Sunday, November 8, 2015

A History of LDS Tabernacles: Part 6 - "Save the Tabernacle"

Note: This is a series on the history of the preservation and destruction of LDS Tabernacles. To see a full list of the posts in this series, click here.

For a Google Map that lists all of the tabernacles and their locations, click here.

The Vernal Tabernacle, replaced by a ward chapel on the adjacent block, was in danger. At least, that's what many Vernal residents felt as they observed the events of Coalville that led to the razing of that tabernacle. The citizens were determined that their beloved building would not experience the same fate.

Their response was to form a committee titled, "Save the Tabernacle"--an interesting title, so the tabernacle was not, at that time, under any specific threat of being demolished. Nonetheless, the committee met often--raising funds, passed around petitions, scheduled the building as often as possible (to prove its usefulness), and, in sum, "hoped and prayed [that] their efforts would prove sufficient to save [their] building" (Irving and Barton, "From Tabernacle to Temple: The Story of the Vernal Utah Temple," 28).

In 1983, the building's water and heat were shut off, seemingly dooming the building to deterioration. The constant brainstorming intitiated by the committee, however, led them to propose converting the tabernacle into a building a year later, in 1984. While the proposal was rejected, a decade later, it was brought up again, reviewed, and accepted. The "Save the Tabernacle" committee had indirectly saved the tabernacle, nearly two decades later.

The Vernal Tabernacle, now standing as a temple.
The stories related to those who went to great lengths to save the tabernacle is even more impressive in view of the difficulties surrounding such efforts that we discussed in our last post. But Vernal was far from the only community that saved their tabernacle.

The first such incident actually occurred in Heber. After the vote to demolish the tabernacle was unanimously passed (because, one person fumed, one could not vote against the proposal without seeming apostate), Ruth Furr, a local member, and several other members (mostly women) joined forces to save the tabernacle. They ran into different kinds of opposition as they continued to raise awareness and support for the tabernacle's preservation. On one occasion, the Stake President criticized them for questioning his decision, noting that their group was oftened referred to as the "petticoat priesthood" (Ruth Furr Papers).

One incident in particular illustrates the endurance of these activities. Ruth was informed that, in order for negotiations regarding the possibility of the tabernacle's preservation to continue, she would need to obtain signatures of 10 local businessman that would pledge $50 a year for 10 years--by that evening. Undaunted, she set out with a friend, going door-to-door, and obtained the signatures. Upon returning in the evening, she was told they actually needed 15 pledges, not 10. They immediately set out again, and by 11 PM, and obtained the needed pledges. Such a feat is impressive.

The activists weren't afraid to pull out all the stops to gain support. On one occasion, they held an event in the tabernacle, encouraging all in attendance to donate. The printed program contained a poem titled "The Tabernacle Speaks," which read, in part:

Old friend, old pine,
Keening with your needled arms outspread
Against the sky,
Weep for me…

I sheltered birds: swallows with inverted wings
Sliced the air about my head
And pasted mud to my railings.
Mice on desperate errands
Scurried at my feet,
And a lonely cat
Nursed her litter near my heart.

…Now your once-slender shadow
Bulges about your feet,
And I am old.
My steps sag under the shoes of generations,
My ceiling is worn with amens,
My hinges ache.

At conference-time
The faithful press the walls
And shift their weight on weary feet
And strain to hear above the restless wailing
Of a child.

Old friend, old pine,
Protesting vainly in the stubborn wind,
Weep for me.
I have served with love,
Yet they wait with sharpened axes.

And I long to live, bridging the future
With the past
(Orma Wellengren, "The Tabernacle Speaks").

The Heber Tabernacle, now standing as city offices.
Fortunately, their efforts were successful. The Heber Tabernacle was sold to the city; after some years, it was remodeled to house the city offices. It stands there today, a testament to the efforts of Ruth Furr and those who worked with her.

After the incident of Coalville, and with a growing number of demolitions taking place, opposition was forming. Vernal citizens created their committee; residents of Rexburg, worried that their tabernacle "might soon join its predecessors in the scrap pile," wrote to the Church, asking that their tabernacle be preserved as a memorial (Louis J. Clements, "Rexburg Tabernacle History"). Their tabernacle was given to the city in 1978.

But nowhere was the opposition as evident as in 1975, when it was announced that the Bountiful Tabernacle was going to be demolished. Opposition erupted: angry editorials were published in the newspaper, the mayor considered making the area a historic district, and local senior citizens proposed using the funds they had raised to build a senior center be diverted to buy the tabernacle. The State Legislature passed a resolution asking for the building to be preserved. The Church was swamped with letters and requests that the building be saved.

The interior of the Bountiful Tabernacle in the 1970s. The Church Building department had argued that it was all but impossible to save the tabernacle, because its foundation was so high off the ground.

The result? A week later, it was announced that the building was to be preserved. (And, incidentally, the 'structural difficulties' that the Church building department had claimed made a renovation unfeasible seemed to melt away.) Heber was saved by a core group of citizens; Bountiful was saved by members and non-members across the state. There was a new group of LDS preservationists, and their motto was the same as in Heber and Vernal: save the tabernacle; save the tabernacle.

Next: Part 7 - Sold!

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