The famous Salt Lake City (Mormon) Tabernacle underwent a massive renovation project from 2005-2007. This involved a meticulous process balancing historic preservation with essential modernization and seismic upgrades.
According to my site stat tracker, the majority of my readership now lives outside of Utah, and a considerable amount of you reside outside of the United States. Therefore many of you have either not had the opportunity to visit beautiful Temple Square yet, or you have not returned since the renovation. I thought you may enjoy reading a brief history and watching some nice video clips about this unique, beloved and world-famous building.
First, a little background history. Shortly after the July 1847 arrival of the first pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley, the prophet Brigham Young invited the members of the Church to build a gathering place to join in worship and social events. Even before homes were constructed, returning soldiers from the Mormon Battalion labored to create a Bowery — a simple structure of logs and branches to protect congregations from the sun as they worshiped.
In 1857 a more permanent gathering place was built called the “Old Tabernacle”. However, by 1861 it had already been outgrown.
Plans for a second Tabernacle were drawn. It would be a building with a curved ceiling and a seating capacity of more than 12,000. Brigham Young was a carpenter by trade, and his “turtle back” Tabernacle design came by inspiration, and was innovative. With the assistance of the Church architect, William H. Folsom, the construction of the Tabernacle began during the spring of 1863.
Every detail was attended to. The pioneers lacked standard building materials and had to be resourceful to undertake such a large structure. The timber for the large support beams had to be hauled from steep canyons far away.
Some of the former Bowery was also reused. Often wooden pegs were used instead of nails, and beams were wrapped with strips of boiled animal skins (all which would prove the test of time amazingly well).
The Tabernacle would become one of the largest buildings of its kind in the world, measuring 150 feet wide, 250 feet long, and 80 feet high on the outside. When completed, the acoustics were unparalleled. The crowning glory was a large pipe organ hand crafted and brought at great sacrifice and through perilous Indian territory from California by ox drawn wagons.
By the fall of 1867, the Tabernacle and its organ was completed enough to be used at the October conference. By 1870, the organ and many of the inside fixtures were finished. The gallery was started in 1870. President John Taylor, who was President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, dedicated the completed Tabernacle at the October conference in 1875.
Originally there were 700 pipes. Additional pipes were added, bringing the 1885 total to 2,648. A talented cabinetmaker named Ralph Ramsey created the famous and beautiful casework surrounding the organ pipes.
Many modifications took place over time, including the addition of a balcony and later a choir loft (both of which improved the acoustics according to reports of the times).
After being closed for nearly two years for renovation and seismic upgrade, the historic Salt Lake Tabernacle on Temple Square officially re-opened in April 2007.
Before the renovation began, the late President Gordon B. Hinckley asked designers to maintain the historical integrity of the Tabernacle, while bringing the 140-year-old building structurally into the 21st century.
As part of the renovation, the foundation and structure were seismically strengthened and a new aluminum roof was set in place. Inside new lighting and sound systems were installed and the organ pipes received new gold leafing. Upgraded benches now offer more leg room. In addition, backstage workspace has been updated to better accommodate the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
One of the unique features of the original Tabernacle, a baptistry was housed in the far south-west corner with a separate entrance from the outside. This font was used to perform baptisms of new church members age 8 and up living throughout the greater Salt Lake and Northern Utah areas.
Two of my own grandparents, and my father were baptized here.
Over the years, new LDS meeting houses were built with their own baptism fonts and the need for the Tabernacle font became obsolete. In 2007, the Tabernacle baptistry was finally removed, making room for Choir offices.
During the re-dedication ceremony, President Thomas S. Monson shared the story of his own baptism at the Tabernacle.
“I recall the time I approached baptism, when I was eight years of age. My mother talked with me about repentance and about the meaning of baptism; and then, on a Saturday in September of 1935, she took me on a streetcar to the Tabernacle baptistry which, until recently, was here in this building. At the time it was not as customary as it is now for fathers to baptize their children, since the ordinance was generally performed on a Saturday morning or afternoon, and many fathers were working at their daily professions or trades.
I dressed in white and was baptized. I remember that day as though it were yesterday and the happiness I felt at having had this ordinance performed.
Over the years and particularly during the time I served as a bishop, I witnessed many other baptisms in the Tabernacle font. Each was a special and inspiring occasion, and each served to remind me of my own baptism.”
– Thomas S. Monson, Tabernacle Memories, May 2007
~~~~~When visitors come to Temple Square in Salt Lake City, they are given free tours of this beautiful historic building. It is always amazing to hear the acoustic miracle of the hall. From time to time, selected groups are even given back-stage tours of the newly completed Tabernacle upgrades, for an exclusive “behind-the-scenes”.
You may take a 360 degree visual tour of the SLC Mormon Tabernacle here.
Below are two video clips from the October 2007 World Report that summarize the extensive work, and give a glimpse of the gala reopening concert. I thought that you may enjoy these. The first clip summarizes the careful renovation process, the second highlights the dedication and celebration afterwards.
A series of ten gala performances were held to celebrate the re-opening of the Tabernacle! Joining the choir was the renown welsh baritone, Bryn Terfel.
Today, the Tabernacle is in use daily for tours and organ concerts, and most notably as the home to The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square. Thursday night rehearsals are open to the public, as well as the free weekly Sunday morning broadcast of Music and the Spoken Word – the longest continuous network broadcast in the world – soon approaching its 90th Year. – MoSop
Updated on Jan. 9, 2017 with additional information & photo of the baptistery.
