The story of the Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, is much like the story of the Latter-day Saint people. The Tabernacle was built under less than favorable circumstances through great sacrifice. Understanding the Tabernacle’s history can help Church members understand more of their own Church history and appreciate the marvel that is the Salt Lake Tabernacle.
Although a visit to the Tabernacle is impressive, knowing how it came to be will allow us to appreciate it in a way we could not by just walking inside.
When President Brigham Young (1801–77) and the pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, they wasted no time in beginning to make the desert blossom. The prophet chose a site for the temple and planned the rest of the city around this site. One of the Saints’ foremost needs was a place to gather, and that need was fulfilled when they built a bowery on the temple site only a week after they arrived in the valley. That first bowery was replaced by a second, and the second by an adobe tabernacle (later known as the Old Adobe Tabernacle). These earlier structures gave the pioneer builders experience and confidence when the time came to build “the Great Tabernacle,” as did their previous experiences in building the Kirtland Temple in Ohio and the Nauvoo Temple in Illinois.
In a press conference at the start of the Tabernacle’s recent renovation, President Gordon B. Hinckley commented: “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, very little in the way of resources, they determined to construct a building to accommodate their needs for assembly and to dream of such a building as this—unique and different from anything that I’ve seen anywhere in this world.”1
In both form and function the Tabernacle points to the gathering of Zion in the latter days. Its design reflects the centrality of the prophet’s guidance to the Church. The Restoration of the gospel meant that living prophets were again on the earth, and for the Saints to hear the prophets, a large gathering place was necessary. It needed to have good acoustics. It needed good sight lines. And it needed to be comfortable and easily accessible so the Saints could be instructed.
The design of the Tabernacle also evidenced the Church’s hierarchy. The original tiered seating and pulpits of the rostrum reflected the leadership of the Brethren who were seated there. Even the placement of the Tabernacle, directly on axis with the Salt Lake Temple, shows its importance—its joint centrality and connectedness with the temple. The Saints were not simply a religious congregation; they were a covenant people.
For many years the main use of the Tabernacle was for weekly sacrament meetings. The Saints renewed their covenants each week under the roof of the tabernacle until the 1890s. Over its many years of use, the Tabernacle has served not only as a place for worship but also as a venue for cultural and community events.
The Tabernacle Choir has had its home in the Tabernacle for more than 130 years. The building housed general conferences for nearly 140 years. In its lifespan, the Tabernacle has seen funerals of Church leaders, missionary calls, pageants, programs, concerts, and civic meetings.
“What a remarkable and useful building it has been,” President Hinckley said. “What great purposes it has served. I know of no other structure like it in all the world.”2
If you visit the Tabernacle, you will likely hear a tour guide explain its roof—how it spans 150 feet (46m) with no supports, how it consists of a latticework of timbers and plaster strengthened by horse and cow hair and occupies 10 feet (3m) of space between the ceiling and roof covering. You might also hear that it is an architectural masterpiece.
The Saints who built the Tabernacle had few resources, not even steel for the girders. All the building materials were locally acquired, including 1,500,000 board feet (457 km) of timber. Sacrifice was a less tangible raw material that aided in its construction. The Saints were not well off, so the Tabernacle was built using donations. For both the Salt Lake Temple and the Tabernacle, Latter-day Saint artisans from Europe produced hand-grained, hand-marbleized woodwork using methods that are no longer commonplace.
The many uses of the building, the people who built it, the very materials it is made of all contribute to the spirit of the Tabernacle.
“A building develops a personality of its own,” says President Hinckley. “The Spirit of the Lord has been in this structure. It is sacred unto us.”3
What the tour guides at the Tabernacle don’t tell you is how much the building has changed over its history. Though its structure remains the same, its appearance has changed markedly. You can see these changes and learn much more about the history of the Tabernacle in a current exhibit, which runs through January 2009, at the Museum of Church History and Art.
The most recent renovations to the Tabernacle are part of its ever-changing character. It has been seismically updated, and access and seating have been improved, among other changes. “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,” President Hinckley promised at the start of the renovation.4
Like the Tabernacle’s history, the history of the Latter-day Saints is full of change and growth, of adapting to meet current and future needs. President Hinckley has said:
“In imagination I can see Brigham Young standing here and looking up at the men putting together the timbers, and saying, ‘Build it strong, boys. Build it strong!’
“Our bodies, … our minds, are the tabernacles of our spirits. He who is the Father of those spirits would have us build strength and virtue into these personal tabernacles. Only in such strength is there safety and growth and happiness. If there is one great ringing message I take from the builders of this structure it is this—Be strong!”5
The Tabernacle is a building of great purpose and spirit, and, like the Saints who built it, it is strong. It has withstood the tests of time.
It has been run by a team of five men pumping bellows. It has been run by a waterwheel in the basement. And now it is run by electricity. No matter what its source of power, the Tabernacle organ has always been considered one of the greatest organs in the world.
Joseph Harris Ridges built the organ at the request of President Brigham Young. Timber for the wood pipes came from Pine Valley, 300 miles south of Salt Lake City. The metal pipes came from Boston, Massachusetts. Ridges’s early organ looked much different than the present version. It was five times smaller and had only two keyboards.
Over its history, the organ has been added to and updated several times. It now has 11,623 pipes, 206 ranks of voices, and 5 keyboards. Daily recitals were given in the Tabernacle for nearly 100 years, until 2005, when the Tabernacle was closed for renovation.
“To me it is a miracle building. I think of the skill of those who designed it and know that there must have been great inspiration behind that skill. I think of faith as I reflect on the time and circumstance of its construction. It is truly a tabernacle, built in the wilderness from which the voice of the servants of the Lord should go forth to the world.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley, “Building Your Tabernacle,” Ensign, Nov. 1992, 51.
A week after the pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, they built a bowery where they gathered to hear the prophet and take the sacrament.
A second bowery replaced the first. It was sturdier, with walls and a shingled roof. Canvas awnings were later added to house larger audiences.
An adobe tabernacle was constructed in the southwest corner of Temple Square. It protected audiences from the weather, unlike the previous boweries.
Seats were set up north of the adobe tabernacle to provide room for thousands more. The next year the seats were covered with a bowery.
Construction began on “the Great Tabernacle.”
General conference was held for the first time in the Tabernacle.
A balcony was built to provide additional seating in the Tabernacle.
July 4, 1873
The Tabernacle Choir performed inside the building for the first time.
Construction on the Tabernacle was completed, and it was dedicated in general conference.
July 15, 1929
The Tabernacle Choir’s weekly radio program, Music and the Spoken Word, was broadcast from the Tabernacle for the first time.
For the centennial of the arrival of the pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley, a new aluminum roof replaced the shingles of the Tabernacle.
The Tabernacle became a National Historic Landmark.
The Tabernacle was named a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, an honor given to other structures like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Panama Canal.
General conference was held for the last time in the Tabernacle, which had a seating capacity of about 6,000. Conferences were moved to the Conference Center, which has a seating capacity of 21,000.
The Tabernacle was closed for renovation.
The Tabernacle reopened.