When Heber City Main Street’s Tabernacle Was Facing Demolition, a Community Banded Together to Protect Their Heritage.
As a resident of this beautiful valley, and an admirer of anything local, I have a deep appreciation for all the history we share and all the beautiful, historical buildings and homes that are still standing. One of my favorite buildings is the Heber City Hall, or as it was originally known, The Wasatch Stake Tabernacle. As I gaze at or walk its corridors, I find it easy to wonder about the past. If only those red sandstone walls could talk — what stories would they tell? As most of the history in our valley, I’ve always known it comes from the endurance of the first pioneer families. However, once I started finding out more about the Tabernacle’s history, I was amazed by everything this strong, simplistic landmark building has endured. Yet, it still manages to inspire, one way or another, anyone that comes across it.
“The crowning jewel” of the Heber Valley was directed to be built for the Wasatch Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by Abram Hatch, and construction began in 1887. After two years of hard work, sacrifice, and commitment, the new building was dedicated on May 5, 1889. The architect and designer, Alexander Forte, worked alongside Elisha Averett, a master mason, and Hatch, who served as project superintendent. Materials cost $30,000, and the building was constructed – stone by stone – entirely through donated labor! Families, including the little children, contributed by saving their pennies and nickels and donating them to the project. From the red sandstone walls quarried from the Lake Creek area east of Heber to the large bell tower that rang announcements for church time and other gatherings, it was the heart and pride of the community and could seat 1,500 in its pews. Over the many years, it was the center for community events that included concerts, theatrical productions, graduations, and even the high school until the first high school was built a few blocks south. On summer nights in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, crowds gathered to the Tabernacle to hear the high school band play. The property even held the county fair for a few years. The community loved their accommodating building and put it to great use!
By the 1960s, the 75-year-old building was in sad condition. Because of the cost of renovations and the building itself being impractical to continue to use for the local leadership of the LDS church (due to a lack of meeting rooms), the future of the treasured landmark became uncertain. At this point, a young and newly appointed J. Harold Call served as the stake president. While he was initially interested in renovating the building after the bid came in at $70,000, he decided not to move forward with renovation plans. In 1961 when the news came out about stake leaders considering demolishing the building and replacing it with a new stake center, a local dairy farmer and former clerk to president Call, named Mark Crooke, gathered a petition of 250 signatures and was successful in delaying the decision for three years. However, in 1964 Call shared that after careful study and consultations with church leaders, he decided it was best to demolish and replace the Tabernacle. After the surprising announcement, as you can imagine, local church leaders were bombarded with letters pleading them to reconsider “the destruction of one of Heber City’s proudest structures.”
In a time of questioning the roles of gender, a group of remarkable and determined women stepped up with great energy to help save the landmark building. Ruth Witt, a widow and natural leader from one of the oldest families in the valley, was fiercely passionate about saving the building that she felt symbolized her family’s Pioneer Heritage. Barbara McDonald, a mother of six small children, when considering whether or not to get involved, asked for advice from her mother and when her mother unwaveringly replied, “if not you, then who?” Barbara knew she had to get involved and later described the experience as a “defining moment” in her life. Sisters Hope Mohr and Beth Ritchie, who had family ties linking to the Murdoch family, one of Heber’s founding families, made up the unrelenting group fighting to save the Tabernacle. This group of women proved to be tenacious by challenging and questioning church leaders even without their husbands present, something that was unheard of in those times.
To make a very long story — filled with heated debate and interesting viewpoints, shorter — this group of women were vital in the effort to save the Tabernacle which involved Mormon church leaders and townsfolk alike. Blood ties ran deep on both sides of the movement and created a stir locally and elsewhere in the state. The fight to save the Tabernacle confronted roles of gender and faithfulness, causing a strong division between keeping or tearing down the building. The story is fascinating, and I can all too easily imagine the familiarity of the divide that the conflict caused in this day and age.
The saving of the Tabernacle depended on hundreds of people coming forward in many different ways, including time, money, willingness, and sacrificing to ensure the Tabernacle would be a part of the community once more. It brought an awareness of the value of architectural heritage and was a turning point in the story of historic preservation in all of Utah. The city of Heber bought the building from the LDS church, and the Tabernacle was remodeled to serve as the City Hall.
In these fast-paced times and with the exploding growth here in Heber, I am grateful for all the glimpses of what life used to be like in the valley. They remind us of our ties, ties that grow more and more fragile with every passing year. Those that came before us have shown that we can revere the buildings of old by weaving them into our present and repurposing them with future value in mind. Today, our valley has an iconic, tangible reminder of the dream a small group of pioneers envisioned and achieved because of a community coming together, dedicated to preserving that legacy for the future for us. We, too, can be a strong, united community inspired by lessons and people of the past. I look at The Wasatch Stake Tabernacle and am hopeful the future of our town continues to preserve accomplishments from our incredible history.
My favorite quote by James Jenkins Jr. shares my sentiments: “I have always attached a certain sacredness to things that are irreplaceable. I can’t help believe that heritage is one of the last remaining gifts we can give.”
The tabernacle originally seated 1500!