Shortly after the July 1847 arrival of the first pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young invited the members of the Church to build a gathering place, a place to join in worship and camaraderie. Even before homes were constructed, returning soldiers from the Mormon Battalion labored to create a bower — a simple structure of logs and branches to protect congregations from the sun as they worshipped.
Brigham Young preached the necessity of the gathering, not only in the epic migrations to the Rocky Mountains, but also in the intimacy of religious meetings with converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
From the organization of the Church in 1830, Mormons gathered in cabins, stores and groves of trees, in temples in Kirtland (Ohio) and Nauvoo (Illinois) and, more often, in the open air. For the fledgling Church, gathering together became a significant way to reinforce both their knowledge and their commitment to their new religion.
“New members needed a place to meet, a place where they could hear the words of the Prophet,” explained Richard G. Oman, curator of acquisitions at the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City, Utah.
As their numbers expanded, so did the need for larger gathering places, for places where all the words of instruction and counsel could be heard regardless of the weather’s impositions.
After the people had constructed and dismantled several bowers, Brigham Young, in 1857, directed the building of a more permanent gathering place, later called the Old Tabernacle. Located on the southwest corner of the Temple Block, the adobe meetinghouse was designed by architect Truman O. Angell — the same architect who designed the Salt Lake Temple. The new space featured the popular "carpenter’s Gothic" style with twin, sunburst-decorated gables, a vaulted ceiling, a sloped floor and eventually a circular band shell at either end.
Despite the increase in size and facility, the Old Tabernacle soon proved inadequate to house the growing number of Church members.
By 1861, plans were discussed for construction of a second Tabernacle, a building with proposed dimensions of 250 feet by 150 feet, a curved ceiling and a seating capacity of more than 12,000. The new building would also implement the acoustic capacity tested in the band shell shapes of the first Tabernacle.
A carpenter by trade, Brigham Young’s innovative “turtle back” Tabernacle design may have been influenced by the great cathedrals he viewed during his missionary labors in England. His journal, according to Oman, recorded a three-day visit to London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and another full day at Westminster Abbey. “Brigham was fascinated with buildings and particularly those remarkable ceiling arches,” Oman added. Young also sent Angell on an architectural study mission to England.
The impact of the arched construction inspired Young to solicit the help of Henry Grow, a recognized bridge builder in the Salt Lake Valley. Grow gained his skill during his previous employment at the Remington Company in Philadelphia, a company that shared its patented lattice truss technique with Grow when he traveled west. In response to Young’s request to construct a lattice truss roof, Grow is reported to have quipped, “I can build a building 150 feet wide and as long as you want it to be.”
As a result, the finished second Tabernacle stood 250 feet by 150 feet, was 75 feet tall at the roofline and possessed 44 stone pillars that were 24 feet high. Sixteen doors measuring 10 feet wide and an additional four doors measuring 4.5 feet wide allowed the exit of 13,000 people in five minutes.
Building materials were at a premium in the Utah Territory prior to the arrival of the railroad, challenging the resourcefulness of the building volunteers. Workers utilized and recycled available materials. Lumber was harvested from steep local canyons or reused from previously constructed bowers. Stone was borrowed from the excess at the Salt Lake Temple construction site. Nails and washers were forged from leftover military equipment or the worn shoes of oxen; bolts, however, were purchased and shipped from the East. Plaster was mixed with locally ground limestone and combined with animal hair for strength; glue was produced by boiling animal skins.
“The pioneers thought through all of the construction details,” Oman said. “They analyzed the previous structures, line upon line, to study how they had worked. They considered all the little details, such as putting wooden pegs in the wood, pegs placed cross-grain to maximize the strength and minimize the weakness of the wood.” The roof, for example, was covered with thousands of pine shingles painted to look like slate. Three kinds of stone — red and purple sandstone and grey granite — were used in the stone support piers.
Careful selection of the details significantly influenced the interior of the Tabernacle as well. Church architect Angell designed curved pine benches and decorated them in the “fancy paint” style of swirls, pattern and color common at the time. Oversize paneled doors were hung with four hinges; windows featured 18 panels of glass in contoured, double-hung frames.
The crowning construction detail, the tabernacle organ, was fashioned from Pine Valley, Utah, ponderosa pine and then painted with a faux mahogany grain. Utilizing the honed skills of the organ builder, Joseph Ridges, the initial installation included 700 pipes. Young instructed Ridges to build “a big organ which would be commensurate with the beauty and the vastness of the building.” Additional pipes were added, bringing the 1885 total to 2,648. Ralph Ramsey, a talented cabinetmaker, created the now-landmark casework surrounding the organ pipes.
Even though the sound transmission in the oval-shaped building was vastly improved from previous gathering sites, difficulties remained. Canopies, curtains and swags across the ceiling were installed at various times to improve the acoustic capacity. Finally, in 1870, Angell added a gallery — a balcony that stands more than two feet from the plaster walls — and a function that allowed the sound to pass through the gap and minimized the echoes.
According to the 28 April 1870 Deseret Evening News, “The general opinion is that the construction of the gallery will improve the acoustic qualities of the house and that the congregation will hear distinctly in every seat.”
Though the first conference was held in the Tabernacle in October 1867, the official dedication was not until October 1875.
Use of the Tabernacle as a community gathering place beyond Church services began with an initial musical performance in 1884. Numerous celebrations, or jubilees, as they were then called, marked the anniversaries of the pioneers' arrival in the valley, the organization of the Sunday School and the celebration of Utah’s statehood. Prominent individuals appeared in the Tabernacle, including 12 presidents of the United States, the king of Belgium, Charles Lindbergh, Susan B. Anthony and Helen Keller. John Philip Sousa presented an 1896 concert, and Jascha Heifetz offered a recital in 1935.
Over the years, the Tabernacle has gone through numerous remodeling phases: gas lights to electricity, a new stand and pulpits, organ expansion and updating, resurfacing of the support piers, replacement of the pine shingles with metal shingles (then a standing aluminum seam roof), a new floor and most recently, seismic and structural renovations.
Church historians Elwin Robison and Randall Dixon summarized the remarkable construction of the Tabernacle:
“The Tabernacle was built in an environment relatively poor in timber, iron and economic capital. Likewise, the men responsible for the design of the Tabernacle, Brigham Young, Henry Grow, William Folsom and Truman Angell, were relatively uneducated, at least in comparison to professional engineers and architects in North America and Europe. However, whatever the Tabernacle designers lacked in formal schooling, they made up for with sound, practical experience, careful observation of the structures they had built and the driving vision of what they wanted to create. The Tabernacle is a startlingly modern building for its time. Not based on any style of formal precedent, it anticipates the functionalism of early 20th-century architecture. . . . It truly was entirely new, and unprecedented throughout the world.”