From tabernacle to temple: the transformation of Provo’s timeless epicenter

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Early morning of Dec. 17, 2010, flames spread to the roof of the Provo Tabernacle as firefighters fought the four-alarm fire from the surrounding streets of the community landmark.

The fire began on the second floor of the tabernacle due to human error in setting up lighting for a choir performance to be recorded for television later in the week according to an in-depth investigation by Provo City Fire Department.

Firefighters were unable to put out the fire from inside the tabernacle during the morning of the incident due to safety reasons. It took nearly 36 hours and approximately one million gallons of water to extinguish the flames.

The Provo Tabernacle was a favorite historic landmark of the community. It was completed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1898 at the cost of $100,000.

Though the landscape of Provo changed over the next 100 years after construction, the tabernacle continued to house events and activities similar to when it was first constructed prior to the December fire, including music performances, community events and religious meetings.

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After the fire, members of the Provo community felt as if they were experiencing the passing of a beloved grandparent.

“If you had asked me if a building could actually have a heart beat, I think I would have laughed,” Provo Mayor John Curtis said shortly after the incident. ”Yet somehow, in an instant, all of us felt it, all of us saw it and all of us knew it. This was more than a building; this building had a soul. It was part of us, a part of our fabric and a part of who we are.”

D. Robert Carter, a Provo historian with a degree in history from BYU and a master’s degree in Western American History, said one of his proudest life moments was singing in the tabernacle as a primary-age child in an interview for The Universe.

Upon hearing about the tabernacle fire, Carter was devastated.

“I went down and stopped there on the way to the doctor and cried,” Carter said. “And then I stopped on the way back from the doctor and cried again. So I watched them fight the fire. And I wondered what would happen to it.”

It wasn’t until 10 months later that Latter-day Saints and community members learned the future of the Provo Tabernacle, when President Thomas S. Monson announced that the Provo Tabernacle would be transformed in the Provo City Center Temple during the morning session of the 181st Semiannual General Conference on Oct. 1, 2011.

“After careful study, we’ve decided to rebuild it with full preservation and restoration of the exterior, to become the second temple of the church in the City of Provo,” said President Monson during the announcement. “The existing Provo Temple is one of the busiest in the church and a second temple there will facilitate the increasing number of faithful church members who are attending the temple in Provo and surrounding communities.”

The announcement made Provo the second city in the world to have two LDS temples, the first being South Jordan, Utah. The completion of the Provo City Center Temple marks the 17th temple to be constructed in Utah.

Prior to the groundbreaking ceremony, held on May 12, 2012, during the beginning phase of construction, BYU students were able to excavate the remnants of an earlier meeting house that once stood beside the Provo Tabernacle.

Under the direction of Richard Talbot, Director of BYU’s Office of Public Archaeology, students found a wooden baptismal font that dates back to the 1870s.

“It was a privilege and was humbling for all of us to participate [in excavating the site],” Talbot said. “The baptistry, as much if not more than the original meetinghouse, connects the pioneer past to the future temple work. We felt a sense of that connection, knowing that the pioneers and their children who were baptized here would have been thrilled to know that the tabernacle they had sacrificed so much to build, just a few feet away from the baptistry, would someday be a temple where ordinance work would continue.”

Crews continued working to convert what was left of the Provo Tabernacle into an operable temple, while maintaining most of the original brick from the structure.

In order to build a two-level basement, for underground parking, the construction crew raised the building on stilts beginning in spring 2013.

“This is a complicated project, holding up six million, eight hundred pounds of building in the air,” said project manager Andy Kirby in a video released by Mormon Newsroom. “It’s an extensive process that involves engineers, architects, contractors, input from many, many professionals who have great sills and ability in this area.”

Kirby also said as the construction crew has excavated underneath the temple, they were impressed by the strength of the foundation, especially for the tools available to the builders at the time.

A construction event that generated excitement amongst locals was the placement of the Angel Moroni on top of the almost finished structure. Community members gathered on the sidewalks around Center Street and University Avenue to watch the process unfold.

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Preparation for a second temple in Provo extended beyond the renovation of the tabernacle, but municipal leaders of the City of Provo also had to prepare to accommodate the approximate 20,000 visitors attending the Provo City Center Temple Open House.

“The impact of this temple far exceeds this period of time,” Provo Mayor John Curtis said at a local meeting. “It’s hard to measure just the number of weddings that will be held here. This building is amazingly beautiful and has raised the bar for downtown. It’s a blessing to our community.”

These preparations include mapping out 1,600 parking spots within three blocks of the temple that visitors with open house tickets will be assigned to park at.

The city also approved $425,568 of funding to improve the safety and functionality of the downtown area. Extra emergency personnel will be on hand during the open house, crosswalks will be repainted and electronic kiosks that promote local businesses and sites around town will be present.

The open house for the Provo City Center Temple starts on Friday, Jan. 15, and will go through Saturday, March 5, 2016. Tours will not be held on Sundays. The cultural celebration will be held on March 15, and dedicatory sessions will be broadcasted to Utah churches on March 20.

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