Gathering as One: The History of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. By Elwin C. Robison with W. Randall Dixon. Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2014. 278 pp. Cloth, $39.95
Gathering as One is an encyclopedic work on the Salt Lake Tabernacle, its construction, and changes made to the building. The book is lavishly illustrated, with more than 200 illustrations, the majority in color. It is unlikely that anyone will publish more information on the subject. The book could not have been written without information obtained by the building’s 2006 seismic update and the LDS Church History Museum exhibit on the building. Written by the architect, engineer, and preservationist Elwood Robinson, it bears the coauthorship of W. Randall Dixon because of the work he conducted at the church museum and his encyclopedic knowledge of early Salt Lake City—a nice touch by Robinson.
The book begins with the proposed Nauvoo canvas tabernacle and discusses the other assembly buildings constructed on the Salt Lake Temple block to allow the Latter-day Saints to gather in one place. It provides an interesting story of the Salt Lake structures, how they were changes, and how those lessons were incorporated into the tabernacle. It is less successful in placing the proposed Nauvoo structure in context with other similar structures, such as those used by the Millerites at about the same time, and in discussing biblical precedents and contemporary American practices.
The Salt Lake Tabernacle is an engineering landmark, and engineer Robinson provides a look at it remarkable structural plan. He debunks the claim that no nails were used in the construction of the building and discusses the combined efforts of Brigham Young, the bridge builder Henry Grow, and the architects Truman O. Angell and William H. Folsom in the building’s final design.
Information obtained in the seismic upgrade provides an understanding of both the strengths and limitations in the bridgework lattice structure, including how settling had changed the point of transfer for the weight of the roof and how the retrofitting restored some of Grow’s original intent. Gathering as One examines in great detail changes in stand configuration (including Brigham Young’s desire for the stand and the sometimes competing desires of the choir director), surface finishing, and additions. Some portions might include more than certain readers may want, but they will not have to be done again.
One of the most interesting sections discusses the struggles to obtain adequate acoustics so that everyone could hear services. The tabernacle’s shape did in fact, provide listeners with the ability to hear a pin drop in a certain place, but it also caused echoes, which made hearing in many parts of the building difficult at best. The problem was partially solved by the construction of the balcony but not fully corrected until introduction of microphones and a speaker system. One of the principal nineteenth-century solutions was suspending noise absorbers—including curtains, garlands, and pine trees—from the ceiling.
The section describing the building’s use and its central role in LDS church history are less thorough than the discussions of engineering and building evolution. As the largest hall in Salt Lake City, it served as a tourist destination and provided a space for a wide variety of lectures, musical productions, and political stump speeches. One would like to know more, for example, about the building’s use as a political venue for presidential candidates: were all candidates provided access to the tabernacle and if not, who was excluded? How did those appearances allow candidates and church leaders to get to know one another? Did the same process work in introducing local musical talent to the world-famous performers who appeared there and vice versa?
The book is a great addition to our understanding of one of Mormon’s landmark structures and well worth the time to read it.
W. Ray Luce
Georgia State University