During the April 1996 general conference, President Gordon B. Hinckley outlined a vision of a Church building "that would accommodate three or four times the number who can be seated in [the Tabernacle on Temple Square]." That vision was realized a decade ago. On April 1, 2000, President Hinckley stood at the pulpit and opened the first general conference in the new Conference Center just north of Temple Square. Since then, all of the Church's general conferences have been held in the 21,000-seat auditorium of the massive structure.
Recognizing the 10th anniversary of the Conference Center's opening, Presiding Bishop H. David Burton released a statement: "On July 24, 1997, President Hinckley broke ground for the Conference Center. In describing this building in the October 1998 general conference, he said the following: 'It will be primarily a house of worship. But it will also be a place of art. There will be concerts and other public offerings that will be uplifting and wholesome and spiritual. … It will be a gift to the Master' (Ensign, Nov. 1998, p. 4). Since the opening of this magnificent building we have stayed true to President Hinckley's prophetic direction. The Conference Center is a blessing to this community and to the world."
The Conference Center, which was dedicated during the Sunday morning session of the October 2000 general conference, has also been the venue for Young Women and Relief Society general meetings, First Presidency Christmas devotionals, Mormon Tabernacle Choir concerts, firesides, regional conferences and other Church-related events. Additional activities included the 2002 Winter Olympics theatrical spectacular "Light of the World — A Celebration of Life" with a cast of more than 1,000, a barbershop quartet convention and competition in 2005, and the national conference of The National Association for Music Education featuring the Oak Ridge Boys in concert with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in 2006. The world-renowned LDS musical Osmond Family was featured with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the 2008 Pioneer Day Commemoration concert. A smaller theater in the Conference Center has staged "Savior of the World" about the life of Christ numerous times along with stake plays and other programs. With these and many other events, the building has truly been a place of worship and culture.
The Conference Center was the site of two birthday celebrations for President Hinckley — his 90th and 95th — featuring outstanding performers. Ultimately, the edifice built under his inspiration was the site of his viewing and funeral following his death on Jan. 27, 2008.
That was among the touching moments experienced by Brent Roberts, director of Church headquarters facilities, during his tenure associated with the Conference Center since 2001.
He watched a group of Young Women, one of them blind, and their leaders approach President Hinckley's casket during his viewing. The other Young Women brought their sightless friend to the casket "and whispered in her ear where she was, and she started to weep," Brother Roberts remembered, impressed that despite her disability, she felt the same spirit as everyone else attending the viewing.
Brother Roberts also shared a time he saw a family from South America enter the Conference Center for a general conference session.
"There were four children with their mom and dad," he said. "They went up in a corner, huddled around each other and, with tears in their eyes, said a prayer of thanks for the opportunity to be there."
The size of the building gives "so many more the opportunity to attend conference," he said.
"I think for generations to come, because it is such a wonderful place, both for the community and for the Church, and for the spiritual aspects of what happens there, the Conference Center will be a legacy that just goes on and on," Brother Roberts concluded.
Tours of the Conference Center, guided by Church Public Affairs volunteers, are available from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. most days of the year. Taking a tour of the Conference Center is the only way for people to see the rooftop gardens, Brother Roberts said. He added that the rooftop is closed, even to tours, during general conference, other special events, when there is inclement weather and occasionally at other times.
After ground was broken for the Conference Center on July 24, 1997, it took less than three years to complete it. Presiding Bishop H. David Burton called it "a miracle made possible because professionals, as well as common … men and women, have displayed uncommon devotion, sacrifice and inspiration far beyond normal industry standards."
President Hinckley's funeral
It was fitting that the Conference Center, which was a result of his vision as president of the Church, provided a beautiful setting for President Gordon B. Hinckley's funeral where thousands could attend and pay respects. President Thomas S. Monson, who served as President Hinckley's first counselor for nearly 13 years, presided over, conducted and spoke at the funeral.
A pulpit raised by a prophet
President Gordon B. Hinckley spoke at a special pulpit when he opened the Conference Center for the April 2000 general conference. It was made from a black walnut tree he had planted 36 years earlier. He said, "Here I am speaking to you from the tree I grew in my backyard, where my children played and also grew. It is an emotional thing for me."