Memories of a Year, Up in Flames

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Last night the historic Provo Tabernacle, the most beautiful building in Provo, Utah, caught fire. The fire burned through the night, with firefighters working both within the building and without to contain it, without avail. Word is, the building is a total loss, and will have to be demolished. (More links and words about the tragedy at Ardis Parshall’s blog and Juvenile Instructor. Also, more photos below the fold, courtesy of David H. Bailey.)

I finished up my MA at BYU’s David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies (which is also no more) in 1994; Melissa graduated with her BA that same year. For the next year, 1994-1995, we stayed put. We were waiting to see where (and if) I would go to graduate school; we were, as it appears now in retrospect, working out, as a couple who’d been married just over a year, what it would mean to be married without also being college students. Melissa worked as a receptionist and a telemarketer; I worked as a dishwasher and a newspaper reporter; we were completely broke (an omen for the future, perhaps), and we were always looking for cheap and/or free things to do. Fortunately, we lived in an old house on 200 West Provo, just a five minute walk from the old Tabernacle. We went there constantly: it was the go-to venue for every community arts event throughout Utah Valley. We heard gospel groups performing there, barbershop quartets, the BYU’s Men’s Chorus, a cappella groups–all for almost no cost, and in a beautiful, classy, acoustically near-perfect environment. The Utah Valley Symphony performed there. It was the center-point for arts festivals and community gatherings of every sort, and its Christmas lights displays were understated yet gorgeous (I preferred visiting there to the much more extensive, and frankly a little overdone, displays at Temple Square in Salt Lake City). We must have walked there at least once a week for an entire year, it seemed like. To my mind, it grounded the whole city, at least as much if not more than BYU itself did.

And now it’s gone.

I know friends whose seminary, high school, and college graduations were held there; who met (or proposed to) their spouses there; who listened to religious leaders and general authorities speak from its pulpit. None of my memories of the spot are particularly religious; mostly civic and cultural. But then, there is something beautiful about that: about spots where the best efforts of the everyday meet with the operations of the sacred. If you were part of this building’s beauty, please share.


  1. Thanks, Russell.

  2. Wow… I’m feeling shocked right now. I can’t believe that it won’t be there anymore.

    I remember very well… May of ’97, lining up in cap & gown on the grass outside waiting to go in for my college specific graduation from BYU. I remember walking across the stage area and getting my diploma.

    I remember listening to Elder Scott there. In lieu of a traditional fireside, he allowed for a Q&A session. Came away with some amazing stuff.

    I always assumed it would still be there when my kids were older and I took them back for the parent-guided tour of BYU and Provo.

    Very sad.

  3. Yes, thanks Russell. This is simply terrible. That picture is traumatic.

  4. Observer (f.k.a. Eric. S.) says:

    Sad. I’m curious about cause. Arson, perhaps?

  5. Steve Evans says:

    Incredibly sad.

  6. Terrible, just terrible.

  7. Unthinkable. Can’t get my mind around this. As you said, Russell, easily the most beautiful building in Utah Valley, and surely the most beloved.

  8. Very sad. I lived two blocks from the Provo Tabernacle for my last two years in Provo. I attended concerts and firesides there with friends and with my future wife. That’s a horrible loss. It was a wonderful building.

  9. My wife and I met for the first time in the Provo Tabernacle. Happened to sit next to each other during a musical fireside there in January of 2002. It will always be special to us for that reason alone. Our first three years being married we lived in an old house on 300 W. and walked to many concerts and conferences there, or simply to stroll around a beautiful and historic building and enjoy the grounds. It’s very sad to see those pictures.

  10. I remember when the stake president during stake conference read my name as one of those who had received the Melchizedek priesthood. Up until that point, this advancement hadn’t really hit me as anything important, but for some reason, watching the whole building of people raise their hands to approve of it (I was up in the balcony and got a birds eye view) send shivers up my spine.

    I remember walking through that building with my wife on several occasions. I love that building so much. This has effectively ruined my morning.

  11. Bizarre. Such a building cannot really be rebuilt to what it was.

    I hope it’s not arson.

  12. Observer, I don’t think it was arson. One of the news reports said a film crew from BYU was filming from the upper floors that night. Maybe some wiring problems came up as a result of that?

