PROVO -- For more than a century, the corner of 100 South and University Avenue in Provo has been a gathering place for religious meetings, political gatherings, patriotic celebrations, graduations, concerts, weddings and funerals. Thursday morning residents of Provo flocked again to that corner to stand in reverence and shock as their historic Provo Tabernacle burned.
It's impossible to tabulate the numbers of people who have gone through the Provo Tabernacle's doors. However, it is testimony by virtue of the thousands of tweets, texts, e-mails, phone calls and public broadcasts, this building has touched people and leaves in its ashes numerous memories and stories.
"I've lived in that tabernacle," said lifelong resident Carma de Jong Anderson, 80. "I remember as a 4-year-old girl sitting on the benches watching my parents perform."
Clutching her camera in the freezing cold of Thursday's early dawn, de Jong Anderson slowly made her way to the tabernacle one more time.
"I walked around this morning sobbing to see the windows fallen in because of heat. To see the smoke billowing, it tore my heart out," de Jong Anderson said. "I've buried many friends and relations this past year. To have the tabernacle die is too much for me to bear. To see those skeleton windows where religion and art fused in beauty, it tears my heart. It's a landmark of my highest aspirations."
"The tabernacle is the only building where general conference of the church was held outside of Salt Lake City, during polygamy raid days during the 1880s - the plaster wasn't even done. Outside of the Salt Lake Tabernacle, that was our last real landmark from pioneer days," noted historian Brent Ashworth said.
"It's not only on the National Historical Registry but is also on the church's Landmarks List. That means it is very significantly historical and as one of 20 tabernacles the church works very hard at preserving it," said Jenny Lund, manager of church historic sites for the LDS Church History department.
The tabernacle was originally constructed from 1883 to 1898 at a cost of $100,000. The architect was William Harrison Folsom, who had designed the Manti Temple and the Salt Lake Tabernacle. "He was a significant early architect and the son-in-law of Brigham Young," Lund said.
The tabernacle was dedicated by George Q. Cannon, who filled in when LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff fell ill.
Over its 112 years, the Provo Tabernacle has hosted world-class entertainers, symphonies, ensembles, soloists and other artists. It is thanks to people like de Jong Anderson's father Gerrit de Jong Jr. and Herald R. Clark that the Provo Tabernacle was graced by such talent. Clark was the dean of BYU's College of Commerce and scheduled lyceums in the Provo Tabernacle for both students and residents.
According to historian D. Robert Carter in his book Tales from Utah Valley, "Late in 1938, Clark achieved Provo's cultural coup of the century. He arranged for a concert from world-famous pianist and composer Sergei Rachmoninoff." Prior to his concert in Provo he had performed at New York's Carnegie Hall.
Other notables on the list include opera singer Helen Traubel; Jascha Heifetz, violinist; Paul Robson, singer; pianist Bela Bartok; French organist, Marcel DuPre; and Tasha Tudor, children's book writer.
Local stars including Robert Peterson, George Dyer, Michael Ballam, Kurt Bestor and Michael McClain have all performed there, according to Kathryn Allen, executive director of the Downtown Business Alliance of Provo.
Religious and political leaders graced the tabernacle pulpit as well. Nearly every LDS president since Lorenzo Snow has spoken there as well as leaders from other faiths, including Robert Schuller from the famous Crystal Cathedral in California. Two April General Conferences of the LDS Church were held there in 1886 and 1887.
In 1909, U.S. President William Howard Taft spoke at the tabernacle as a guest of Sen. Reed Smoot.
Through its life the tabernacle faced a number of close calls. According to Lund, it was partially condemned in 1913 because the roof's truss system didn't support the center tower. It was renovated in 1917 and the tower was removed.
It was condemned again in 1949 because of the roof system. "Fred Markham, a local LDS stake president, was an architect and he figured out a way to support the roof," Lund said. At the time there was a serious move to tear down the tabernacle.
In the 1980s it was remodeled again and brought back to its historic character and was rededicated by now LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson.
The Provo Tabernacle featured Gothic-style stained glass windows and a steep roof and corner turrets that gave the exterior a distinctive look. A pipe organ provided a stunning backdrop to the elaborate, hand-carved rostrum.
"The woodwork was absolutely spectacular. It is the best woodwork outside a temple - the Provo Tabernacle is at the top of the list," Lund said.
The organ has gone through several rebirths as well. In the beginning it was just a reed organ. In the early 1900s they added pipes and did so multiple times, according to Lund.
"Every historical building has its own significance," said Cory Jensen, Utah State Historical Society. "This one had a broad appeal to the overall population in Provo and the region. Because of its size there was an impact on the community. It was a prominent religious edifice."
Jensen said the tabernacle was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on Sept. 9, 1975. It was found to be significant both under the areas of Architecture and Religion. Its architectural style was common in the mid-to-late 19th century, particularly for religious structures, throughout the country.
"It's clearly a building connected to everyone in the community, by the text messages I've been receiving. Even emotion from kids that have texted me," said Lewis Billings, former mayor of Provo. "There was a historic feel when you were in there. It's the real deal, a history tapestry."
While used extensively by the community for a variety of events, the LDS Church still held meetings in the tabernacle and was scheduled for a stake conference in two weeks.
Carl Bacon, a longtime resident of Provo, has attended many meetings at the tabernacle over the years as a member of the LDS Church, and served in the capacity of stake president, area seventy, president of the Provo Temple, and made arrangements for meetings there.
"It was a beautiful structure, similar in some ways to the tabernacle in Salt Lake with balcony, columns, beautiful organ structure, and a mural in back of the tabernacle," Bacon said. "It was just a place that people loved to come because it had so many wonderful memories of people who built this beautiful structure."
The last hours of the tabernacle were perhaps some of its most glorious moments as it was decorated for the Christmas concert "Gloria," to be performed by Lex de Azevedo's Millennium Choral Society.
Tom Ashby, a member of the choir, left rehearsal Wednesday evening around 10:30 p.m. "I have been with the choir for two years and have performed in other churches and venues. The decorations and layout of the tabernacle was phenomenal."
Ashby describes how the tabernacle looked in its final hours. He said as you looked from the ground to the pipe organ on either end of the pipes there were three levels of lit Christmas trees lit. There were garlands strung along the bottom of the pipes at the base of the organ.
There were numerous lights rigged in the ceiling that projected red and green splash along the walls, as well as a smoke machine poised to set the ambiance. The choir had been preparing since October for this weekend's concerts.
Barbara Lewis has many memories of the building, and echoed the sentiment of many residents.
"My family and I have many memories associated with the Provo Tabernacle. I can remember the building even when I was a young girl many years ago," said Barbara Lewis. "When my husband, Ben Lewis, served as a stake president, our stake conferences were held in this beautiful building. I recall one time when President Joseph Fielding Smith, who was an apostle at the time, visited this historic building with his wife and can still hear her wonderful singing voice. It is still a very fond memory. When I woke up this morning, I was devastated by the news of the fire. It is my hope and prayer that this Provo landmark can be restored to its original beauty."