The LDS Conference Center

I shared a blustery, clouded sunset with an ancient forest of trees.

To be truthful, this was what you'd call an immature forest, with the trees no more than six feet high, though size itself is not necessarily an indication of age with these species. Pinus longaeva, the Great Basin bristlecone pine, grows very, very slowly.

The trees normally survive in only the most difficult sites where any growth comes slowly. Some stands of the trees, those found on the White Mountains of eastern California and the Snake Range of eastern Nevada, have trees more than 4,000 years old, and researchers have found dead wood in the area more than 9,000 years old. The trees found in other lofty spots, however, such as the Markagunt Plateau of southern Utah and the Deep Creek, House and Stansbury Range of northwestern Utah, are mere kids - 1,000 to 2,500 years old. Bristlecones give no warning to their existence: you tend to stumble upon them when staggering along some high, dry mountain ridge with hundreds of square miles of desert valleys surrounding you. When you find them you know you are in a rare, special place.

No one knows why the trees live so long - or take so long to die, as one wry observer once pointed out. There are some clues however: the trees keep their needles for up to 40 years, meaning in droughts they do not have to expend energy growing new ones. Also, the trees typically grow near treeline in areas with sparse groundcover, keeping fires to a minimum.

But this particular stand of bristlecones was not very high, at least not by western standards. And the valley they looked over was much different than the valleys their brothers and sisters see each day. That's because these bristlecones were recently planted atop the sprawling park-like roof of the new Jesus Christ Church of Latter-day Saints, in the booming heart of downtown Salt Lake City.

The conference center, which was dedicated last April by church authorities, is the newest large building in Salt Lake City, and perhaps the most unique. Sitting at the intersection of Main Street and North Temple Street at the north edge of the city center, just before buildings give way to Victorian homes and Capitol Hill, the conference center is a 20,000-seat half-circle stadium meant primarily as a gathering place for Mormons during the twice-yearly general conferences, when leaders reaffirm the church's stances and beliefs.

Though it seats 20,000, the conference center is not exactly the bulk of a building one would expect. As opposed to Energy Solutions Arena, the home of the Utah Jazz, which seats about 14,000 and stands boldly along the west edge of downtown, the conference center is an interesting blend of low visual impact architecture that complements both the LDS Temple, which it faces, and the more residential community which it backs.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the conference center is that its main auditorium has no internal supports. Church members used to meet in the old Tabernacle on Temple Square, which is adjacent to the Temple and the church visitors center. But while stately, the Tabernacle was small (during conference, hopeful attendees - some of whom had camped out to get a good spot - would form a line which stretched around the block, rain, snow or shine) and had numerous columns which blocked the view for many.

No internal supports in the main auditorium? That makes one wonder what keeps the four-acre roof from caving in. What does it is a set of ingenuous curved supports which somehow can bear the weight of the roof. Still, when I was on the roof I did not jump up and down, just in case.

But of course you can't build an edifice of this size and not run into some conflict. The conflict, however, was not from neighbors - the center replaced a crafts store, an ugly parking lot and an aging gym - or architectural review boards. It was from climbers, recreationalists, and some residents of lower Little Cottonwood Canyon, some 15 miles southeast. They complained because the church quarried some of the canyon's famed granite to sheath the new building, and obliterated a favorite rock climbing area. But the church insisted on mining the granite from there because that was the same quarry used to build the LDS Temple, and the church wanted to recognize the historic significance and links between the two buildings.

But the granite goes well in downtown Salt Lake City, I think, and is a pleasant deviation from the normal glass and steel that sheathes most buildings.

Inside, the conference center is stately but cavernous, and its size seems to swallow the steady stream of visitors and employees filtering through the front doors.

But atop the conference center is where the building gets interesting, in my opinion. The front (south) of the roof is marked by a soaring spire. This is where you will end up if you climb the outside stairs from street level to the roof (you can also take an elevator). The spire is the jump-off point for a waterfall that tumbles down the front of the building. Back from the tower, two 'streams' cut across the roof and lead towards a denser artificial forest of pine and fir. Lanterns and granite steps frame the downtown scene and the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountains beyond, with Great Salt Lake hulking to the northwest.

I was not able to find the person who thought to plant the bristlecones on the roof of the conference center. Actually, I really could not find anyone, except for a greeter at the front door. The rain and cold weather had driven everyone home, I guess.

Bristlecones are Earth's most ancient individual beings but, as Stephen Trimble wrote in The Sagebrush Ocean, 'adversity begets longevity.' That makes me wonder if the trees will survive up here on the roof, where they seem to have it so well. But I hope they live, and I am glad they are growing in such a wonderful city.

The roof is generally open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., but may be closed during meetings and events at the conference center, or during heavy snow. Guided tours are available from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

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