifice. Recommendations were submitted, “and things became silent for a while.” Then, at the general conference session of Oct. 1, 2011, President Thomas S. Monson announced the decision to convert the tabernacle into a temple.
Brother Roberts recalled that about 7 o’clock the morning of the fire, the roof fell in. At that moment he called Jared Doxey, director of Church construction for North America, to ask what protection could be given to the walls, which remained standing.
“Within a few minutes, he made a phone call to Jacobsen Construction Co., who pulled their superintendent off of 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.”
Roger Jackson, a principal architect of the FFKR architectural firm, said when the fire occurred, a friend of his who is 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 seeing pictures on the Internet, he knew the structure was salvageable.
Brother Jackson said he wrote a letter to people in Brother Roberts’ department and pointed out that FFKR was up to the task, having converted the Uintah Stake Tabernacle into the Vernal Utah Temple and done similar work with buildings at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, and the University of Utah.
“This beautiful gem of a brick building could be saved,” he said.
As architects and historians were working toward restoring it, out of the blue a question was asked.
“At one time, I was one of eight people who knew about the idea of turning the building into a temple,” he said. “When President Monson announced that people had been looking at whether it could be a temple, I was one of them, and I count it as a great personal blessing.”
Brother Jackson said his job was to manage the design process. He described the task as being like “herding cats.”
“There were many voices from many cats,” he said. “We tried to make sure the loudest voice was William Folsom,” the man who designed the original building. They tried to imagine: “Had William Folsom known this little building was to be a temple, what would he do? What would he think?”
Significant to Brother Jackson is that when FFKR designed the conversion of the tabernacle in Vernal into a temple 19 years ago, it became the 51st operating temple in the Church; the Provo City Center Temple will be the 151st.
Kirk Dickamore, vice president of Jacobsen Construction Co., said Jacobsen was on site the day after the fire to begin clearing away the smoldering ruins. Over several weeks, the company removed 14 tons of debris from the site. It then designed and erected a one-of-a-kind exterior shoring system to hold the walls in place until the structure’s future could be determined.
When President Monson announced the decision to convert it into a temple, “the tragedy turned a joyful corner, and the Jacobsen team continued our work with a renewed sense of hope,” Brother Dickamore said.
Countless opportunities for innovation presented themselves, he said, including strengthening the exterior. That was accomplished 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 steel stilts, enabling the excavation of the ground beneath for construction of a basement
“For many weeks it appeared as if the building were hovering in mid-air,” he said.
“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 brick, salvaged at numerous stockpiles in the area, was sourced to create a seamless exterior.”
Painstaking craftsmanship in millwork, windows and wall murals have added to an edifice that is “breathtaking and unmatched,” he said, quoting President Monson to the effect that temples are a collective expression of the testimony of Church members.
Located at the corner of the main thoroughfare University Avenue and 100 South in Provo, the temple will be open for tours Jan. 15 to March 5 of next year, preceding the dedication date of March 20.