Rediscovering Provo’s First Tabernacle

Sidebar-GPR-tabernacle-1-Erik-katie-e1327078363228Did you know the history of the Provo Tabernacle goes deeper than the burnt ruins above the surface?

In order to analyze the land surrounding the Provo Tabernacle, professors John McBride and Bill Keach, along with students from BYU’s Department of Geological Sciences, have partnered with Emily Utt and Benjamin Pykles, historic sites curators in the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Utt began documenting the tabernacle and its surviving architecture shortly after the fire in December 2010. She is currently investigating the history of the tabernacle site in order to understand the possibilities and problems surrounding the development of the new temple.

While researching the site, Utt discovered that an earlier tabernacle once existed near the current tabernacle. The old tabernacle, which was designed by the same architect as the Salt Lake Temple, was torn down in the early 1900s, and its exact location was unknown.

Determination of the exact location and architectural remains of the old tabernacle will provide valuable information while engineering and designing the foundation and developing the construction site of the future temple.

“I’m most excited for how much we’ve learned about the [Provo Tabernacle] and this site that we didn’t know before,” Utt said. “We know more about this [old] tabernacle now than anyone has known in the last 100 years.”

Using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), professors McBride and Keach are currently investigating where the old tabernacle was built in comparison to the remains of the current Provo Tabernacle. The GPR instrument is installed on a three-wheeled cart and acts as an antenna and receiver.

The GPR equipment sends electromagnetic waves into the ground, which reflect off the different layers and materials in the earth. GPR essentially allows you to see into the ground without digging into it.

“Our contribution is to actually show where [the old tabernacle] really is,” McBride said. “It was challenging because the ground was kind of wet, and radar doesn’t work very well with wet ground. Nevertheless, it actually did work very well so that was kind of a surprise.”

The BYU Office of Public Archaeology has also been on-site, excavating and mapping portions of the old tabernacle’s foundation. The limited excavations have confirmed what historical documents and the GPR survey indicated — that the old tabernacle’s buried stone foundations are 4 feet wide and up to 5.5 feet high. Once the GPR data processing is complete, a final map will be produced, and Utt and Pykles will present it to Church headquarters.

“Our job is to report what we find, and then hopefully, we can weigh-in on what we think can happen to this place,” Pykles said.

A big sycamore tree currently towers over the area where the old tabernacle’s tower once existed.

“It’s pretty amazing that people have been walking over this area and picnicking here and doing all sorts of things here and not understanding or knowing that they’re standing on the remains of a one-hundred-and-fifty-year old tabernacle,” Pykles said.

By Chris Scheitinger Posted on