By Anna Jean Backus
The Provo Tabernacle, once known as the Provo Utah Stake Tabernacle, stood as a grand old building that made a statement in the thriving community of Provo. Its magnificent beauty was brought about by pioneers who had need for a fitting edifice to express glory unto God. It was with fortitude, sacrifice of means, hard labor and the blessing of skilled craftsmen that their efforts became a reality.
Mayor Abraham O. Smoot (since 1877) had promoted the importance of a new tabernacle. But it wasn’t [until] 1881 that any action was taken on the project. The Tabernacle was to become one of the largest and grandest structures in the state. The renowned architect for the church, William Harrison Folsom, became the creator. The building was to stand with dignity and distinction with a Gothic design, staying close to a plain Presbyterian influence. As with the Meeting House (the Old Provo Tabernacle), the congregation was to feel the ambiance of their heritage from the old country.
If the building of the Tabernacle were ever to be accomplished, [it was through] generous donations by the people of Utah County to tithing. In support of donations, Smoot claimed that those who gave generously “would be richer both in temporal and spiritual things than those who do nothing.” His strength as a promoter worked wonders in accomplishing a means to an end.
The building committee was well chosen and plans were studied for a year before the actual beginning of work. In the fall of 1882, the apple orchard had to be cleared so the foundation could be excavated and ready for spring. A stockpile of material had to be assembled on the job. Light red brick from local kilns and the finest of lumber were to be used. The idea of using cannon-barrel molds for casting iron pillars for support of the balcony was looked into. Frosted glass for the 40 windows would take some time to secure from the East. Most of all, stone for the foundation had to be brought from a quarry—after a road was made to the site. Skilled craftsmen were called from all over the valley to ensure the outcome of such a building.
The stone foundation and laying up of the outer walls of the Tabernacle began in the spring of 1884. As evidenced by the variety of colors in the bricks, a number of local brickyards fired the bricks in their kilns. The kilns were filled with handmade bricks that were formed from clay found in the local foothills.
By the time bricks were laid up to a point where a layer of stone was in place for the gallery timber, the lack of carpenters made the project critical. Thousands of bricks that were lying on the ground would deteriorate if not laid before winter set in. A circular was sent out, and help came. The brick were laid to the square and covered for the winter. When the debits didn’t balance with the donations, a plea for a personalized donation was asked of the members of the stake. On Oct. 17, 1884, the local Daily Enquirer gave an account of the status of the building along with a description of its dimensions—with the intent of generating financial support:
“The work on the Stake Tabernacle roof is being pushed ahead in a vigorous manner. A large number of hands have for a week past been putting on the shingles, which are of the best quality redwood. The framework of the towers being up, some idea of the style and magnitude of the roof can now be formed.
“The building covers 152 by 86 feet; the auditorium will be 64 by 126 feet; height of the ceiling, 44 feet and 6 inches; height of the center tower from the ground grade to the top of the dart, 147 feet; and the corner towers from grade, 88 feet.
“The subscriptions provided for by unanimous vote at stake conference, 50 cents per month for each male member and 25 cents for each female member of the stake are not coming in with that promptness which was anticipated. It has been estimated that if every Latter-day Saint in the stake should contribute regularly each month the amount named for one year, enough means would be realized to wholly complete the building.
“That there is a necessity for such a house no Latter-day Saint can deny, and that the duty of assisting in its erection rests upon all alike, without exception, is a fact that every earnest and progressive member must acknowledge. Manifest, therefore, the interest you profess to feel in the Work by contributing your 50 cents each month.”
As contributions came in, Primary children sacrificed their nickels and dimes for the Tabernacle fund. And the building of the Tabernacle moved on.
When word was received that General Ulysses S. Grant had passed away on July 23, 1885, it was decided to hold a memorial in the unfinished Tabernacle for the 18th president of the United States. Two thousand people thronged to a building without permanent floors, doors, windows and seats. A service was held on Aug. 8 with prominent speakers, the Provo Choir and the Payson Brass Band participating to pay a fitting tribute.
