Tabernacle, Salt Lake City
Author: Anderson, Paul L.
This dome-shaped building on Temple Square in Salt Lake City is one of the most impressive achievements of Latter-day Saint architectural design and engineering skill. Since 1867, this unique pioneer structure has been the site of nearly all of the Church's General Conferences; addresses by prominent visitors, including several U.S. Presidents; and many significant cultural events. The site of weekly tabernacle choir broadcasts since 1929, it is renowned for its organ. The Salt Lake Tabernacle culminated Latter-day Saint pioneer efforts to construct a very large auditorium for important meetings. On July 28, 1847, Brigham Young designated Temple Square as the center of the new Latter-day Saint capital. By July 31, the first of a series of open-sided boweries had been erected on the square. With wood posts supporting a roof made of leafy boughs and dirt, this rough shelter provided some protection for religious worship and other public gatherings. In 1851-1852, the Old Tabernacle, the first major building on the block, was built in the southwest corner of Temple Square, later the site of the Assembly Hall. Truman O. Angell, architect of public works, designed the building with low adobe walls, a gabled roof, and a floor below ground level. Although it could accommodate 2,500 people, it was soon inadequate for conference crowds, and in 1854 the General Conferences were again held outdoors.
At the April 1863 conference, Daniel H. Wells, counselor to President Brigham Young, announced plans to build a new tabernacle "that will comfortably seat some ten thousand people" (JD 10:139). The construction of so large an auditorium in an isolated territory without railroad access to manufactured building materials was an extraordinary undertaking. Church architect William H. Folsom prepared the first plans under President Young's direction. The design called for a structure 150 feet wide and 250 feet long with semicircular ends and a peaked roof similar to that of the Old Tabernacle. The cornerstone was laid July 26, 1864, and forty-four sandstone piers to support the roof were begun that year.
The next year, President Young appointed an experienced bridge builder, Henry Grow, to superintend the construction. In consultation with the President, Grow modified a type of lattice truss used in bridge construction into huge elliptical arches that spanned the entire width of the structure without intermediate supports, an innovation without parallel for a building of these dimensions. The trusses were constructed of timbers pegged together with wooden dowels that were split and wedged at each end. Cracked timbers were wrapped with green rawhide, which contracted when dry and made a tight binding. When the building was completed, the roof structure was nine feet thick, and the plaster ceiling was 68 feet above the floor.
Truman O. Angell, who replaced Folsom as Church architect early in 1867, designed the exterior cornice and the interior woodwork, including the gallery added in 1869-1870. This 3,000-seat balcony increased the building's seating capacity to approximately 10,000 and improved its acoustics by reducing echoes. Although the Tabernacle was used for the October 1867 conference, it was not formally dedicated until October 1875. A baptismal font was installed in 1890; the rostrum area was extensively remodeled in 1882, 1933, and 1977; the shingle roof was replaced with aluminum in 1947; and a basement was added in 1968. The building was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1970 and as a National Civil Engineering Landmark in 1971.
Anderson, Paul L. "William Harrison Folsom: Pioneer Architect." Utah Historical Quarterly 43 (Summer 1975):240-59.
Angell, Truman O. Journals. LDS Church Archives.
Grow, Stewart L. A Tabernacle in the Desert." Salt Lake City, 1958.
"The New Tabernacle." Salt Lake Telegraph, Oct. 6, 1867.
PAUL L. ANDERSON