Richard O. Cowan sat in the same high council chair on the stand in the Provo Tabernacle for more than 20 years.

Although his eyesight is gone, Cowan says he learned about the tabernacle in ways most people never did.

Sitting in that chair all those years, Cowan took advantage of learning about the tabernacle's construction by stroking the smooth wood railing and posts next to him. By hand, instead of by sight, he would examine the craftsmanship and feel the sturdiness and strength of the railings.

Cowan and his wife, Dawn, enjoyed going to church and cultural events at the tabernacle. On Dec. 12, 2010, they attended the traditional Provo East Stake Christmas Music Fireside there. It was the last program to be presented in the tabernacle.

“I was sitting in the balcony in the back,” Cowan remembers. “A week later, that very balcony was gone.”

On Dec. 17, a horrific fire that grew quietly in the ceiling of the tabernacle spread quickly. Hundreds of people weathered the early morning hour and gathered around the tabernacle park.

The fire and smoke burned for hours. Some people cried, others were in shock and many stood motionless as they watched their tabernacle, like a great phoenix, dissolve to ash.

What next?

While the fire was still smoldering, Emily Utt, historic sites curator for the LDS Church, was on site assessing what had happened, what could be saved, and ultimately what the potential was for what remained.

"We know how personal it is," Utt said. "I was there the day after the fire and every day for six months."

J. Cory Jensen, architectural historian and national register coordinator, said: "I remember watching the water pour into the building as the firefighters tried to douse the flames and seeing it come running out the doorways and turn to ice.

“I also remember the charred roof structure as it fell in and just thinking, ‘There is no way this building will make it.’ But then a few days later, seeing the brick walls and corner turrets still precariously standing, but standing nonetheless, I felt that perhaps the building had some hope.”

Jensen said then he realized the building was an important landmark in the city, and if there was any way to save the structure, the LDS Church and the city would figure it out.

Utt had grown attached to the tabernacle, but she said the building is also held dear by LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson -- it's as much his building as anyone else's. Those assessing the remains of the building were very aware that salvaging it was important.

"We thought about every option," Utt said. "We asked, 'Is this the best thing for Provo and for the church?'"

A group of about 20 people met frequently the first few months after the fire to determine if the building should be rebuilt as a tabernacle, torn down and replaced by something new, or maybe transformed as a temple, Utt said. They submitted those ideas to the church's First Presidency.

"Only 15 people in the whole church knew it would be a temple before it was announced," Utt said. She didn't even know for certain until she heard it on television.

During the 2011 October Semiannual General Conference, Monson began the conference as anticipated with the announcement of new temples in the church.

Utt said she was caught totally off guard and was elated with the announcement. The carefully chosen words Monson used -- preservation and restoration -- were significant to Utt and other historians.

"Immediately my phone started ringing off the hook," Utt said. "When the process of the temple was announced, I was just as passionate about it. This building has been my building. This project will define my career."

The big dig

Before the temple building project could start, there was the question of what was below the ground that would be in the way of the needed northern underground expansion.

The answer came when specialized ground-penetrating radar equipment detected the foundation of the original meetinghouse and the nearby baptistry that had been torn down in 1919.

Richard Talbot, a Brigham Young University archaeologist, was called to excavate the site and prepare it for the construction crews.

“There are always surprises (on a dig)," Talbot said. “The durability of the architecture and the minute things that got left behind are part of the surprise.”

Talbot’s archaeology students found buttons, hair pins, toys, a broach, ceramics and even chicken bones.

The artifacts have been cleaned and are being kept as part of the collection at the LDS Church History Department. It is anticipated some of the artifacts will be on display during the temple open house.

Large stones from the excavated basement were given to the city and are now being used around the water feature at Pioneer Park at 500 West and Center Street. They were quarried in Rock Canyon and Slate Canyon.

The construction

The first major task for Jacobsen Construction, selected for the temple project, was to figure out how to take the 35,000-square-foot tabernacle to the 85,000-square-foot temple.

Doubling the size of the original building also meant digging out 40 feet below the ground surface and northward to accommodate two underground stories that would house the Bride’s Room, baptistry, dressing rooms and other maintenance areas, including the temple recommend entry desk from the underground parking lot and the parking lot itself.

First, the handmade brick walls had to be reinforced. In Cowan’s book “Provo’s Two Temples,” he said the walls were five bricks deep, but soft.

“The original lime mortar was soft, so these masonry walls were brittle and lacked horizontal strength,” Cowan said. “They would likely have crumbled easily in an earthquake.”

According to architect Roger Jackson with FFKR Architects, "The brick is handmade. Think of the hands that made it. It's not hard as the modern brick. We looked at every single brick, every single stone, to see if it was salvageable."

Jackson said 95 percent of the original brick is still there. That means they only had to use 10,000 new bricks.

The doorways and windows were stabilized, and the inner two layers of brick were removed.

“Fourteen- to 16-inch-long spiral steel anchors, or helical ties, were then drilled several inches into the bricks from inside to hold the remaining three layers together,” Cowan said. "A sufficient length of the anchors was left exposed so it could become firmly connected to a reinforced concrete inner lining.”

Thousands of these spikes were placed vertically and horizontally around the building. Next came rebar, and then shotcrete, a form of concrete, was sprayed and smoothed around the interior walls to stabilize them. That stabilization was completed in the fall of 2012.