During the same month, on the 28th and 29th, the first Utah Stake quarterly conference was also held in the building. One of the prominent speakers, from the Council of Twelve Apostles, was Franklin D. Richards.
At the west end of the Tabernacle, behind the main assembly hall, a 24 x 30 foot room was completed and was the first room to be dedicated—even though the rest of the building was still under construction. It was dedicated by President Smoot on Dec. 4, 1885.
During the fall of 1885, when ideas of the April general conference being held in the Provo Tabernacle reached stake leaders in Provo, there was a scurry for completion. Anti-polygamy hunts, which were triggered by the Edmunds Law, prompted General Authorities to hold conference away from Salt Lake City. It was evident that the building couldn’t be totally completed—but it would be ready for temporary use.
On Sunday, Apr. 4, 1886, the excitement of a town in motion brought on a horse-and-buggy traffic jam. The train pulling 13 cars full of people from the city was late. Among the eminent passengers were President John Taylor and Heber J. Grant. According to the Enquirer,
“[A]lmost with the dawn of day wagons, buggies and every description of conveyance loaded with conference visitors came streaming into Provo on Sunday, the opening day, from every direction. For hours the roads were lined with vehicles and pedestrians. In and around the Tabernacle Block before the hour of commencement there were some thousands of persons congregated.”
The afternoon session pulled in an even greater crowd. B. H. Roberts [of the Council of Seventy] was the principal speaker. To this point, many general authorities of the church had been in and out of hiding, and some had served or were serving time in prison.
With prudence, the following spring, from Apr. 5–8, 1887, Provo was honored, again, with a general conference in its unfinished Tabernacle. Apostle Lorenzo Snow, who had been in prison [and] charged with cohabitation for the last conference, presided. President John Taylor was in attendance, along with Apostles Heber J. Grant, Franklin D. Richards and John H. Smith. First counselor to the president George Q. Cannon and second counselor Wilford Woodruff were unable to attend—in consequence of their status in polygamy.
For several years after conference, work on the Tabernacle slowed down. The original appointed sum for completing the Tabernacle, set at $50,000, proved to be insufficient. It was determined that an additional $35,000 would be necessary to clear the debt already incurred, finish the Tabernacle and purchase an organ.
Between 1892 and 1893, the financial strain was bearing down heavily on all concerned with the building of several projects. The county was allotted the sum of $11,200 to raise for completion of the Salt Lake Temple. In desperation, members of the building committee determined that if they borrowed $3,000, they could finish the [Tabernacle], but not buy an organ. So now the Tabernacle had a mortgage hanging over its head.
Now, with the borrowed money, the building could be furnished with steam heat. A small two-story brick building that housed the boiler and and an ornate and skillfully laid smokestack were completed on the west side of the Tabernacle.
After 80 years of life, 27 years of serving as president of the Utah Stake and 10 years as mayor of Provo, Abraham Owen Smoot was laid to rest. His funeral was held in the Tabernacle on Mar. 10, 1895. Smoot’s dream to see the completion of the Tabernacle with an organ [during his lifetime] wasn’t totally fulfilled, but he did see a building that stood with splendid beauty. As early as Mar. 19, 1890, the Daily Enquirer published the following descriptions:
“This magnificent building combines space with beauty, neatness of design, comfort and convenience.
“Its huge brick walls with porticoed entrances, its broad buttresses and its octagon towers at each corner surmounted by conical turrets whose apexes, towering toward heaven all remind a person, but for the elegant architectural work, of the huge oriental castle of medieval times and the person can imagine himself carried back eight centuries on the wings of time and gazing upon some noted feudal lord’s stronghold where kings and armies with all their war implements of that date, cannot molest him.
“There are entrances on all sides of the building; the main ones, however, wing from the rear end and sides, where large double doors open through beautiful hood-mouldings to the portal entrances, which are immediately connected with the large hall. Besides these there are spiral stairways in each of the octagon corners, which lead directly from the exterior to the spacious gallery which is beautifully ornamented and supported by 26 strong iron pillars.
