Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, taken 1937 for the federal government and is public domain in the US.

So urges The Salt Lake Tribune in today’s edition. Apparently as part of the Tabernacle’s renovation, The Church has decided to replace the original Tabernacle pine benches with white oak replicas:

For nearly a century and a half, Mormons have sat stiffly on the white pine benches in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, enjoying songs, sermons and symphonies reverberating through the famous hall.

Pioneers handcrafted the pews and painstakingly painted them to look like oak, which was unavailable to them. Though uncomfortable, the pews were among the Tabernacle’s defining features.

But when the sacred building reopens next spring, most of the pews will be gone. The LDS Church confirmed Wednesday pews are being replaced by near replicas made of oak as part of the Tabernacle’s renovation.

Some of the pioneer pews “are being placed back into the building,” LDS spokesman Dale Bills said, adding that “no determination has been made on what will happen to the unused original benches.”

Despite Dale Bills’ quote that “no determination has been made on what will happen to the unused original benches,” already there is concern by some that the Church will just wholesale dump the benches in some landfill somewhere:

Some Utah historians, though, are concerned that the majority of the 1860s pews, currently stored in a Salt Lake City warehouse, may be discarded rather than preserved.

“The Tabernacle is an absolute gem of the world,” said David Ericson, a Salt Lake City art dealer who specializes in early Utah artists. “Why would you go to all the expense to preserve the exterior and not the interior and all the things that make the building a one-of-a-kind place?”

Losing the benches “would be the greatest tragedy, the worst thing that could happen,” Ericson said. “I can’t imagine a preservation architect would even consider allowing it to happen.”

Of course, no one has said the Church plans “to lose” the benches somewhere. I think we have to remember that while the Tabernacle is indeed an historic building, as is all of Temple Square, and many other buildings in downtown Salt Lake City, it was the early Saints, who primarly comprised the early Church, who actually created that history. I have every confidence that today’s Church will do all within its power to seek a proper disposition for the historic benches.

One of the reasons for the decision to replace the historic benches could be because of modern building codes:

“Today’s building codes were probably driving the decision,” to replace the pews, said Allen Roberts, a Salt Lake City architect specializing in historical preservation who is not involved in the Tabernacle’s renovation.

Wilson Martin, the state’s historic preservation officer, also had no knowledge of the removal of the pews. In general, he said, old furniture is often replaced “in order for the building to survive.” Furniture is not the building. Historic building interiors often change to meet modern-day needs.”

Roberts, though, doesn’t want to see the pews get dumped. “I hope [the church] stockpiles the benches,” he said, “and they find their way back into other LDS historic buildings.”

Wikipedia has a great entry on the Tabernacle, including an informative construction section with some wonderful old photos, which I will repost here below (click to enlarge to full size):


Sections of the Salt Lake Tabernacle dome obtained from the Library of Congress. Drawing created for federal government as part of Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record (HAER, UTAH,18-SALCI,2-) in 1971 and are public domain.


Detail of the carpentry roof of the domed Salt Lake Tabernacle. Note the wooden pegs and beams bound together by strips of rawhide.

Source: Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record (HAER, UTAH,18-SALCI,2-6[1]) Photo taken August 1971 for the federal government, and is public domain in the US.

The tabernacle’s renovation was announced back in October, 2004, by President Hinckley. The Salt Lake Tribune has a very good updated article, with more old tabernacle photos, that discusses the renovation and some historical asides here. It will be interesting to see the renovation results. One thing I hope remains is the Tabernacle’s acoustics, which I can remember from tours in my youth. The bit about hearing a pin drop from the front of the building, all the way in the rear of the building is absolutely true. I’ve heard it.

Update 9/29/06 4:50 a.m.:  The Deseret News is also now running a similar story here.