  13. Clobberblog has a photo from inside and wow is that a gorgeous building.

  14. I remember singing in a choir there as a child, attending concerts as a young adult, and taking my own little family there for stake conferences when we lived only a few blocks away. Very, very sad to lose such a beautiful piece of church, community, and personal history.

  15. Who knew losing a building would be this shocking? I performed there several times in the mid-to-late 90’s, and always made it to the annual Messiah Sing-in. This is very sad.

  16. Since we’re engaging in some historical reconstruction as well as mourning here, someone want to help me out on the Messiah Sing-Along? My wife has always wanted to be a part of one of those, and I can’t believe it happened at the Tabernacle during the year we were living nearby, and we didn’t participate. So does anyone know when those Sing-Alongs began? (Of course, maybe she went without me, and I’m just not remembering…)

  17. Reaching backwards:
    A relative’s law school graduation …
    A BYU production of “Noye’s Fludde” in which my sister appeared …
    The funeral for the LTM (MTC) president, where as a missionary I sang a duet …
    Utah Valley Symphony concerts when a girl I was dating in high school played (as did her other boyfriend – the one she later married) …
    4 hour (two am, 2 pm) stake conferences on hard pews and without air conditioning …
    Generally good memories. But what I’ll really miss is having the building as the historic center of the town where I grew up. I’m grateful that the county courthouse and many of the commercial buildings are still there. But this is a real blow.

  18. Observer (f.k.a. Eric. S.) says:

    The pic here is creepy. Looks like a controlled burn on a Hollywood back lot or something. In a bit of irony, the lighting against the building and color of the smoke make it look a little theatrical. Sad.

  19. I sent the link to my Mom who told me that she and my Dad attended Stake Conference there when I was a baby. I went back as a college student and went to many events and meetings in that building. I’m so sad it’s gone.

  20. I remember having a stake conference there when I was a fairly new convert (less than 2 years), and the visiting 70 (someone from the 1st quorum that I recognized, though I can’t recall who anymore) wanted to meet with all the new converts in the stake. I went with one of the ward missionaries, who was this overly exuberant girl who had just gotten home from her mission to Germany. When the introductions got around to me, she excitedly got up and babbled about all the things that apparently made me an awesome convert. My head was spinning so much by her dazzling description that by the time she let me say something, I was just like, “Uh…. sup?” BRILLIANT.

    I remember singing in stake choir there and being TERRIFIED because it really was the most expansive venue I’d ever sung in.

    I remember cuddling with my new husband on the hard benches during another stake conference.

    What a terrible, tragic loss. :(

  21. Memories: My seminary graduation and singing in the choir loft. Many Stake Conferences – too many to count. It was one of the few buildings that really made an impression on my seven year old self when we moved to Provo in 1978. (the other one being the current Provo Library…now that building was a real-life haunted house in the ’80s)

    I’m so sad today. What a loss.

  22. I did not live in Provo for long but I was still blessed to perform and attend performances there. I loved the creativity of the architecture and I’m saddened this has happened. This is coming on the heels of a local church building that was burned by arson here in Washington a couple of months ago. The church burnings need to stop and those who are angry at the church need to find another way to express it.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this lovely tribute. I only went there a handful of times, no more than six, but it was such a gorgeous old building, it was the treasure of Provo. So sad that it’s now gone.

  24. Jenne, according to officials, there isn’t any reason to believe this was arson.

  25. Memories:
    My mom’s BYU graduation when I was 16 was there. I can see the pictures of her and my grandma in my mind.
    Seminary graduation.
    The really cheesy young women bell ringing… thing. Fireside? My friends and I weren’t exactly reverent but I have good memories of good friends being silly.
    Lots of Stake Conferences.
    Lots of wonderful concerts as well when I was a BYU student.
    I lived in Provo for 16 years and Utah County for 29 years; this is so terribly sad to me.

  26. I’ve been to quite a few concerts there, stake conferences, one graduation, loved the live nativity, and remember fondly the olympics-there was an ice rink on the lawn…

    What a sad thing..such a beautiful building.

