Emily Utt, a historic sites curator overseeing preservation aspects of the work at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints building that was one of the earliest community gathering places in St. George, said Wednesday that exterior work is expected to end at some point between late July and mid August.
While church officials still are not prepared to publicly state the expected time frame for completing the construction project, “everything is proceeding right on schedule,” Utt said.
The work that began with the landmark's closure last summer is part of an ongoing LDS church effort to provide modern seismic principles to its buildings with the hope that gathering places and sites of historical value will be better equipped to resist earthquake forces. But the Tabernacle project has also been designated as an attempt to undo more than a century’s worth of remodelling and restore the building to its original appearance as a tribute to the pioneers who raised it during the community’s early hardscrabble years.
“The colors that are going on the building right now are the colors it had in 1876,” Utt said. “We’ve painted the window frames and the front doors red. … The tower is (light) green.”
The white trim now will be a mix of four colors, including two shades of gray and a “peachy white.”
“We take, literally, chunks of the building and send them to (a paint conservator’s lab in Iowa), and he puts them under the microscope and he sends back his analysis. … We looked at all the different layers of paint (currently on the building) under the microscope,” she said.
Utt said the paint work also contains a product to give it a high-gloss sheen that replicates the shiny pigments the city’s early settlers used, but without the lead content that would have existed historically.
“In this (historical) era in St. George, the paint would have been mixed by hand using linseed oil,” she said. “That this building had six colors on it, and very expensive colors, shows the dedication of the people to finish their building in a beautiful way.”
Other exterior work that may be noticeable to passersby includes a change to the clock faces, which were originally smaller than those in recent use and had hands of a different shape. Utt said the project also gives the church an opportunity to try to improve the clocks’ timekeeping function.
One thing that won’t remain at all is a beehive that workers with contractor Philipoom Construction found in the ball at the top of the tower.
“Occasionally you could see honey dripping down the tower from that ball,” Utt said, noting it was removed as part of the project recently.
“We had to call in a beekeeper first. … He was at the very top of that scaffolding,” she said. “We’ll be putting the ball back on without the beehive.”
The contractors have been racing to complete the exterior work as temperatures climb in Utah’s Dixie, and the framework is expected to be coming down as the region enters its monsoon season.
“You don’t want to be on scaffolding in a thunderstorm,” she added.
The contractors have not run into “more (problems) than were expected,” and once the exterior is done work on the interior will begin in earnest. Utt said contractors wanted the exterior work done and out of the way so that it wouldn’t risk damage to the interior as work there is taking place.
The interior work may include replacing wiring, plumbing and carpeting, and repainting the faux wood surfaces.
The numerous columns that support the balcony seating, which tend to obstruct the view for some people seated on the ground floor, will remain but the project includes cutting them open to place reinforcing steel inside as part of the seismic upgrade.
As the gathering place for religious meetings, the Tabernacle had an everyday importance to the mostly LDS community during the late 1800s and much of the 1900s.
“This Tabernacle was really constructed to save this community,” Utt said in a December interview. “When people were first called to St. George (by LDS church leaders), there wasn’t a lot of hope they’d be able to stick it out. The summers are really hot, it floods during the winter. This was not a very pleasant place to live.”
Work on the Tabernacle began in 1863, but progress was slow in the economically poor and sparsely populated society at a time when distant Las Vegas was nothing more than a small way station on the trail to Los Angeles.
The final capstone was laid in 1871, enclosing the building, but work on the clock tower and interior continued until 1876, a year before the iconic white temple a few blocks away was dedicated just outside the original city limits.
Nowadays, the Tabernacle serves more as a center for musical events and tourism than for religious worship. But occasionally a family with historic ties to the city will hold reunions or funeral services inside.