The most common first impression of the new Conference Center is awe at its size. The first party of pioneers that entered the Salt Lake Valley in July of 1847 could probably have camped within the space covered by the structure. A 747 jetliner could fit inside the auditorium, and the Tabernacle on Temple Square could fit within the auditorium’s rostrum area.
And yet that initial feeling of awe at the size gives way to a stronger impression when visitors take part in the meetings for which the Conference Center was primarily built. This is unmistakably a house of worship. The feeling of faith is almost like a warm blanket when some 21,000 Latter-day Saints (three times the number that could squeeze into the Tabernacle) gather to hear the counsel of living prophets and apostles and sing the hymns of Zion.
In April this year, when the Conference Center’s auditorium was used for the first general conference sessions of the year 2000, much of the building was still unfinished. The completed Conference Center offers “utility, with a touch of elegance”—as President Hinckley described it—and is now ready to serve all the functions for which it was designed (“To All the World in Testimony,” Ensign, May 2000, 6). The center’s auditorium will be full again in October for the dedication of what President Hinckley called “this new and wonderful hall” (Ensign, May 2000, 4).
Its uses will be many. The auditorium can accommodate other events in addition to conference sessions. Because the rostrum area can be converted to a huge stage, pageants on the scale of some of the Church’s largest outdoor offerings could be staged inside the Conference Center. All necessary electronic and theatrical equipment is in place. For example, the ceiling of the auditorium contains more than 1,600 theatrical lights in addition to some 450 “house” lights. The auditorium can also be used for concerts or other cultural events. It had its inaugural use for such an event on 23 June, when thousands of members gathered for a program celebrating President Hinckley’s 90th birthday.
In addition to the auditorium, the building offers a more intimate place for cultural events: the smaller Conference Center Theater. Only in a building this size could a hall that seats 900 be called small. While at times this theater might be used for worship services or Church training meetings, it is fully equipped for theatrical productions or concerts.
President Hinckley explained in April that the Conference Center project received a kind of consideration few such enterprises are given. “The building of this structure has been a bold undertaking. We worried about it. We prayed about it. We listened for the whisperings of the Spirit concerning it. And only when we felt the confirming voice of the Lord did we determine to go forward.”
The President announced plans for the building in his Easter morning address during the April 1996 general conference. Ground was broken for the project on 24 July 1997, the 150th anniversary of the arrival of Latter-day Saint pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley.
And it has indeed been a “bold undertaking.” While engineers say that most of what was done in constructing the Conference Center had been done before, rarely if ever had it been done on such a scale. It took a consortium of three large construction companies to handle the project. On any given day during the height of construction, as many as 1,000 workers were on site.
Construction standards were high. The challenge was to plan a building partially embedded in a site that slopes downhill from Salt Lake City’s Main Street on the east to West Temple Street on the west and to construct within the building a 21,000-seat auditorium. (There is no known theater auditorium in the world that is larger; the next nearest holds only about half as many people.) Keeping the auditorium interior free of support columns so everyone could have an unobstructed view would mean using long steel roof trusses—up to 290 feet. These would have to be capable of supporting loads between 250 and 525 pounds per square foot to account for planned landscaping on the roof. Furthermore, the Church was asking that the structure be built to withstand seismic forces far beyond what the building code required in case of an earthquake.
The Church wanted a building to last at least 150 years. As the project progressed, builders may have come to appreciate President Hinckley’s view expressed at the groundbreaking in 1997. He said the Conference Center would be “built as well as we know how to build in this season of the history of the world, and I hope that it will stand for as long as the earth lasts and serve the purpose of the kingdom of God.”
Not only Church leaders but also designers and builders associated with the project seemed to catch the vision of what the Conference Center could mean to members and to the community.
In designing the building, the approach was to “extend the influence of Temple Square,” said architect Bob Frasca of Zimmer Gunnell Frasca Partnership, Portland, Oregon. He admired what Latter-day Saint pioneers had done originally in building Salt Lake City, and he wanted the new Conference Center to complement the current picture—to be distinguished in its own right yet blend well with the Salt Lake Temple and other nearby structures both on Church and private property.
Thus the Conference Center is terraced away from the street, so it does not overwhelm passersby or seem too competitive visually with the temple. Still, the south and west faces of the building’s granite exterior are commanding. On the north and east sides of the building, however, nearby residents see terraces with planted trees and flowers. Apartments and homes uphill from the building overlook four acres of roof gardens that help the Conference Center blend into the landscape. A large section of the rooftop is planted to look like an open meadow, but there are also landscaped garden areas, planters, trees, and two fountains.
One of the fountains flows out from under the Conference Center’s spire and cascades down the front (south face) of the building into a pool from which it is recycled. Water from the other fountain flows through a system of channels and pools amid planted areas and then is also recycled. The flowing water theme is repeated at street level. Water from City Creek, which comes out of a nearby canyon, gurgles over rocks in a channel on the southern edge of the Conference Center block.
Nine skylights on top of the building pass light into the auditorium to help enhance the feeling that it is a place of worship. (The skylights are covered when light must be limited for a performance.) Recognizing the importance of gathering for Latter-day Saints, the architect made it one of his objectives to give the auditorium a feeling of “home,” and members who gather there may indeed find a feeling of intimacy despite the vastness of the auditorium when it is empty. Seated among the congregation during a conference session, it seems easy to feel a sense of common faith and commitment with everyone else in the room; numbers pale in comparison with purpose.
The sound in the auditorium offers a sense of intimacy as well, and that, too, is by design. The sound system will probably be taken for granted by most visitors to the Conference Center, but it is in fact a significant achievement, created by the use of both the latest in technology and the best of human skill.