  27. I’ve never been to Provo, nor am I LDS, but it breaks my heart to see such a beautiful, historic, and vibrantly meaningful building suffer this. My prayers go with all of you who had a connection to the tabernacle there.

  28. We were down there just last week looking at the Christmas lights. And we were going to attend the concert in the Tabernacle tonight. I guess they’ll have to find another place for it.

    I can’t believe such a staple of Provo architecture is gone. The BYU Humanities 101 “Tour of Provo” always featured the Tabernacle and it’s beautiful features. I truly hope there is some way of recreating it. But how do you recreate the love in the hand-hewn pews made by the pioneers? And the 125 years of concerts, conferences, and conclaves?

  29. A less happy memory of the Tabernacle (sorry): I remember attending a stake conference there when I was less than a year home from my mission (mid-1990s). The stake president gave a talk berating the men for not marrying quickly enough. I was hugely irritated because I was too intimidated by women to even date, let alone marry. I didn’t want to hear any more, so I walked out and walked home.

  30. StillConfused says:

    My law school graduation was there. That might be the only time I was ever in there. Wonder what will be built in its place. Wonder about the cause

  31. How sad. I remember attending a stake conference there.

  32. I went to lots of performances of the Utah Valley Symphony in the Provo Tabernacle, but I especially remember going to the Messiah every December, and one year in particular going to a Messiah sing-in with two of my sisters and all struggling through the alto together. And I remember walking on the grounds with my future husband on one of our earliest dates and later taking engagement pictures across the street.

    I can’t believe it’s gone.

  33. I loved that building. Maybe the Church will build a replica of it with the center clock tower. That’d be cool.

  34. Grew up in Provo, so it’s always been a landmark. We had stake conferences and other meetings there. My biggest memory of it was my own seminary graduation, but I have lots of memories of concerts and theatrical performances friends were in and more. I cried when I saw the news about it this morning.

  35. I had the same reaction when I saw the picture on Keepa as I had when I heard the news of the Longfellow Chapel fire in Cambridge. Heartsick.

    I don’t have personal memories that occurred inside the Provo Tabernacle like I did with the Longfellow Chapel, but just driving by it whenever I was in Provo was awe-inspiring. What a tragedy.

  36. I remember going to musical events there and speaking at a stake conference when I was in college. It was a beautiful building. I loved the woodwork.

  37. what’s the over/under on how many talks in April’s GC will draw a parallel between the fire destroyed tabernacle and our own lives? I think 5 is a fair wager.

  38. It is hard to believe it is gone. Like (#10) Ted, my husband’s name was submitted to be a High Priest in that room. I can’t imagine downtown Provo without that lovely building.

    The other lost treasure is the pipe organ. The instrument in the recital hall at BYU is a very baroque, limited instrument, and after the J.Smith Bldg. redo, organ students have had the Provo Tabernacle as their only other option. It was a lovely, versatile instrument built by H. Ronald Poll, now deceased. My husband worked on and played that instrument, and its loss makes the lack of a fine, versatile instrument at BYU all the more embarrassing. That organ added enormously to the musical life and religious services in Provo for years.

  39. Lex deAzevedo had been scheduled to present his Christmas Gloria there this weekend. The loss in musical instruments is tragic. He mentioned a $100,000 rented piano, Ron Brough lost timpani and years assortment of sticks, harps, valuable instruments that will be difficult, expensive and largely impossible to replace. Cameras, lights, sound equipment and an entire sad list of things are gone.
    Growing up in Provo I remember a couple of renovations and the wonderful things that took place there.

  40. I’ve been listening to/watching this recital as a reminder of what a wonderful experience it was to be there, especially when there was a great organist playing:

  41. I also have many wonderful memories connected to this building – performing in choirs, early dates with my husband, and attending stake conference there as newlyweds. It’s a huge loss.

  42. I just posted this on Facebook:
    Favorite memory of the Provo Tabernacle:
    I had already identified Bruce Young as someone I wanted to date. He seemed like the type who’d go to a Messiah sing-along in the Pro-Tab, so I went to it with my sisters, hoping…
    And there he was! Front row! My sisters were miffed because I wouldn’t go say hello. (Too forward.) When we got engaged, we chose our theme song from “The Messiah”: O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?”
    So many sustainings and releases during the decade he served in two stake presidencies of the first stake in Provo, now called the Provo Central Stake. One family always opposed all callings, and I’d watch them object to my husband every stake conference.

