Historic Smithfield Tabernacle a symbol of community heritage (with video)

Jeff Gittins, president of the Smithfield Historical Society, displays a hinge from one of the Smithfield Tabernacle's original doors. The building was constructed over a 20-year span, from 1883 to 1902. 

SMITHFIELD — Jeff Gittins grew up playing basketball in the Historic Smithfield Tabernacle/Youth Center. The building, completed in 1902, has been serving his community for 115 years, and Gittins calls its history “magnificent.” As the president of the Smithfield Historical Society, Gittins is passionate about preserving the building to benefit future generations. Himself a fifth generation resident of Smithfield, Gittins said the Historic Tabernacle has some great stories.

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In addition to the building’s rich pioneer legacy, Gittins said the Tabernacle was once visited by Charles Curtis, who served as vice president under President Herbert Hoover (1929-1933). Utah State Senator Lyle Hillyard is said to have played in the first basketball game held in the building, and there are countless tales of children sneaking in through the coal chute to see how high into the rafters they could climb. Gittins said one of the most significant events held in the Tabernacle was the funeral of a World War I veteran, Earl Harper, who was killed by machine gun fire on a battlefield in France. Gittins said it was a longtime tradition for primary children to gather in the building annually to hear early settler Willie Pilkington’s account of having heard the testimony of Martin Harris. 

“This building is the greatest heritage and history of anything in Smithfield,” Gittins said. “It’s the centerpiece, central to our heritage in Smithfield.”

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Originally a house of worship and community center, the Tabernacle served as Smithfield’s first LDS Stake Center. Renovated in 1955, it was known as “The Youth Center” until 1985, when the LDS Church deeded it to Smithfield City as a recreation facility. It is now used for family parties, community events and recreation, but has been a victim of what Gittins calls “demolition by neglect.” Gittins said the Smithfield Historical Society has a vision for the preservation of the building, beginning with restoring its majestic steeple and beautiful stained glass.

Together with his wife Lynda, who also serves on the Smithfield Historical Society, Gittins is actively seeking to raise public awareness of the cultural importance of the Smithfield Tabernacle to facilitate its renovation. Located at 99 W. Center Street, the building sits in the heart of the growing community and represents a pioneer heritage of which Gittins is proud.  Gittins is concerned that some of Smithfield’s civic leaders haven’t demonstrated a solid commitment to preserving the building. He’s even accessed records of unadvertised council discussions where conversations took place about possibly tearing the building down.

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“I just scratch my head on why people in authority don’t make it a priority because it is a big deal,” he said. “This building has a phenomenal history.”

Gittins certainly understands politics. He served on the Smithfield City Council for six years and is experienced with land use ordinances, policy development and allocation of public funding.  Gittins played an instrumental role in securing the Smithfield Tabernacle’s Feb. 2017 listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and he hopes the designation will help city leaders recognize the importance of revitalizing it. He says a dedicated group within the community is working hard to support the effort.

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“It’s a matter of priority,” he said. “My question is what can I do to help it be a priority?”

Gittins said the Smithfield Tabernacle is structurally sound, as indicated by a recent professional evaluation. Its exterior, comprised of 220,000 handmade clay bricks, sits on a cobblestone foundation that Gittins believes will stand the test of time.

“This Tabernacle is built to last,” he said. “It’s built on a high knoll with reinforcing side supports, and the brick in some places is seven courses thick.  It was a big project for a little town like Smithfield, built by just one LDS ward over the span of 20 years, with limited labor and resources. As I’ve explored its history and worked to get it on the register, I’ve made two promises—to save the building and to get the steeple back on there.”

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Gittins said private donors both from Cache Valley and from as far away as Washington, California and Texas have expressed a willingness to help fund the building’s restoration, but formal plans can’t be developed without Smithfield City’s blessing.  He said there are many options available.

“I guess one option is to do nothing,” he said. “One option was to tear it down, and hopefully that’s over, we’ve put that to rest for a while. Even the most callous politician wouldn’t do that now. Another option is to renovate the inside to meet a future use, for example a small auditorium similar to what the Logan Tabernacle does with noontime productions.  It depends on what you want to do. If you want to restore the whole building in and out, like they did the Brigham City Tabernacle, you’re looking at probably a million dollars. Less comprehensive projects would cost significantly less.”

The Smithfield Historical Society will continue to evaluate possibilities for preserving the Tabernacle and hopes to have more answers following the 2017 election. In the meantime, the Smithfield Historical Society hopes to host an event in the building during the community’s Founder’s Day celebration in October, where a plaque will be affixed to the structure to mark its National Register of Historic Places listing.  In a history he compiled of the building to post on Smithfield City’s <a href=”https://www.facebook.com/smithfieldcityutah/posts/1490630514311342″>Facebook</a> page, Gittins wrote, “The people of Smithfield can now be proud to have this magnificent edifice listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Smithfield Tabernacle/Youth Center is, and always has been, the center and symbol of our Smithfield Community. It links the commitment, devotion, and faith of our pioneer heritage to the potential, power, and strength of our future generations.”

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1 Comment

  • John Taft Benson July 8, 2018 at 2:17 pm Reply

    Jeff Gittins and his wife Lynda are to be heralded for their undaunted efforts and dedication to preserve and return to its glory the Gift of its ancestral builders that is the Smithfield Tabernacle for the benefit and blessing of the generations who will follow them. Such vision and commitment to that vision as they and their supporters possess, constitutes the difference between preservation and progress, and depreciation and eventual destruction. Thanks be to Heaven for their vibrant vision.

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