1867 Mormon Tabernacle Pews Are Casualties of a Face-Lift

by | Jun. 02, 2007

LDS Life

The loss of the original, and uncomfortable, pine pews, handmade in 1867 and meticulously etched and painted to look like oak, angers many Mormons, whose religion is strongly defined by its history and its forebears’ hardships.

Kim Farah, a spokeswoman for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, released a two-sentence statement saying some original pews — Ms. Farah would not say how many — would be returned and that others would be replaced with oak copies “to maintain historicity.” “No determination has been made on what will happen to the unused original benches,” the statement said.

Church officials would not give an explanation for the change, Ms. Farah said in an interview.

“The church is circumspect about the pews, because it is a work in progress,” she said of the Tabernacle renovations, including the pews.

Lack of an explanation angered LaMar Taft Merrill Jr., a retired schoolteacher who grew up here and lives in Lexington, Ky. Mr. Merrill, a descendant of an early church apostle, said not returning the pine pews would be a “shameful act” by the church’s “misguided top echelon.”

“You can’t ever replace what’s original,” he said. “And an oak bench is no more comfortable than a pine bench.”

A professor of architectural history at the University of Utah, Thomas R. Carter, said the Tabernacle design reflected “the innovation and creativity of the early church.” “It’s experiential,” Professor Carter said. “When I’m there, I feel like, wow, this is such a monumental achievement for the time. And the style is so radical. It’s not a different kind of church. It’s an other. It is otherness.”

Professor Carter, a Presbyterian, said he did not have strong feelings about the pews. He suggested that Tabernacle users could consider the bench dispute based on “what they feel through their bottoms, whether they feel uncomfortable or a connection to the past.”

The early Mormons who made their way west and established Salt Lake City in 1847 believed that they were building a holy “kingdom in the tops of the mountains,” a place to live and welcome their savior with suitable edifices, said Jan Shipps, an emeritus professor of Mormon history and religion at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

“Their fervor, it was amazing,” Ms. Shipps said. “They understood themselves to be going to the Promised Land.”

In April 1867, the Mormon leader, Brigham Young, exhorted thousands of the faithful to donate labor and supplies to help furnish the interior with pews. Hundreds of volunteers heeded the call. Six months later, the Tabernacle had seating for nearly 9,000. Thousands of pines from the Wasatch Mountains to the east were felled, milled and hauled overland.

Because Young wanted the pews to look as if they were fashioned from oak, the volunteers, including Edward William Davis, a skilled carpenter, painter and glazer from England, created faux grains in the wood, using chisels to etch and feathers or combs to paint the 290,000 feet of the plain pine to resemble oak.

Graining, as the 19th-century practice is known, was common, but the scale of the pew project here is impressive, said Carol Edison, manager of the folk art program at the Utah Arts Council. Mr. Davis’s great-great-grandson, David Ericson, an art dealer here, called the pews “the character-defining attribute” of the Tabernacle. If they go, Mr. Ericson said, “you lose your access to that indigenous past.”

Ms. Edison voiced hope that the old pews would be preserved and reused in other historic Utah buildings.

The church has added controversy by announcing this month that it plans to tear down three historical structures it owns, including the 14-story Greek Revival First Security Bank tower of 1919. The demolition would make way for a $1 billion retail, office and residential complex, the largest development project in the city’s history, on 25 acres opposite Mormon headquarters.

The prospect of losing the ornately decorated bank building dismays preservationists. “We think the building is one of the social and historical and architectural icons of downtown,” Kirk Huffaker, interim executive director of the Utah Heritage Foundation, said.

On Oct. 18, an official of the church’s real estate development company, Mark Gibbons, told City Council members that the church had decided, for now, to postpone leveling the bank and would re-evaluate its plan, though “all options are on the table.”

The state historic preservation officer, Wilson G. Martin, said the state hoped that the church would “tweak” its plans and save the bank. But his agency, the Division of State History, has no position on the Tabernacle pews, Mr. Martin said, because interiors of functioning historic buildings change frequently, and he considers the pews interior furniture.

For Robert Charles Mitchell, a retired newspaper editor from Salt Lake City who lives in Logan, the fate of the pews and the bank tower hit the “same vein.” “It’s an issue of values,” he said. “We glorify our pioneers. We talk about their travails and bless their devilishly hard work. We laud them on the one hand and run roughshod over them on the other. We’re dishing up ersatz history and throwing away the real thing.”

Comments and feedback can be sent to feedback@ldsliving.com