This was great! I sent it to my sister who is visiting from NC sept 17 & 18. We plan to attend the rehearsal on the 18th in the conference center. We hope to tour Temple Square, too.
This was very, very interesting to me. You have done much research and provided a great deal of information.
I was baptised in the baptistry in the basement of the tabernacle. For several years I have been trying to find information about that baptistry and especially a photo. In writing my personal life history I wish to include this information and, if possible a photo. Near the end of this blog there is a statement “Updated Jan. 9, 2017, with additional information and photo of the baptistry”. I am now 89 years old. How can I access that photo?
Thank you very much,
Vonda Christensen Porter
I very much enjoyed your blog. It was very interesting and beautifully done. You have a great talent. I wonder if you might know when the Tabernacle Baptismal font stopped being used for “live” baptisms. I joined the church in 1962 and was baptized there. We lived on 2700 South, and used the Tabernacle for our stake meetings at that time.
Sue – thanks for reading, and your comment! According the the church history website, the Baptistry at the SLC Tabernacle was dedicated in 1958. Many thousands of baptisms were performed there (including my own father and mother). By the 1980’s and 90’s the baptistry was used less and less frequently. Wards in the surrounding area now had larger meeting houses and Stake buildings, with their own fonts available. A trip to Temple Square was no longer necessary. The Tabernacle font remained in limited use, by reservation only, up until December 2004. In January 2005 under the direction of President Gordon B. Hinckley, the Tabernacle was closed for seismic retrofitting and extensive renovations. The Tabernacle baptistry was removed as part of the renovation, and provided space for the new Choir Administrative Office. A list of the many upgrades and changes can be found here
I was glad to be able to find a picture of the baptistery in the tabernacle, thank you. I was also baptized in the tabernacle font on October 31, 1960. That was the date for the stake baptisms of the South Salt Lake Stake that month. At that time our stake conferences were held in the Assembly Hall, south of he Tabernacle on Temple Square. Thanks again.
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That’s very cool Doug. Thanks for reading and sharing! – Holly
Does the tabrenacle font have 12 oxen under it ?
Randy, Great question!
Simple answer: No. The baptismal font formerly located inside the SLC Tabernacle was a standard tiled font approximately 6 feet x 4 feet in diameter and 4.5 feet deep, used for baptism of general church membership.
Extended answer: There are two types of baptismal fonts in the LDS faith.
#1. Fonts built for the purpose of baptising new members of the church – age 8 and up.
#2. Fonts built in Holy Temples used exclusively for proxy baptisms for deceased ancestors.
Only the fonts which are built in Temples rest upon oxen statues, which symbolize the gathering of the 12 tribes of Israel, and the strength upon which God’s work rests.
There have been lots of baptisms for the living in the temples. That was discontinued about 1946?
Hi Roger, thanks for commenting. I have never heard of baptism for the living being performed inside an LDS Temple during the 20th Century, let alone “lots”. As far as I know, all fonts located inside LDS temples have always been reserved exclusively for baptisms for the dead. However, I certainly could be mistaken and would be interested in reading historical accounts. Do you happen to have a link for the source of your info?
FYI: Baptisms for living in temples did used to happen. Family record notes my Grandmother was baptized at age 8 in the Logan Temple in 1922. My search on internet indicates this was halted by First Presidency decision in 1937.
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Such a beautiful building. I traveled a number of times thru UTAH and made a point to stop and listen to the choir practicing for a Christmas concert. Of course someone was there to demonstrate the acustics by dropping the pins on the timpani heads. Just AWESOME.
Last evening (Nov.24th) we watched the concert for AMERICA. AGAIN, AWESOME!! The renovation on the tabernacle is mind boggling. It is gorgeous. Could you tell me how many members make up the choir? I thank you for your time and God bless you all.
Gary, thanks for your comment, and your enthusiasm!
In answer to your question, there are 360 members in the Choir.
Best wishes, MoSop
I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your sites really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your website to come back down the road. All the best
If the acoustics are so good at the tabernacle why was a speaker system added laternom when technology became more advanced? I have heard the pin drop demonstration at the tabernacle. So why was a speaker system needed.
stout, it’s a fair question. My ‘unofficial’ answer based on my personal experience in the Tabernacle would be that the acoustics in the Tabernacle are actually TOO good. Any small sound is amplified in a million directions – including unwanted sounds such as audience chatter, whispers, a cough, etc. A speaker system helps to direct the sound of a speaker over any ancillary sounds to the audience in a properly distributed manner.
Would there be anyway to get a picture of the Tabernacle baptismal font. I was baptized there in 1967.
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Carol, thanks for your interest. I have updated this post today with a photo and information about the Tabernacle baptistry.
Thanks so much.
Is the photo of the Tabernacle baptismalfont from after the 1958 remodeling?
Do you have any photos of the baptismal font from the 1930s?
Hi Shari, I believe the photo is from the 1960s or 70s. It’s the only one I’ve ever been able to find.
I was baptised in the tabernacle baptistry in 1940. I am now 88 years old, and I am finally i the process of writing my personal history, and including photos. Is there a photo of the baptistry in the tabernacle back then? Is there some way I could obtain one? Thank you.
p.s. I very much enjoyed reading this history.
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