As Latter-day Saints get their first peek into the newly restored Salt Lake Tabernacle later this week, questions about what has changed and what remains the same are inevitable.
Yet curiosity about the 140-year-old building has been a discussion point throughout much of its history and rekindled by its closure for seismic retrofitting and upgrading in late 2004.
The historic building is to be rededicated this weekend during the 177th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Its unique "turtle" shape — under which the acoustics resonate richly the drop of a pin as well as the famed Tabernacle organ — has been lauded for decades by tour guides on Temple Square.
Debate over who came up with the idea for the shape and the architectural plans to accomplish it still circulates. Early LDS President Brigham Young is said to have originated the idea during breakfast one morning as he was cutting a boiled egg, according to a memoir written by his daughter, Clarissa Young Spencer.
She wrote that her father approached Henry Grow, a new convert and architect who had immigrated to Utah, with the unique shape in mind after slicing an egg "end-wise and setting it up on tooth-picks. I was strongly impressed that we might use this plan for the building," she quoted her father as saying.
But historian Ronald Walker notes the Tabernacle's ancestry begins with LDS Church founder Joseph Smith, who had directed a "tabernacle" to be built just west of the Nauvoo Temple, with dimensions roughly 250 feet long and 125 feet wide.
His 2005 article about the Tabernacle's history in the Journal of Mormon History says Smith's followers "took steps toward a makeshift version of that project that required 4,000 yards of canvas, only to abandon their task when they were forced to evacuate." Walker wrote that Latter-day Saints "later used the name 'tabernacle,' shape and approximate size, and layout (west of a temple)" in Salt Lake City.
Grow was credited by many as the architect, but his great-great-grandson, Nathan Grow, published a paper in the Journal of Mormon History in 2005 crediting Young and two other men — architects William Folsom and Truman Angell (architect of the Salt Lake Temple) — for their contributions to the building in addition to his own ancestor.
Folsom, best known for designing the Manti Temple, gets the credit for "drawing the only known plans of the greater structure and supervising the beginning stages of construction," according to Nathan Grow's report, adding his influence waned after 1865, while Henry Grow oversaw construction of the roof as well as other parts of the building.
Work on the building began in 1863, and the church's Semiannual General Conference was held there for the first time in October 1867, though the structure wasn't formally dedicated until 1875.
General conferences of the church were held there until April 2000, when the Conference Center became the new gathering place for the tens of thousands who come from around the world to attend each April and October.
During the Conference Center inaugural, it was noted the church could never build a structure large enough to house all those who wish to attend simultaneously. Apparently the same concerns were being voiced about the Tabernacle, even as its size awed visitors and members alike.
An article published in the journal Scientific American on June 8, 1867, titled, "The Great Mormon Tabernacle at Salt Lake," described the expansive structure and "the mechanical difficulties of attending the construction of so ponderous a roof."
It also noted that "as large as is the extent provided for the accommodation of the people — it is now feared that it will be too small and further accommodations will be necessary."
The writer noted that the "majestic, towering, self-supporting roof" would consume "nearly one million feet of lumber," a mind-numbing figure to observers of the time. Much of it became the wood lattice trusses that support the oval-shaped dome, but that early estimate was off by 50 percent.
The final figure, as reported in the April 2007 edition of the church's Ensign magazine, was 1.5 million board feet, hand-cut and transported via wagon or ox cart to the construction site, where the trusses were built and fitted into place using wooden pegs, rawhide strips and some metal bolts.
LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley told reporters and builders in 2004 that he wanted the basics of that pioneer craftsmanship to remain in place, to seismically retrofit the building without destroying its character.
Consequently, steel "sister trusses" were installed adjacent to the existing wood lattice trusses to "preserve the historic arch while providing the level of safety desired for gravity and seismic loads," according to the Ensign report.
Observers walking through Temple Square last year saw construction workers laying a new aluminum roof over the Tabernacle's distinctive dome, replacing a similar roof that was installed in 1947 for the centennial of the Mormon pioneers' entrance into the Salt Lake Valley.
Originally, the roof was covered with "slate-colored wooden shingles, perhaps as many as 350,000," according to Walker, but after the Tabernacle nearly caught fire twice in the 1880s, "the shingles were replaced by tin sheeting, and still later by a series of metal roofs."
Some of the building's most endearing features for Latter-day Saints were its wooden benches and pillars — the plain pine wood hand-grained and marbleized by European convert artisans — though minor complaints about the "hardness" of the benches were often heard after modern audiences sat inside for more than a few minutes.
When word came last fall that some of the original benches would not return to their place in the Tabernacle, public reaction was mixed. A church spokesman said some benches would return, while others "will be replaced with oak replicas to maintain historicity."
Just before the building closed for retrofitting, Presiding Bishop H. David Burton noted that while the wooden benches were adequate for early LDS pioneers of smaller stature, modern audiences often comment on the lack of legroom. At that time he said the Tabernacle could seat about 4,500 and noted that possible changes during the refurbishing could eliminate as many as 1,000 seats.
Those audiences likely won't know until later this week exactly what changes were made or where the remaining benches will end up.
But one thing is sure: The building's unique shape has remained intact, though it was snubbed by some early visitors to the Beehive State, a few of whom sneered at it as "a prodigious tortoise that has lost its way" and "the Church of the Holy Turtle," according to Walker.
Yet iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright's acclaim is most often embraced by audiences fond of the building, who take pleasure in the fact that he dubbed it "one of the architectural masterpieces of the country and perhaps the world."
E-mail: [email protected]