Because it is beautiful
The news of the fire at the Provo Tabernacle spread quickly. Within the hour I had heard it from a dozen different friends.
I felt a stab of grief, and was immediately embarrassed by it. It was just a building, wasn't it? Stone and wood, glass and plaster, piled up to make a space that no one really needed any more.
The Church has moved on -- for efficiency, our buildings must accomplish far more than merely allow a moderate number of people to assemble under a roof.
The Provo Tabernacle was still used for meetings, yes, and for special events, and for music, but it's not as if it were irreplaceable. There'll be some juggling of schedules, and then we'll go right on, having all the same events we would have had without the fire.
But then I think back to the building itself, with its turrets and gables, the stone that soared upward; as close as we Mormons come to a cathedral.
It was originally designed with a central spire, which proved too heavy for the structure under it and was removed in 1917; I never saw it, but even without it, the building was graceful in its lines and fascinating in its decoration.
When I was in college, sometimes my friends and I would walk there for no other reason than to look at it. Because it was beautiful.
Part of the beauty came from our own thoughts, of course. This was the work of pioneers, or the children of pioneers. Thirty years before it was built, the land was part of the grassy plain beside the lake; or perhaps it was part of the woods surrounding the place where the river flowed into Lake Timpanogos.
Then came the Mormons whose task was to make the desert blossom as the rose.
Blossom as the rose, not as the potato, the sugar beet, or even the cherry tree.
All these things are beautiful in their way, but the rose is cultivated for no other reason than its beauty. It's a thorny and troublesome plant, but we tend it, water it, and bear the pricking of its thorns for beauty's sake.
Much of the honor embodied by the Provo Tabernacle was from the labor of the pioneers. They came to the grassy or wooded shores of the lake, to the land through which the river flowed, and they cut and watered the soil and planted enough to feed a multitude.
The multitude came. They built houses and roads; they traded north and south. Their labor made surpluses, which were gathered to finance the building of a meetinghouse in which they could assemble to give thanks and praise to God, and learn his will.
And they made it beautiful.
During my lifetime, I have seen the Church erect many buildings. We still construct them for the ages -- that is, we build them so that almost nothing can knock them down.
I watched as the builders gave less and less attention to beauty.
The buildings were no longer constructed by the members themselves. The designs were practical, as befit a practical people. We had jobs to do, and these were the buildings to do them in.
But how did we forget that the desert was to blossom as the rose?
Our meetinghouses went from blocky to roofy; meetinghouses like circus tents, where, on the inside, you have no notion where you are, and can hardly guess which entrance will lead to the spot where you parked your car.
They were cheap to heat and cool, and the roofs didn't leak; what was there to see outside but parking lots, anyway? We do a little better now, but by and large they still look like nothing. Who can tell them apart?
Meanwhile, we stopped valuing those old pioneer buildings. We didn't wait for the chance destruction of fire -- the Coalville Tabernacle had to come down to make room for an undistinguishable stake center. The Logan Temple had to be gutted to make room for the movies and to process the ordinances more efficiently.
Yes, the old buildings had grown impractical. But how much more would it really have cost to build a stake center somewhere else, and leave the Coalville Tabernacle standing?
How much more to have built a new temple in Cache Valley, and desanctified the original temple so that visitors could come and see how the pioneers had poured out their love of God through the skill of their work-roughened hands?
Wasn't there a kind of sanctity in the beauty that was given to the whole community in the name of love and faith?
Few know how to do such work today; it is precious, wherever it is found. Yet we ourselves treated these buildings as the fire did the Provo Tabernacle, undoing the beauty made by our great-grandparents.
My great-grandfather was a builder of the Logan Temple; my wife's great-grandfather worked on the Coalville Tabernacle. When these structures were razed or disfurnished, it felt to us as if we had turned our hearts away from our fathers.
Weren't we supposed to turn our hearts to them, lest the whole Earth be smitten with a curse? When they made a beautiful thing, shouldn't our hearts have broken at the thought of destroying it?
Shouldn't we build our houses with the same thought in mind? Build them a little smaller, but make them beautiful; let them be a gift to the street, a welcome sight to the eyes so that even strangers feel that to arrive there is to come home?
I used to love to walk down University Avenue in Provo, because of the beautiful houses there. Now they're gone; much of what gave the city character was thrown down to make cooky-cutter temporary housing for students.
Was there no one to protect these places -- not because they were "historical," but because they were more beautiful than anything that anyone would put there in their place?
Perhaps, in future, when we have something beautiful, we might preserve it for its beauty's sake, even if it no longer meets our immediate practical needs.
Perhaps, if we can't afford the extra cost to make a building beautiful, unique and personal, then we should wait to build it till we can.
Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card
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