    Convocation for the English department was held there in 1988, and I got my MA. Most of the professors shook my hand, but one kissed me full on the mouth. That was Bruce Young.

  43. Add me to the list of people with wonderful memories of the Provo Tabernacle: a transcendent sunrise Easter service with (stake) President Madsen, sesquicentennial Pioneer celebration (as an usher, I got to wear the most beautiful late-1800’s style costume), stake conferences and concerts, and just last year a beautiful Christmas concert with my six-year-old. Just last night, my husband and I were considering going to the Gloria concert tonight, but sick kids canceled that plan before the fire did.

    I’m very grateful nobody was hurt, but so very sad that building is destroyed. What a great loss!

  44. StillConfused says:

    Just drove by it on my way home from the U of U game. Still smoldering like crazy and the whole building is essentially gone

  45. I’m remembering one particular concert in which I sang, and we had a piece with two choirs, one in the choir seats and the other in the back. In my mind’s eye, I can still see Mack Wilberg’s arms conducting the piece. It was an amazing experience.

    I have felt heartsick all day. This is a real loss.

  46. I haven’t read all comments, but apparently, those involved in the scheduled musical event–to have been performed yesterday and today–had their instruments in the tabernacle. All were lost.
    From Darius Gray: “When I lived in the Hotel Roberts, the Provo Tabernacle was the closest thing I had to a temple.”

  47. Steve White says:

    Besides all the spirit-filled church meetings attended there, my best memory was an unusual BYU readers theatre production we did called Abraham and Isaac: The Akedah. As Abraham struggled with each physical and spiritual challenges to reach the sacrificial mount, he would go up a level at the front of the Tabernacle, a perfect visual and spiritual symbol. At critical junctures, I was scripted to engage him in friendly conversation offering the worldly viewpoint of what he was doing. Dr. Oaks had me seated among the audience. It would momentarily shock the crowd when I began my chiding of Abraham, but there was one lady who kept insisting I get back in my seat and let poor Abraham finish his trial without my bantering.

  48. The loss of this irreplaceable building is tragic. But it is not the first time we have lost such a treasure and in the past it wasn’t faulty wiring or arson. It was the correlation committes out of control.

    I am a veteran of the Mormon tabernacle wars of the 1970’s. In many smaller Mormon communities the huge old tabernacles were not properly maintained and became viewed by the correlated building committee as white elephants. Some of them had to go, especially in communities too small to kick up much of a stink.

    A building, equal if not more beautiful than the Provo tabernacle was the Coalville tabernacle. A stake Presidents resigned and threatened to use firearms to protect it. Finally, Salt Lake agreed to preserve it. A few weeks later dynamite echoed through the canyons and the old building was a pile of rubble. The demolition crew was chased out of town at gun point.

    Our ward in Logan made sure all of the Aaronic Priesthood had gun safety courses and that we all had and knew how to use .22 caliber rifles with interchangeable ammunition. We did reinactments of the Nauvoo Legion as thinly veiled military training to protect our tabernacle. Wealthy people were prepared to purchase the tabernacle and preserve it indefinitely.
    Cooler heads prevailed and that building was not destroyed.
    the Heber tabernacle was purchased by the city government preserving the outer structure. But they demolished the inside and made it into an office building.

    The Vernal tabernacle somehow escaped demolition and looked like a haunted house for many years. Eventually the church had to do something about it and they needed a temple out in the Uintah basin, since the invention of automobiles and better roads made the trip to the Wasatch front too inconvenient.

    I have not met many people with any sympathy for the veterans of the old Mormon tabernacle wars. But how would you feel if a committee of nameless idiots working on North Temple in Salt Lake was responsible for the destruction of the Provo tabernacle?

  49. What a loss. The effort to build this at the time and the craftmanship are hard to compare in today’s cookie cutter building techniques.

  50. mike (48),

    Tell us more about these wars! Please!

