Provo City Center Temple Teaches Lesson on Conversion
By Heather Whittle Wrigley, Church News and Events
In the heart of Provo, Utah, USA, workers in orange hard hats step around steel supports and twisted metal as they clear debris from around four charred walls.
Those walls are all that physically remain of the historic Provo Tabernacle—a 114-year-old symbol of the city’s pioneer heritage—following a four-alarm fire that ravaged the building in the early morning hours of December 17, 2010. Today the tabernacle is undergoing a transformation as workers strengthen its foundation and convert it to something with an even more exalted purpose—the Provo City Center Temple.
It is only the fourth temple to be created by converting an existing building. Others include the Copenhagen Denmark Temple, the Manhattan New York Temple, and the Vernal Utah Temple.
The conversion process that each of those buildings underwent—and that the Provo Tabernacle is undergoing—to become a place where the Savior may visit provides insight into the conversion process that each individual must experience to return to dwell with the Savior.
The Need for Conversion
Elder William R. Walker of the Seventy, executive director of the Church Temple Department, drew a parallel between the conversion of these buildings into temples and the process of conversion through which each individual must pass.
Both were already useful structures, dedicated to serving the Savior. But an extensive renovation process was necessary in order to create something that filled an even higher purpose.
“The first use was very good and very attractive, but the new use will be even more attractive and more important and more divine,” Elder Walker said. Similarly, “When we’re restored or converted, we’ll be the best that we ever were and a little bit better.”
Each individual’s conversion begins at a different starting point. As with the Provo Tabernacle, an individual’s conversion process can involve difficult, painful events.
“No one wanted the fire, but sometimes those crises can cause us to refocus on what our real value is,” said Dean Davies, formerly managing director of the Church’s Special Projects Department and recently called as Second Counselor in the Presiding Bishopric. “Sometimes we have to go through a shock in our lives to reawaken us to what our real potential can be.”
Regardless of an individual’s circumstances, the process of conversion is never easy—it requires faith and effort. However, it is a process all follower of Christ must undergo if they are to reach their full potential as sons and daughters of God.
“As we are increasingly converted, we become more consistent and true to what we know,” Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has said. “It’s one thing to know it’s true; it’s another thing to consistently be true to what we know. The members of the Church need to have more than testimonies. They need to be converted.”
Building on a Good Foundation
Describing the conversion of the Provo Tabernacle into a temple, Bishop Davies used the word preservation.
“To preserve means you restore it as best you can to its original condition, but you allow for enhancements like structural integrity,” he said. “You don’t take [the original foundation] away; you add additional strength by adding to, rather than by removing.”
These “refinements” are analogous to the changes individuals make as they become converted to the gospel—which describes Christ as our “foundation” (see Helaman 5:12).
Personal conversion does not require starting over completely—God takes what is good and makes it better. Once our foundation is strengthened, He adds more good. President David O. McKay (1873–1970) said, “The purpose of the gospel is …to make bad men good and good men better, and to change human nature” (see David O. McKay, in Conference Report, Apr. 1954, 26.)
In many cases, an individual may already be useful in the Lord’s kingdom. But because of the higher, exalted purpose He has in store for His children, God provides an extensive and in many ways individualized process of renovation for everyone who accepts the call to follow His Son.
In the weeks following the fire, the Church assembled a team of experts—architects, engineers, construction professionals, historians, and others—to create a preservation plan.
According to David Hall Jr., director of temple design and a member of the preservation team, converting the tabernacle to a temple will require a substantial amount of below-grade excavation to strengthen the foundation, the addition of support facilities, and careful planning of interior design, to name a few things.
“Clearly our desire is to save everything that we possibly can that’s useable,” he said. “If there are details that we can glean from the existing building and reuse in the design, we are very thoughtful about doing that so the character of the original building [is evident in] the new purpose.”
The Provo City Center Temple will include art glass, finials, and other hardware that were salvaged from the remains of the tabernacle.
Master architect William Harrison Folsom, the original designer of the Provo Tabernacle, also designed the Manti Utah Temple and the Assembly Hall on Temple Square. Conservators studied these buildings to determine what approach Brother Fulsom might have taken in converting the building into a holier facility.
Likewise, we have in the scriptures Christ’s teachings that not only record numerous patterns of conversion, but also teach us what qualities we need to develop in order to become truly converted (see Matthew 18:3).
A Change of Heart
For each of the renovated buildings—Copenhagen, Manhattan, Provo, and Vernal—the conversion of the existing structure into a temple mirrors the process of personal conversion. Although the outward appearance remained much the same, each underwent a significant internal change and focused on a new purpose.
Although the outside of the converted temples may not look much different from the original exteriors, changes are readily apparent inside the sacred buildings.
Whereas the tabernacle was formerly used for events ranging from stake conferences to cultural performances, once the building is dedicated as a temple, Latter-day Saints will attend to make formal promises and commitments to God and partake of the highest ordinances of the gospel—eternal marriage and the sealing of families for eternity. Patrons will also be able to perform vicarious baptisms for the dead in the temple.
When receiving certain ordinances in the temple, patrons will progress through multiple rooms before passing into the celestial room. Only a handful of temples employ this “progressive” style.
“You could say that when the building comes back, it has a new heart, it’s been converted, it’s changed, it’s different—and when we’re truly converted, we’ll be changed, we’ll be different,” Elder Walker emphasized, citing Alma 5:26–28.
As the Provo Tabernacle becomes the Provo City Center Temple, and as individuals continue to make their conversion a way of living, each becomes a mechanism for conversion.
“When people go to the temple, they’re reminded of their relationship with the Lord; they’re reminded of the creation; they’re reminded of the teachings of the Savior; [they] commit to live the commandments,” Elder Walker said. “So in a very real sense, active temple worship… helps them in that conversion process to cement their faith and to cement their testimony.”