PROVO -- Orange flames and a plume of grey smoke poured out of a gaping hole in the roof of Provo's tabernacle early Friday morning.
In what officials are describing as likely a complete loss, the historic building was gutted by a blaze that began sometime overnight. By Friday afternoon what had once been a Utah landmark and city icon was little more than a charred shell belching ash onto mourning onlookers. Teams from Provo city and the LDS Church - which owns the building - planned to assess the damage Saturday morning. Fire marshal Lynn Schofield said that the investigation into the cause of the fire could involve weeks of sifting through debris. He guessed that likely damage costs would easily reach into the seven digits.
The tabernacle - which was begun in 1883 and completed in 1898 - was a centerpiece of Provo's historic downtown district. It served as a cultural hub for the community, hosting frequent concerts, LDS stake conferences and other events.
The exact time the fire began remains unclear. On Thursday night, Lex de Azevedo's Millennium Choral Society held a dress rehearsal in the tabernacle for two weekend concerts. The program was to be filmed and produced by BYU Broadcasting, and during the dress rehearsal BYU personnel, as well as lighting professionals, were working in the building. According to the choir's president, Holly Dixon, some women in the performance reported smelling something unusual, but attributed the smell to production equipment present in the building. That equipment included lights, a fog machine and other stage instruments that Dixon said routinely produce odors during use.
Schofield said that fire officials have not yet had time to investigate any potential connections between the alleged odor and the fire.
Fire officials said that alarms notified them of a blaze in the historic building at 2:43 a.m. Within minutes crews arrived on the scene. According to Deputy Chief Gary Jolley, those crews initially tried to enter the building through the front door, but quickly discovered that the fire was too large and that the building was unsafe. They retreated and took up defensive positions outside the building. Police also closed University Avenue between 100 South and Center Street to through traffic, and advised commuters to avoid the area at least until the end of the day.
By 4:30 a.m. crews were still struggling to contain the blaze. Jolley said that the fire department initially hoped to salvage the building, but added that it posed a unique challenge because of its size and the large wooden timbers used to support its roof.
"This is kind of the worst case scenario," Jolley said.
By 6 a.m. most of the tabernacle's roof had collapsed, pulling down the brick gables on the sides of the building with it. Jolley said that with the roof destroyed, his department's strategy involved spraying water down into the building from above with extended fire truck ladders. But the collapsed roof also meant that officials' desire to save the building was likely going up in smoke.
"It doesn't look very good right now," Schofield said early Friday morning. "There are some difficult decisions that are going to have to be made once this fire is out with what to do with this landmark."
Well into the morning Schofield said that one of the biggest challenges the fire department faced was simply getting water onto the flames. Even after the roof collapsed, much of the debris remained in the building piled up on top of the ground floor. When that lower section of the building began to burn, the debris isolated it from the fire hoses above. As a result, fire crews were forced to continue a pattern of containment, spraying the debris with water and waiting for the flames to exhaust themselves.
By mid-morning the fire appeared to have shifted to the east side of the building. Jolley said that the west half had mostly burned out, and Schofield added that the color of the smoke meant that fire fighters were making progress.
"The white smoke and steam is a good sign," Schofield said. "It's a lot better than the black and orangish billows we saw earlier."
Flames continued to flare out of the building's lower windows into the afternoon, even as the surrounding trees drooped and cracked with ice from congealed fire hose spray. Schofield said it was too early to accurately estimate the state of the building, but a statement from the LDS Church described the damage as severe. Among the items lost in the fire was the building's unique organ, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of video production equipment, a rented $100,000 Fazioli grand piano, and other instruments. The building also housed an original Minerva Teichert painting.
As a result of the fire, all upcoming events will have to be canceled or moved to another location. For the Millennium Choral Society, that means a last minute change to the American Fork Tabernacle, and a performance without most of the group's customary equipment.
"I think they're scrounging for instruments," Dixon said. "As far as the production goes, all of our stuff was in there. It's a total loss for so many people, for businesses, for the BYU production company."
The choir has also added a performance, on Sunday night, at UVU's UCCU Center. The show was made possible by UVU President Matthew Holland, and will include a memorial for the lost building.
Even into the evening the fire continued to burn and smolder, and reactions from onlookers ranged from sadness to shocked disbelief. Like many people, Kathy Kenison, 58, saw the smoke from her home and came to see what had happened. She said she had years of fond memories of playing the organ in the tabernacle.
"When I was younger we did this Christmas thing where we'd play music and open the doors," Kenison said, "and the music would spill out into the street."
But on Friday, Kenison stood solemnly on University Avenue with other residents - many of whom had tears in their eyes - watching the street fill not with music but with smoke and soot.