Byron Bishop of the Connecticut firm of Jaffe Holden Scarbrough estimated that he listened to the sound from the vantage point of three-quarters of the seats in the auditorium during the two weeks while the system was being installed and adjusted. He wore a pedometer clipped to his belt; at the end of the period, it showed he had walked 76 miles within the auditorium!
His colleague Russ Cooper says that the usual complexities of dealing with acoustics and sound systems for any facility like this were compounded by sheer size. “The biggest challenge is that the volume of that room is enormous.” The reverberation in such a large space had to be neutralized. Factors such as carpeting on the floor, materials on the walls and ceiling, cushioned seats, and the 21,000 people in them had to be taken into account.
The challenge was to provide a system that delivered the same sound to listeners wherever they might be in the room. The work was complicated by the dual nature of the auditorium; at one moment it is a large hall with a speaker, and in the next it is a concert hall for the Tabernacle Choir or the new organ. Careful calculation was necessary to place loudspeakers precisely to compensate for a sound lag that would be caused by the relatively slow speed of sound vibrations in air. In addition, a system developed by Jaffe Holden Scarbrough helps create the necessary concert hall acoustical conditions for the musical portions of programs.
The sound system and other features of the Conference Center were tested at a dry-run gathering of thousands of members in late March, four days before the first session of general conference. Continuing adjustments have been made to refine the sound system since then.
Members who came to that gathering back in March, before general conference, may not have realized that they were helping test everything from the Conference Center’s underground parking facility to its rest rooms.
With some 1,300 spaces in the underground parking area, entrances and exits must provide for efficient traffic flow. Carbon monoxide sensors control fans that help pull automobile exhaust out of the parking area when the concentration of fumes in the air becomes too high.
The auditorium has a system that provides a constant flow of cooled or heated air rather than having air-conditioning equipment kick on and off as the temperature in the room fluctuates. The air flow system is quiet enough that members in the congregation may not be aware of it. Air passes through vents in the floor from pressurized service tunnels (workers called them “the catacombs”) beneath the auditorium.
The Conference Center’s 60 translation booths are isolated from the regular traffic flow to the auditorium. New equipment serving the translation area improves the quality of sound for those hearing conference in other languages.
The building’s broadcasting equipment is state-of-the-art. For television, it provides a digital, high-definition signal. The first live high-definition (HDTV) broadcast in Utah originated from the Conference Center during President Hinckley’s birthday celebration on 23 June.
Special equipment helps prepare the auditorium when it must accommodate theatrical productions. The seating on the rostrum divides into large sections that can be stored away behind the platform. These sections and their metal supporting structures are moved on “air casters”—compressed air pumped underneath that provides lift and allows a small crew to slide them across the floor.
One feature of the building that was not tested during general conference in April or during the birthday celebration for President Hinckley in June was the Conference Center’s new organ. That magnificent instrument will be used for the first time in October and will be finished before April 2001. (See accompanying article.)
Touches of the elegance President Hinckley talked about are seen throughout the building, from the large art glass skylight over the plaza level entrance area to paintings and sculptures. Many of these works will be familiar to readers of the Ensign and other Church publications because they have been used as illustrations. One artistic focal point is the hall on the balcony level of the Conference Center that contains a sculpture of the Savior and busts of all the Presidents of the Church.
There is understated elegance as well in finish materials: Dakota Mahogany granite on the floors, cherrywood and pearwood paneling on walls in entrance areas, and the fabric covering the 12 inches of sound-deadening material on the walls of the auditorium.
With the Conference Center in its finishing stages this past summer, workers gave careful attention to detail, touching up spots and polishing here and there before the building was turned over to the Church. Those who put so much of their labor and time into the building, including Church employees, often referred to its different levels not by floor number or by name, but by elevation in feet above sea level. From 4311, the west plaza entrance level, to 4411, the highest point on the roof except for the steeple, they left their seal of approval by their craftsmanship and their effort. It is a building to be proud of.
But it is, as members who attend meetings there quickly discover, much more than that. The Spirit felt within its walls should remind us in considering this “wonderful building … to focus on the purpose for which it was built,” President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, suggested last April (“The Cloven Tongues of Fire,” Ensign, May 2000, 7). While as a meeting place it is unparalleled in the history of the Church, its dedication is an occasion for reverent reflection on the purposes and roles of the Church and on our individual opportunities to help spread the gospel across the world, stretching to match the capabilities symbolized by “this new and wonderful hall.”
7 April 1996—Plans announced by President Gordon B. Hinckley.
24 July 1997—Ground broken.
1 April 2000—First conference session in the center.
Area covered by complex: 10 acres—one city block.
Building size: 1.5 million sq. ft. (five times the area of the Salt Lake Temple and Tabernacle combined).
Framing: reinforced concrete, steel roof frame (roof trusses weigh more than 1,170 tons).
Concrete required: about 116,000 cubic yards.
Electrical wiring: 50,000 miles, with 780 miles of conduit.
Air-conditioning: 1,035,000 cubic feet of air moved through more than 14 miles of ducts every minute; 2,966 tons of air-conditioning equipment.
Level-to-level transport: 11 passenger elevators, 3 service and stage elevators, 12 escalators, in addition to numerous stairways.
Exterior covering: granite panels on south and west faces, Ashlar stone (random-length granite laid in brick pattern) on north and east faces. Granite for the building came from the same area where stone for the Salt Lake Temple was quarried.
Landscaping: four acres on roof, with complete irrigation; trees and plants on terraced north and east sides of the building; additional planters in plaza areas.
Water features: two fountains on the roof, one cascading down the front into pools below; 5,930 gallons of water per minute pumped through fountains and water courses; waters of City Creek flowing through rocky channel on southern edge of the block.