  51. John Fueston says:

    How sad. The Provo Tabernacle was an was an extraordinary edifice, built in a time when architecture mattered to the church, before the cut-and-paste buildings that now pass for our meeting houses.

  52. I drive to work at 4 in the morning and it was heartbreaking to see the building on fire. I remember playing concerts in high school band there, and going to concerts for years afterwards. It was a sad sight to see.

  53. Linda Sheldon says:

    There is a movement to start raising funds to save the tabernacle. One of my guy friends created a Facebook page. If enough people got involved and if it is even remotely remotely possible… Hopefully, someone like Bro. Ashton or Bro. Covey will step in. The community got involved and saved the Academy – of course that was a much different situation. Also, part of the treasure and the history was the wood work and the windows that will never be able to be replaced. Hopefully, when the structural people get in there, it won’t be as bad as it looks.

    I couldn’t fall asleep last night because I kept thinking that I was smelling smoke. My roommate and I walked all of the way around the Provo Tab late yesterday afternoon. So surreal. So freaky. So completely unbelievable and not something that you can even begin to wrap your brain around. Of all of the buildings that had to go that one was probably the most ….. We’ll all be mourning this one for a very long time.

    I also remember at least one BYU Sstake Conference, Singles Conference, the Multi-Stake Singles Choir’s quarterly concert, and several other concerts. I loved it. I grew up attending Stake Conference in the Assembly Hall, and when I moved back to Provo/ Orem at 29 and started attending events in the Provo Tab. fell in love with it as well.

  54. Mike (#48),

    The Vernal tabernacle somehow escaped demolition and looked like a haunted house for many years. Eventually the church had to do something about it and they needed a temple out in the Uintah basin, since the invention of automobiles and better roads made the trip to the Wasatch front too inconvenient.

    I don’t dispute your larger point about the “Tabernacle wars”; anyone even vaguely familiar with the church’s official architecture and building policies during the 60s and 70s knows that a lot of beautiful buildings were abandoned, much to the shame of the church. (Nate Oman has a lot of stories through his dad of preservationists scrambling through these years to protect old artworks, furniture, etc.) However, you story about the Vernal Temple is a dad too tidy. My understanding–as related to me by relatives who have lived their whole lives in Vernal–is that many members of the church throughout the Uintah basin stayed organized and had pushed the upkeep and continued use of the old Tabernacle for as long as they were able; it was to a large degree thanks to them that when the church began to look seriously at building a temple in that part of Utah that President Hinckley, himself a man with a strong historical sense, was impressed to make use of the existing building. So was some successful push-back against that mentality (though admittedly, not nearly enough).

  55. Linda Sheldon says:

    I haven’t had the chance to read anyone else’s comments yet, but I grew up on stories of what happened with the Salt Lake Theater, and I remember well the controversy over the Coalville Tabernacle. More recently is the Kolob (Springville) Chapel that was torn down in spite of merely minimal damage. Fortunately, the Kaysville Chapel was recently saved because enough support was raised. My own chapel the historic 800 So. chapel in Orem, has survived over the years survived only by the skin of it’s teeth.

    My understanding of what happened with the Vernal Tabernacle / Temple is that it ended up costing the church far more than expected, and being a far greater headache than expected. I heard that the situation with the Vernal Tabernacle was part of what kept the church from wanting to be involved in the BYU Academy Building. Fortunately The Academy was saved because of community support. If there is any possibility of saving the Provo Tabernacle it will definitely have to be because of community support. It needs to be rallied soon SOON however. We don’t want another Coalville Tabernacle or Kolob Chapel on any of our consciences because we step step in and try to fight.

    Correct me if I’m wrong with what I’ve heard on any of these stories.

  56. Linda Sheldon says:

    Let this not become another parking lot for Nu Skin!!!!! :((((((((((((

  57. The loss of the Provo Tabernacle is a cultural disaster. Having seen it, I cannot imagine it being rebuilt. But I’ve seen equally ruined buildings in German cities in the 50s that were successfully resurrected. Perhaps that will be possible in this case.

    A couple of thread jacks:

    1. Thanks Steve White (#47) for remembering Harold Oaks’s direction of my play “Abraham and Isaac: The Akedah.” He chose the Provo Tabernacle, and the setting was perfect. But I am going to take credit for having you sit in the audience. That was written in the original script.

