“It was on my watch,” says A. LeGrand “Buddy” Richards (BS ’75, PhD ’82), his laugh tinged with pain, even five years later. In December 2010 Richards, a BYU professor of educational leadership and foundations, was serving as president of the Provo South Stake, caretaker of the Provo Tabernacle.
So the 3 a.m. phone call came to him: “Smoke is coming out of the attic of the tabernacle. Thought you should know.” Richards put on warm clothes and trudged through the icy night to University and Center. “I walked up there and just—ohhh,” he remembers. “Smoke was just pouring out of both ends.” He watched as the flames burst through the roof and cast trembling shadows in the night. “When the flames were over the organ, I thought, ‘I’ve just got to go home. This is too painful.’”
The city’s old pioneer friend was lost, and the valley sat in mourning as the ruins smoldered. Over more than a century, the Provo Tabernacle had hosted stake conferences (often three on a Sunday), world-famous speakers and musicians—even a Catholic mass. Richards says what he misses most is “the mix—from the Rachmaninoffs to the road shows; the amazing speakers, the William Jennings Bryans to the sweet little gal who’s asked to get up and bear her testimony—scared to death. That’s what made it such a consecrated spot.”
As word of the fire spread, feelings of grief extended far beyond Utah Valley. Generations of BYU students—hundreds of thousands of them, now scattered around the world—had crammed into the wooden pews for a spring convocation or dashed up a spiral staircase, late for a rehearsal. They had leaned back from the balcony’s brass rail, eyes closed, as a December choir’s hallelujahs reverberated around and within. And beneath windows depicting beehives, books, and lighted torches, these students had attended to words academic and spiritual—body and mind both illuminated as tinted columns of light passed over their heads with unhurried grace, like a blessing.
Two days after the fire, President Richards stood with fire officials in the snow outside the charred eastern doorway. They were there to determine if the walls were stable enough for an investigation to begin. Peering through a window, Richards surveyed the devastation—“like something from WWII.” The balcony had crashed down. An original Minerva Teichert painting had been reduced to ashes. The $2 million organ was destroyed. But then he saw it. Sitting upright atop the rubble where the foyer had been was a framed print of The Second Coming—scorched everywhere except around the figure of the descending Savior.
“It was like it said to me, ‘Okay, Richards. You know whose house this is? If I want to remodel, what’s it to you?’”
The official remodeling announcement came 10 months later, in general conference, when President Thomas S. Monson astounded the Church with plans to rebuild the structure as Provo’s second temple. Exterior brick would be scrubbed, a Moroni-topped steeple added, and stained glass replaced. The pioneer edifice would be restored, refined, and once again filled with a multi-hued flood of light.
As the temple is made ready for its March dedication, BYU Magazine here recounts the building’s long, intertwined history with Brigham Young University.