Friday, June 28, 2013

The Salt Lake Tabernacle: the Church of the Holy Turtle or an Architectural Masterpiece?

Historical photo from Digital Collections.  Photo dated between 1863-1867

When determining where to begin in highlighting Salt Lake's history, an obvious answer emerged: religion.  Salt Lake's history is founded on religion.  I want to highlight several of the religious buildings throughout the town, both Mormon and non-Mormon.  It is only appropriate to start the discussion about religion with a discussion on Temple Square.

For the first installment about Temple Square I want to highlight the Tabernacle.  Discussion regarding some type of assembly hall amongst pioneers of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS or Mormons) begun almost upon arriving in Salt Lake Valley in 1847.  Temple Square was designated as the location for the future Mormon temple and as a result, an assembly hall at Temple Square logically followed.

The first type of structure built was a bowery, located in the southwest corner, around the area where the Assembly Hall is currently located.  A bowery is an open sided building with a roof of branches to provide some type of covering.  The first bowery was assembled on July 31, 1847 by pioneers returning from the Mormon Battalion.  This bowery was replaced with another in 1849.  

In 1852, the first tabernacle at Temple Square, called the Old Tabernacle or sometimes the Adobe Tabernacle, was constructed in the Assembly Hall's current location.  Even though it was able to hold 2,000 to 3,000 people, it was too small even before it was completed.  To hold the ever-increasing Mormon crowds, a third bowery was constructed outside the Old Tabernacle in 1853.  The Old Tabernacle was razed in 1877 for the construction of the Assembly Hall.   BYU compiled an excellent history of the Old Tabernacle and boweries located at Temple Square, which can be read here.  Below is a picture of the Old Tabernacle and the third bowery.

Photo courtesy of BYU Religious Studies Center

Construction of the Tabernacle started in 1863.  The building was designed to lie on the center line axis of the Salt Lake Temple.  One source that I found stated that the inspiration for the Tabernacle came from a similar building that was once proposed while the Mormon pioneers were living in Nauvoo, Illinois.  A more entertaining story (and possibly more common) is that Brigham Young came up with the idea while contemplating over an egg shell cracked in half length wise.

Stone for 46 supporting piers was cut from Red Butte Canyon, on the east side of Salt Lake City, and lumber was hauled from the Wasatch Mountains.  Young wanted a self-supporting domed building to allow for clear sight lines.  To accomplish this, large pieces of timber were steamed while being weighted on both sides.  Skeptics argued that the whole roof would collapse upon removal of the scaffolding.  In place of nails, which were a rarity at the time, the Tabernacle was constructed using wooden pegs which were bound with rawhide.  Its seating capacity was 8,000, although it currently holds less due to the extra legroom between pews that was added during the 2005 renovations.  The pioneers, trying to make the craftsmanship look as exquisite as possible, painted the pew benches to look like oak and the pillars to look like marble.  Construction continued until 1875. Below are pictures from inside the ceiling, which is 9 feet thick.

Photo courtesy of Digital Collections

Photo courtesy of Digital Collections

One of the most noteworthy pieces of the Tabernacle is the organ.  Construction of the organ continued after the completion of the Tabernacle.  The organ was completed in 1870.  Originally it held 700 pipes; with time it expanded, and currently there are 11,623 pipes, making it one of the largest organs in the world.  One source I found stated that it is the 12th largest while another quoted it being the 16th.  One interesting note is that the pipes on the facade are actually made of wood and not metal.

Historical photo courtesy of Digital Collections.  Photo dated from the 1950's

Another incredible part of the building is its amazing acoustics.  The elliptical domed shape of the Tabernacle allows for incredible amplification of noise.  On tours, LDS missionaries will drop a pin while standing at the pulpit.  The slight noise from this pin drop can be heard at the back of the building.  In 1870, the gallery, more commonly known as the balcony, was added to additionally aid the acoustics.  Currently, some argue that the building is acoustically perfect.

Historical photo courtesy of Digital Collections.  Photo dated 1905

According to Wikipedia, "The structure was an architectural wonder in its day, prompting a writer for Scientific American to comment on 'the mechanical difficulties of attending to the construction of so ponderous a roof.'  Some visitors around the beginning of the 20th century criticized it as 'a prodigious tortoise that has lost its way' or 'the Church of the Holy Turtle,' but Frank Lloyd Wright [who is arguably the most famous American architect ever] dubbed the tabernacle 'one of the architectural masterpieces of the country and perhaps the world.'"

While the Tabernacle has had several significant purposes, such as the home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony Orchestra before the construction of Abravenal Hall, the building was often associated the bi-annual conference held by the LDS church, commonly referred to as General Conference.  By the end of the 20th century, the LDS church had far outgrown the building, and in the April 1996 conference, then President Gordon B. Hinckley announced the construction of a new 26,000 seat conference center which would be located at the block north of Temple Square.  This building, now called the LDS Conference Center, was finished in 2000. 

In 2005, the Tabernacle closed for 2 years to allow for seismic upgrades and renovations.  

The building is a one-of-a-kind example of early Mormon pioneer architecture and is open for tours on a daily basis.  You can attend the Mormon Tabernacle Choir practice, which is usually Thursday evenings between 8 and 9:30 PM, and the Sunday broadcast of the Choir performing with Music and the Spoken Word which is the oldest continuous nationwide network broadcast in the world and the third longest running US television series.  Organ recitals are at 12 PM Monday through Saturday and 2 PM on Sundays.  Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, an additional organ recital occurs a 2 PM Monday through Saturday.

Below are additional photos of the Tabernacle throughout the years.

Photo Courtesy of Digital Collections

Photo courtesy of Digital Collections

Historical photo courtesy of Digital Collections.  Photo dated 1909 

Photo Courtesy of

Thanks to the follow sites for assistance and information regarding the Tabernacle:,,, and Utah History To Go.

LOST IN HISTORY:  Skeptics argued that the Tabernacle roof would collapse upon removal of the scaffolding.  Several measures were instituted to assure that this did not occur, including plastering the roof to give it additional strength.  This plaster contained a very unusual ingredient.  What was it?  The answer will be included in the next "Lost in History" segment.


  1. I have never heard the BY eggshell story myself, but I can imagine it! Super post, and knowing your ancestors helped build that building, they are smiling down on you. One of my earliest memories is touring the Tabernacle and hearing the pin drop. Who would imagine that one day I would belong to the church that built it. Now hurry up and write your next installment.

  2. Is the secret ingredient cow hair, or volcanic pumice?

    Great post btw!

    Why is the look of oak considered better than the look of pine? How can you tell the difference?

  3. Good guess Rob. The correct answer, at least from the source that I found, is cow hair. And as far as why anyone would prefer oak over pine, I have no idea.