    Russell, I’m surprised to hear that the Kennedy Center is no more. It was there Friday afternoon: . The degree you took may or may not still exist. I don’t know. But the Center is still running and doing very well.

  58. Steve White says:

    Thanks for your excellent script and staging, Jim. It was quite a while ago. Since Dr. Oaks changed a lot of the Saturday’s Warrior staging (Lex and Doug restaged it in LA with their original concepts and it played for years), I may have juxtaposed that experience on your play. Thanks for clarifying the source of the prickly character’s placement (was his name Samael?) Is your script still available for performance?

  59. Russell, what makes you say the Kennedy Center and the various International Studies degrees are no more? That is certainly not the case.

    As to the Provo Tabernacle, this really is tragic. The words of mourning and regret on this thread are not exaggerated. We need such buildings that remind us of a time when a lot of thought, effort and community work was put into building such historic buildings, especially in our age of tasteless, cookie-cutter buildings that are as uninviting as buildings to meet in can possibly be. To think that the magnificent Provo Tabernacle was built during a time in which building was much more difficult due to lack of mechanical and other technology makes it even more valuable.

    The Provo Library is a good example of a historic building being preserved, even after laying in ruins for decades. I am not optimistic about the Provo Tabernacle being saved due to the structural damage caused by the fire but I hope and pray that preserving it will be a priority for whatever committees are in charge of historic Church buildings.

  60. I attended many stake conferences there, the Advent service put on by the German department every year numerous times, my law school graduation and many other one-off events there, including the funeral of Hugh Nibley.

  61. Jim and John, thanks for the much-needed correction. My comment about the Kennedy Center was informed by an online kerfluffle that I can remember being part of some years ago. Obviously, I should have checked my memories (and my facts) by visiting the site: it isn’t the Kennedy Center which is gone, but the MA program it once offered. My apologies.

    The funeral for Hugh Nibley was held there? If I’d known that, I’d forgotten. That’s some else to add to the list of combination civic/spiritual events which spaces like the Provo Tobernacle made possible: funerals and memorials. Gene England’s was held there also, was it not? It just adds to the tragedy.

    Jim, I wish I could see your Akedah someday; that would be a treat, I’m sure.

  62. Took the woman who would eventually become my bride to one of the first Forgotten Carols performances at the Provo Tabernacle. Sat in the front row as Elder Scott gave a fireside for MTC teachers. Truly sad to see such a beautiful ediface burn.


  63. Yes, Russell, Hugh Nibley’s funeral was there. Two Apostles were in attendance. The funeral closed with a resounding rendition of The Spirit of God in which the congregation filling the Tabernacle nearly brought the house down with power of conviction with which we sang.

  64. #58 Thanks, Steve, for taking part in it. Yes, it’s still available.

  65. Linda Sheldon says:

    My friend Sharon Nielson who works on the Joseph Smith papers said that she heard that they were able to save the big painting of the Savior that hung in the back. They have taken it up to Salt Lake to the church conservatores (sp?).

    Wasn’t Rex Lee’s funeral also held in the Provo Tabernacle?

  66. What a tragedy.

    I lived a few blocks east of the tabernacle about the same time Russell lived west of it. I loved that building.

  67. Linda Sheldon says:

    A lot of things are looking very fishy about the fire. If someone has any connections to the media someone needs to be asking questions. Why didn’t those rehearsing the night before tell someone that they could smell something burning? Why was dispatch so slow in letting the fire department know that the alarms were going off? I heard a rumor that when dispatch called the fire department to tell them that alarms were going off they said that the alarms had been going off all week and not to worry it. Someone the night before when they could smell something – or later when the alarms went off should have walked through every part of the building. Why didn’t the fire department fight it any more aggressively than what they did. Please visit David Oman Miles FB page, he is asking some very good questions.

  68. Took the woman who would eventually become my bride to one of the first Forgotten Carols performances at the Provo Tabernacle. Sat in the front row as Elder Scott gave a fireside for MTC teachers. Truly sad to see such a beautiful ediface burn. Damn.

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