The Great Tabernacle

This article originally appeared in Vol.53, No.1 (2006) of Pioneer Magazine.

by Tiffany Taylor

When Salt Lake City is viewed from the air, several buildings stand out to the casual observer, such as the majestic spires of the Salt Lake Temple, but another unique structure is the large dome located just west of the Temple. This 250 by 150-foot structure with an elliptical roof has become a widely recognized symbol of the Church. The building’s unique and effective architecture makes it a prime example of the industry, ingenuity, and creativity of the early members of the Church.

Construction of the began in the spring of 1863. The three main architects on the project were William H. Folsom, Truman O. Angell, and Henry Grow. Red sandstone for the piers was acquired at a quarry in Red Butte Canyon, and by 1867, the wood shingle roof was completed.

The Great Tabernacle

According to architectural historian Richard W. Jackson, “On March 3rd, 1867, Angell was given complete charge of the remaining construction of the building and was sustained again as Church architect at the following general conference on April 67.” By October of 1867, the building was complete enough to be used for general conference but was not dedicated until the October general conference of 1875.

Truman Angell used unique methods to construct such an unconventional, yet highly durable building: “Joints in the structural members of the roof are fastened with hardwood pins and tied with rawhide, a time-honored system brought by the Saints from New York, Ohio, and Illinois. . . . The joists placed between the trusses, which were 12 feet and 4 inches center to center, supported sheathing and a wood shingle roof. During the original construction, ropes passed through openings in the ceiling to support scaffolding for workmen who plastered and painted the surface. The openings are still used for this purpose. ”

In 1861, Brigham Young commissioned Joseph Ridges to construct an organ for the new building. “Ridge’s original specifications included thirty-two ranks and about sixteen hundred pipes played from two fifty-six-note manuals and a twenty-five-note pedal board. The console was attached to the organ case, and wind for the organ was furnished by four men pumping bellows.” The stand on which the organ and pulpits rested was described by Truman Angell as being “quite different from the stiles [sic] of the day.” The Tabernacle, with its massive pipe organ, became the home of the world-renowned Mormon Tabernacle Choir in about 1869.

Mormon_Tabernacle_arch_section

According to Jackson, “At the time of the completion of the Tabernacle, there were no provisions made for either heat or light in the building [thus restricting usage] to the daylight hours and warm weather. It was not until about twenty years later, in 1884, that heating and lighting systems were installed. Heating pipes came through the floor and ran horizontally under the seats, providing a convenient though sometimes scorching footrest.”

The Sals Lake Herald reported on April 1, 1884, “All ready. The Tabernacle was illuminated by gas last evening for the first time, and the effect was grand and satisfactory in every respect. ”

The Tabernacle served as the main meetinghouse for the Saints in Utah until other buildings could be constructed at various settlements throughout the state. It has always been a welcoming beacon to visitors from all over the world and provides a tangible reminder that Latter-day Saints have always been truly industrious people.

Sources

  • Richard W. Jackson, Places of Worship: 150 Years of Latter-day Saint Architecture (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2003)
  • Salt Lake Herald, April 1, 1884, as cited in Jackson, Places of Worship.
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