150 Years: The Salt Lake Tabernacle and Organ
Nearly 150 years ago, on October 6, 1867, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performed in the new Salt Lake Tabernacle with a brand-new organ at a general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Because Church members had outgrown the modest adobe tabernacle used for conference meetings, plans were made for a newer, larger tabernacle. However, the 1860s in “pre-railroad” Utah presented many challenges.
The innovatively designed tabernacle was constructed by hand, using local resources, by hard-working pioneers still struggling to build their own homes, farms, and cities on the western frontier. Green rawhide, dowels, pegs, and wedges were used to hold the large, expansive roof trusses in place. Because marble wasn’t available, they painted the wood pillars to look like marble. Since oak hardwood did not grow in local forests, they painted the pine benches to look like oak.
The accolades for the edifice they built have not ceased. In 1964, the American Society of Civil Engineers designated the Salt Lake Tabernacle as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright remarked the Tabernacle was “one of the architectural masterpieces of the country, and perhaps the world.”
The celebrated acoustics of the building—a result of both shape and material—have given the Tabernacle acclaim as one of the world’s most acoustically perfect buildings. Built before electrical sound amplification, the oversized building was constructed so the audience within could both see and hear the proceedings.
Eugene Ormandy, conductor of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, once stated: “We have performed in almost every great hall in the world, but we have found no better hall anywhere than the Tabernacle. It is as near perfect now as any hall can be, and it is a joy to perform in.”
The organ inside was the equal of the building that housed it. When the Tabernacle organ debuted in 1867, just 700 pipes—only one-third of the planned pipes—were finished. It had been constructed with both local materials and parts from an organ builder on the East Coast. Work on the intricate organ continued over the years as it was gradually enlarged and refined.
Today the Tabernacle organ features 11,623 pipes, 147 stops, and 206 ranks. It is one of the most notable instruments in America, not only because of its size but also because of the success of its tonal design. Aided by the unique acoustical properties of the Tabernacle building, the organ’s warmth and richness are immediately recognizable. The Tabernacle organ has served as the iconic backdrop for meetings and events broadcast throughout the world.
The beloved Tabernacle is the primary home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and serves as the Choir’s broadcast and recording studio. The Choir has been recording in the Tabernacle for 107 years and just recently concluded sessions for a new 2018 CD release. Since 1929 Music & the Spoken Word programs have been broadcast from the Tabernacle. The November 12, 2017, broadcast will mark the 4,600th continuous weekly broadcast—a record unmatched by any other program.
At the Tabernacle’s 100-year anniversary in 1967, Church Apostle Richard L. Evans remarked that the Tabernacle was “an evidence of the faith and foresight of our fathers.” Those who visit and perform in the Tabernacle are indebted to the pioneers who sacrificed and provided this architectural wonder, which is now the artistic, acoustical, and spiritual home of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square.