"The structure we envision will not be a sports arena. It will be a great hall with fixed seating and excellent acoustics. It will be a dedicated house of worship, and that will be its primary purpose."
-- LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, April 1996 General Conference
It has been 14¬½ years since Hinckley made that announcement in the much smaller Mormon Tabernacle on Temple Square.
He revealed the plans to a crowd of around 6,000, tightly seated on the wooden pews of the pioneer structure. The Tabernacle being such a historic edifice, many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a hard time imagining General Conference being held anywhere else.
Fourteen and a half years later and 10 years to the month since Hinckley dedicated the Conference Center, many now couldn't imagine going back, even though one General Conference session was held at the Tabernacle after it was renovated.
The center was built immediately north of Temple Square. It took nearly three years for the Conference Center to be finished into the base of Capitol Hill to the point where it could host its first conference in April 2000 when some work was still left on the building and organ.
Hinckley in 1996 said he envisioned a building seating three to four times what the Tabernacle holds. The Conference Center easily fits that range with a capacity of 21,200.
"The building of this structure has been a bold undertaking. We worried about it. We prayed about it. We listened for the whisperings of the Spirit concerning it," Hinckley said in April 2000. "And only when we felt the confirming voice of the Lord did we determine to go forward."
Hints of the building's magnitude come in some of the statistics of what it took to build it and its finished dimensions and numbers as listed in the church's Ensign magazine.
* Area covered by complex: 10 acres -- one city block.
* Building size: 1.5 million square feet (five times the area of the Salt Lake Temple and Tabernacle combined).
* Concrete required: about 116,000 cubic yards.
* Electrical wiring: 50,000 miles, with 780 miles of conduit.
* Air-conditioning: 1,035,000 cubic feet of air moved through more than 14 miles of ducts every minute; 2,966 tons of air-conditioning equipment.
* Level-to-level transport: 11 passenger elevators, three service and stage elevators, 12 escalators, in addition to numerous stairways.
* Landscaping: 4 acres on roof, with complete irrigation; trees and plants on terraced north and east sides of the building; additional planters in plaza areas.
* Water features: two fountains on the roof, one cascading down the front into pools below; 5,930 gallons of water per minute pumped through fountains and water courses; waters of City Creek flowing through rocky channel on southern edge of the block.
In contrast to the Tabernacle, the Conference Center is seated in an unobstructed theater style. The clear view for those seated at the center is made possible by a gigantic king truss. The LDS Church's official description of the Conference Center says the truss "weighs nearly 620 tons and is 150 feet long, 32 feet high and 4 feet thick." A king truss is defined by "two angled supports leaning into a common vertical support."
Accoustically, the building has succeeded, serving as a recording studio for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and thrilling other singers and entertainers who have performed there.
"The amazing thing about this building is that it feels very intimate," said Brian Stokes Mitchell, a well-known Broadway singer who performed as part of the choir's 2008 Christmas Concert, in a recorded backstage interview. "I've performed at the Hollywood Bowl a number of times, and the Hollywood Bowl seats only 18,000. Yet it feels so much larger than this auditorium. This auditorium really feels very intimate. It feels like my living room in a way."
Mitchell and other performers have been part of a growing Utah tradition since the opening of the Conference Center -- the annual Mormon Tabernacle Christmas Concert, defined as three nights of concerts filled to capacity and a fourth mini-concert on Sunday morning, also filled to capacity. It is hard to say "sold out," as the tickets are free, but thousands are turned away yearly through a random, online ticket process. In 2008, it was estimated that 250,000 tried for tickets.
Mitchell was joined by actor and well-known narrator Edward Hermann for the 2008 concert. Other stars to perform for the Christmas concerts there have been Gladys Knight, Roma Downey, Angela Lansbury, Walter Cronkite, Renae Fleming, Peter Graves, Natalie Cole, Audra McDonald, David McCollough, Norwegian singing star Sissel and others.
"I took my first look at this auditorium and thought 'after the first 10,000, who is counting?" said Hermann in a backstage interview as part of the concert's DVD. "It is just so overwhelming. Somehow there is an intimacy to the room, but I don't know how it's done."
Perhaps, it was from the legacy of Hinckley, who led the LDS Church through unprecedented growth and awareness.
"Hinckley was truly a Renaissance man. He had wide interests and was an expert in many areas," said Elder Earl C. Tingey at Hinckley's funeral in the Conference Center in 2008. "With the construction of the Conference Center, which itself is one of the great legacies of President Hinckley, we have witnessed the further development and expansion of musical and theatrical performances in the Church. Our lives are better because these cultural opportunities are now available to us."
Bill McDougal, of Salt Lake City, and an 8¬½-year member of the choir as a baritone, said those opportunities have improved with the realization of what a theater of that size is capable of bringing.
"It has evolved," he said. "They are always working to make it better."
McDougal mentioned a new platform for the Orchestra at Temple Square to bring the musicians closer to the choir. He mentioned that the sound and the acoustics have improved greatly during the last 10 years and are still being "tweaked."
And for the members, first comes the importance of the facility as a house of worship.
"It is so amazing that with 21,000 people in there, you can still feel the spirit," McDougal said.
The feeling is shared by many of the guest performers.
"It's so warm there," Sissel said in an interview after her Christmas concert engagement in 2006. "It's like singing in a church."
Thus, Hinckley's "primary purpose" of the Conference Center.