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Nostalgia washed over thousands of Latter-day Saints on Saturday as President Gordon B. Hinckley strode slowly to the podium in the Mormon Tabernacle, where Brigham Young and every church leader since has spoken.

Excited church members leaned forward on the benches or toward their television sets to see if the 96-year-old Hinckley or their beloved turtle-domed Tabernacle, closed for "seismic upgrades" in January 2005, had changed much since the last time the two were together.

Neither the man nor the space disappointed. "This is a peculiar building, the only one of its kind in all the world," Hinckley said. "It was built in the days of the poverty of our people. . . . Those who built it did so with faith, as well as their rudimentary architectural tools. Skeptics, of whom there are always many, predicted that when the scaffolding was removed, the roof would come down with it. This did not happen, and it has remained in place through sunshine and storm for well over a century."

It was the second session of the 177th annual General Conference, the only General Conference session to be held in the Tabernacle since the meetings were moved to the Conference Center in April 2000.

Most members will find the renovated Tabernacle close to what they remember. The gold-leafed organ pipes, the wooden benches, the stately podium, the domed ceiling, the carved balcony, the red plush seats for LDS general authorities - all seem exactly as they were. The improvements are mostly invisible.

Steel beams and concrete now help support the roof and pillars, which should guarantee the architectural jewel will survive an earthquake. Fire exits, new plumbing and electrical systems were added as well as heating, air conditioning and flat screen televisions. Historical purists, though, may miss some of their favorite elements.

The pine benches painted by Mormon artisans to look like oak have been replaced by replicas with more sloping back and more distance between rows. There are swaths of empty space between the front and back seating and along the outer rim.

With a slight jab at critics, Hinckley joked on Saturday, "You've already discovered that the new benches are just as hard as the old ones."

New staircases lead dramatically to the balcony instead of the old, unobtrusive steps. And the underground baptismal font, where thousands of Salt Lake Mormons, including all three men of the governing First Presidency, were ritually immersed in water, was demolished to make way for spanking new offices of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

"This is hallowed ground, but it's not a museum piece in a glass box," said Roger Jackson, chief architect of the renovation. "It's a living building with 540 events a year."

To Jackson, the most impressive thing about the Tabernacle is its "beauty and simplicity," which could expand to include technology "without changing its essence."

Out of the past

Mormons began gathering on Temple Square to hear their leaders preach soon after the original pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. At first, the swarms of believers sat on rough-hewn logs under the open sky. Then they built a bowery to protect them from the sun.

Finally, in 1861 Brigham Young wanted a more permanent place for the Saints to worship.

A carpenter by trade, Young had been a missionary in England and was fascinated with the ceiling arches of London's St. Paul's Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, said Richard G. Oman, curator of acquisitions at the LDS Church Museum of History and Art.

The Mormon president enlisted Henry Grow, a recognized bridge builder in the Salt Lake Valley, to construct a lattice truss roof. Grow's expertise, combined with the design talents of architect William Folson and later, Truman Angell, helped produce the pioneer masterpiece. They used recycled materials, including nails and washers left over from military equipment or the worn shoes of oxen. They mixed plaster with locally ground limestone and animal hair.

"They considered all the little details, such as putting wooden pegs in the wood, placed to cross-grain for maximize strength and minimize weakness of the wood," Oman said. "They covered the roof with thousands of pine shingles painted to look like slate."

The Tabernacle became "the mecca of Mormonism," said LDS Church Historian Marlin Jensen on Friday, where Latter-day Saints gathered and the "great men and women of the Earth have spoken."

Charles Lindbergh, Susan B. Anthony, Helen Keller, John Philip Sousa and a dozen U.S. presidents - including Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy - spoke or performed in the Tabernacle.

Remember the moments

Speaker after speaker on Saturday recalled their fondest Tabernacle memories.

Thomas S. Monson, Hinckley's first counselor in the First Presidency, said he had given 101 General Conference speeches from that podium.

Senior Apostle Boyd K. Packer noted important LDS announcements, such as the move in 1908 to make the church's health code known as the Word of Wisdom a binding policy and the 1978 vote to ratify the extension of its priesthood to "all worthy men."

Presiding Bishop H. David Burton recalled the introduction of the church's welfare system during the Depression and the idea of a weekly gathering known as Family Home Evening in 1964.

Bonnie Parkin, the only woman to speak, repeated a question Eliza R. Snow posed to those assembled in the Tabernacle in 1870: "Do you know of any place on the face of the earth, where [a] woman has more liberty, and where she enjoys such high and glorious privileges as she does here as a Latter-day Saint woman?"

Jensen, the church historian, remembered waiting in the Tabernacle wings to speak for the first time after being named an LDS General Authority. Apostle L. Tom Perry leaned over to Jensen and whispered, "Relax, we haven't lost anyone at that pulpit in years."

The afternoon concluded with Hinckley's prayer.

"We dedicate and consecrate this, the Salt Lake Tabernacle to [God] and to his beloved son Jesus Christ," Hinckley said, "that through many years yet to come it may serve as a place where thy people may gather for many reasons."