The stilts

The next part of the process was to establish support under the stabilized building shell so that excavation under it could begin.

According to Cowan, “Hollow steel casings, 9 inches in diameter, were drilled into the ground to a depth of 60 feet for 146 shoring piles at predetermined locations just inside and outside of the walls.”

The holes were then drilled down another 30 feet to a 90-foot depth and filled with concrete. Dirt was removed from around the tabernacle to expose the foundation.

“Steel shims and a ‘pancake jack’ on top of these beams were adjusted to carry the weight of the wall about,” Cowan said. “Thus the weight of the structure, an estimated 6.8 million pounds, was shifted from the historic foundation to the system of steel and concrete piles.”

Water, water, everywhere

Everyone involved knew the project would include dealing with the high water table. Crews hit that at about 18 feet underground. Pumping water 24 hours a day came early in the project. The levels of dirt went from workable to sandy to clay.

According to Andy Kirby, LDS Church project manager, special walls were built to hold the water and allow for pumping. The water pumped was cleaned and sent through the storm drain systems.

By the end of January 2013, approximately 25 feet had been dug out from under the tabernacle for the first of the two lower floors. It was already past the 18-foot water table.

“Before the excavation went deeper, a large machine simultaneously dug a wide trench and filled it with a mixture of sand, cement, and Bentonite -- a special clay that expands when coming into contact with the water to form a tight seal,” Cowan said. “The waterproof cut-off or barrier wall completely surrounded the temple area to below the depth of the future basement.”

The excavation went as planned, as curious onlookers thought they were seeing a building lifted up on stilts. The temple shell was never lifted up. It always remained at the original ground level.

The soil underneath the temple was as good as they could ask for and it was stable.

The angel

As part of the restoration of the original building, a central spire was to be added again, but this time it wouldn't be the roof holding up the spire, but the other way around.

Steel beams supporting the middle spire go all the way down past the second underground level into the lower foundation support.

By October 22, 2013, those steel beams were in place as part of the framework for the central spire. According to Cowan, by Thanksgiving of that year most of the roof's structure was completed.

The metal components of the 35-foot central spire had been assembled on the ground north of the tabernacle. Its octagonal base was designed to be attached to the framework already in place above the building's roof. 

Before the central spire was put into place, the four repaired turrets that were rebuilt with some of the original wood and new wood were put in place. By the end of January 2014, the major components of the roof were in place.

The next project was to get the slate shingle roofing on. That was completed, and by the end of March the tower was ready. 

Church officials had determined the placing of the Angel Moroni statue on the middle spire should bring as little attention as possible.

"Builders had planned to place the angel early in the morning of the first day of April," Cowan said. "But they made a last-minute decision to accomplish this task one day earlier because of forecast of unfavorable weather."

Word of the change leaked out, and by the afternoon hundreds of spectators had gathered at the Historic Courthouse across the street, at the post office parking lot to the south and at other locations to see Moroni placed on the spire.

For many members of the LDS Church, the placement of Moroni on any temple is usually the moment when it truly becomes a temple for them.

"As the statue was lowered into place, applause erupted from the crowd of about 1,000 eager onlookers who had gathered," Cowan said. "While placing the figure of Moroni atop the temple's tower was undoubtedly the most visible achievement, many other projects also beautified the temple's exterior."

The construction site

The construction site of the Provo City Center Temple ignited the curiosity of people from around the world.

Interest in the construction process was clearly visible by the volume of daily visitors pressing their faces to the chain-link fence surrounding the site, by the cameras set up for time-lapse photos in nearby offices and from the millions of pageviews on personal temple blogs and news websites.

So great was the interest that full-time LDS missionaries were temporarily stationed at the east gates to answer questions.

That curiosity goes to the very top leadership of the LDS Church. On Aug. 21, 2014, Kirby hosted President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency, in a very up-close-and-personal tour of the temple construction site.

So great was his interest that Uchtdorf climbed the scaffolding that surrounded the outside of the historic brick walls.

It was reported that as he looked at the intricacies of the brick from the scaffolding, he noted he could see how the building had been elevated as it was being prepared for a higher purpose as a temple.

“There have been many engineering marvels,” said Kirk Dickamore with Jacobsen Construction.

Dickamore said that one-of-a-kind systems and construction innovation gave the crews a renewed sense of hope and purpose.

For Kirby, it is a "beautiful symbol of rebirth." Kirby, who grew up in Mapleton, has a personal connection to the tabernacle turned temple. He remembers his last time in the tabernacle was to hear an organ recital.

"A part of the beauty of the building is that it's not perfect; it's very personal ... it has some character. Even the bricks vary," Kirby said during a speech at the Provo Rotary Club.

John Emery, senior project manager for Jacobsen Construction, feels the same way.

"It's a pleasure to get up and come to work," he said.

Jensen said: “I am really impressed with the level of detail the LDS Church has put into reproducing, replicating and restoring the exterior architecture. My wife’s office sits across the street, and we’ve been able to watch the process over the past couple of years.

“First, with all of the plastic covering it as they cleaned and re-pointed the brick, and then, with rebuilding the turret roofs, and finally, replicating the original center tower that had been removed so many decades ago.

"The building truly is a landmark structure in Provo, and the setting it is in now, and the use it will have, will guarantee its preservation for generations.”

Daily Herald reporter Genelle Pugmire can contacted at, (801)344-2910, Twitter @gpugmire

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