“The room, which is illumined by a flood of light from 40 large windows, is high and well ventilated, the ceiling being dotted with ventilators which are nicely ornaments with Plaster of Paris.
“By the floor being gently raised from the rostrum to the rear end of the room, the audience is materially aided both in seeing and hearing, and a person quite enjoys sitting on the comfortable, rounded benches which are very different from the state of affairs in the old adjacent Tabernacle, where the straight-backed seats cause a person to think, after sitting there for an hour and a half, that he has been resting his limbs for some time past, on the rock of Gibraltar.
“At the base of the central tower, which surmounts the roof, is a small veranda, where, with an open window near the top of the tower, reached with difficulty by spiral stairways, ladders, etc., the people resort for sight-seeing as the view afforded from the window, of the city and surrounding country, is the finest that can be obtained in this locality. As you sit there meditating thus suspended between heard and earth, you become enraptured with the awe and grandeur of the scene from the Provo Tabernacle. Signed: ‘B. Y Student.’”
In 1898 the Tabernacle was finally nearing completion. The dream of many throughout Utah Valley, which was so long in coming true, was now beyond the offing.
The all-pine woodwork was now skillfully painted and brushed with different colors to simulate a golden oak finish. The alcove behind the organ, rails, newel posts, tops and backs of the benches and the eye of circular designs were painted in a contrasting dark mahogany. The cannon barrel pillars were painted a rich rust color. In completion of the Tabernacle, the walls and ceiling were hung with an eggshell-colored paper with an etched snowflake pattern A wide and beautiful border to match adorned appropriate areas. Chandeliers of Victorian design hung from the vaulted ceiling. Such splendor and beauty of theTabernacle are pleasures to imagine.
The pioneers, who cleared the sagebrush, fought the Indians and did all else that it took to make Provo a thriving city were about to witness one of the bounties of their efforts. Some had passed on or moved away, but many of the old-timers were there. President Wilford Woodruff was unable to attend because of illness—he died the following September. George Q. Cannon, a first counselor in the First Presidency, was there to give the dedicatory prayer. The choir was rehearsed and ready to raise its voices in song and praise unto the glory of God—the ladies were all dressed in white. The Tabernacle was filled to capacity. Those who came late were left standing, and the overflow filled the nearby Meeting House. A radiance of light streamed through the lancet-arched windows—lending a brilliance to a most wonderful occasion.
After this historical event was over, the Deseret News reported: “The conference opened Saturday, Apr. 16. President Partridge reported the condition of the stake in a very favorable manner. Bishops T. R. Cutler, Lehi; William D. Robinson, American Fork; and William J. Lewis, Provo Third, reported their respective wards in good condition. Elder Heber J. Grant spoke of the benefits of generosity in contributing to the building up of the Church of God. Elders David John and Reed Smoot of the stake presidency addressed the conference on completion of the stake tabernacle and the improved spiritual and temporal condition of the people.
“Saturday afternoon Elder Grant delivered a discourse on the divine mission of Joseph Smith. President Cannon made an earnest appeal to the young people to live virtuous and pure lives.”
On Sunday, Apr. 17, 1896, the Deseret News reported:
“After Presidents Partridge and Smoot had given an account of the great efforts which had been successfully made to finish the building and had spoken of the liberality of the Saints in providing the means in cash and labor the house was dedicated by President George Q. Cannon. President Smith then addressed the congregation, congratulating the people on the good work that had been accomplished.
“In the afternoon, President Cannon discoursed on faith and pointed to erection of the tabernacle as an illustration of practical results of faith and unity.”
On this day, the new Tabernacle stood with grandeur and distinction. It was viewed from on high as a tribute to the inspiration and love, bestowed upon immigrants who served with faith and determination. Beyond this wonderful day of celebration the Tabernacle has stood in a glory unsurpassed by any other building within the valley. Its doors have been open to public needs for over a century.
This article originally appeared in Vol.58 No.2 of Pioneer Magazine, 2011
Excerpts from Anna Jean Backus, Provo Pioneers and Their Tabernacles (Hurricane, Utah: AJB Distributing, 2004), 39–50.