Today (Wednesday) the paper ran this article, in which I argue that turning the Provo Tabernacle into an LDS temple is going to leave a (cultural or spiritual) gap in the city.
But because I want to alienate every last person I know, I thought I’d expand on that article here. Just kidding! Actually, I was limited to 325 words but I had a lot more to say.
In the time since the announcement that the destroyed Tabernacle would be converted to a temple, I’ve debated the pros and cons of the change numerous times with many different people. And I have to admit, I find the economic arguments in favor of a temple compelling. Many people have tried to convince me that having a temple will increase foot traffic and activity in downtown Provo, thereby bolstering business.
Downtown Provo is struggling, and I’m in favor of anything that boosts the area economically. If having an LDS temple in the area accomplishes that, I’m happy.
My only issue with this argument is that I haven’t been able to come up with a single historical precedent to support it. Most LDS temples are in quiet residential areas. Those that are located in commercial areas (and a there are several) generally were built after those areas were thriving. In other words, in all the debates I’ve had no one has been able to think of a single instance where a temple revitalized a commercial area. Whatever goes into downtown Provo needs to be an engine for economic growth, and I’m unable to think of an example where that happened before.
But there is a first time for everything, and I’m hopeful.
At the same time, I’m still fairly saddened by the decision to change the Tabernacle into a temple. In my article in the paper, I point to post-war Europe as an example of rebuilding after tragedy. My point is that buildings don’t have to be particularly old to be true to their historic nature. In other words, a historic building can be one that serves a historic function, or one that symbolizes a historic moment in a community, even if it isn’t technically old any more.
I have to admit that my feelings are influenced by a growing resentment of the way I’ve seen historic structures treated in Utah and by my own church (LDS). In Provo, the beautiful Hotel Roberts was secretly demolished in the middle of the night. Not long after, St. Francis Church was torn down.
Similarly, the LDS Church is currently r̶u̶i̶n̶i̶n̶g̶ remodeling the Ogden Utah Temple, changing it from a relatively unique architectural gem to a bland, suburban, cookie cutter building. There are pervasive and reliable rumors that Provo’s temple is next on the chopping block. (And don’t get me started on the travesty that is BYU’s architecture.)
The point is that there seems to be precious little regard for history in this state and church. As I mention in the newspaper, the church would certainly not have scraped the idea of a tabernacle if the one in Salt Lake had burned. But in Provo, the wishes of the church — which could have been satisfied in any number of other ways, such as building another temple and keeping the tabernacle — were put above the needs of the community.
And I’d argue that the community really does need a tabernacle. To compare Provo to Salt Lake again, imagine if the only buildings on Temple Square were closed to the public. Imagine if there were two temples, or the current tabernacle just let in Mormons. How much of a draw would Temple Square be? Certainly less of one than it currently is.
The point is that a community benefits from a gathering place, especially one that is tied to the community’s history but open to everyone. Americans love to visit European cities for precisely that reason. Interestingly, urban planning has increasingly validated the ideas put into place by Utah’s early settlers: a logical street grid, trees, walkability, etc. (Visit The Atlantic Cities to generally read more about these ideas).
The Tabernacle was part of that vision. It was a centrally located gathering point, and it encapsulated the values on which the community was built. And as it gets brushed aside for something new, I can’t help but wonder if the cohesion, vibrancy, and diversity of the community will go with it.