Wasatch Academy’s Liberal Hall has more than one purpose; not only does this historic site serve as the school’s museum and archive, but it also enriches the cultural development of beautiful, central Utah.
This was published in Wasatch Academy’s Today Magazine, Summer 2014
A remarkable event took place this past April during Wasatch Academy’s annual Founder’s Day Weekend. Hundreds gathered along Mount Pleasant’s Main Street to rededicate Liberal Hall, whose recent renovation has returned this historic landmark to active service after decades of obscurity and decline. The structure is widely known for its association with Wasatch Academy and the First Presbyterian Church of Mount Pleasant, having served as birthplace and early home to both institutions. Lesser known are Liberal Hall’s ties to various other institutions, including a short-lived, quasi-political organization called the Liberal Club of Mount Pleasant (after whom the building is named) and the Freemasons. The assemblage present at the day’s ceremony was equally remarkable, as it represented an amazingly diverse cross-section of humanity. People from all walks of life and every corner of the globe stood together, united by a shared connection to the building’s past, present, and future.
The Head of School opened the ceremony with words of thanks to those involved in Liberal Hall’s renewal. Mr. Loftin spoke at length about the family of Martin ’43 and Beverly Pierce as he recognized its generosity and enduring commitment to preserving the heritage of Wasatch Academy. School Historian Donna Glidewell ’51 then recounted the story of Liberal Hall’s foundation, after which Mayor David Blackham and City Councilman Monte Bona spoke of the revitalized structure’s impact on the region’s cultural and economic development. Their remarks were especially meaningful to the local residents in attendance, many of whom had familial bonds to Wasatch Academy and the now-defunct network of Presbyterian mission schools created by its founder, Duncan McMillan.
A delegation from the Grand Lodge of Utah, having travelled to Mount Pleasant from Salt Lake City, related the history of Freemasonry in central Utah and Liberal Hall’s role in it. Afterward, the brethren honored the last man to receive the Degree of Master Mason at Liberal Hall – Wasatch graduate Tom Tucker ‘53 — for his years of service to their organization. Generations of Academy alumni were on hand to affirm this stirring tribute to Mr. Tucker, including twenty of his schoolmates from the class of 1954 who were celebrating their 60-year reunion. They were joined by the next generation of alumni, namely the school’s current student body, whose members hail from 39 nations and 28 states.
As the ceremony drew to an end, Mr. Loftin reserved some closing remarks to offer perspective on the day’s event. He reminded each of his listeners that they were not simply witnessing history. He suggested, rather, that they and the building commemorated that afternoon were historical agents, dynamic forces functioning within a continuum whose sequence of events began long ago on Utah’s frontier.
The Liberal Club of Mount Pleasant began to construct Liberal Hall in 1874. Its members were dissident Mormons who had been involved in a “general apostasy” that had taken place in the area during the mid-1860s. They had run afoul of ecclesiastical authority and had either resigned from the church or been excommunicated. The club adopted the name “Liberal” from the Liberal Party, a political organization founded in 1870 by secularists in Salt Lake City who opposed the Mormons’ domination of territorial government. Liberal Hall was intended to provide a place for club members to meet and dance, but as its construction neared completion a coincidence of events altered its fate.
Duncan James McMillan, a minister, teacher, and former Superintendent of Schools in Carlinville, Illinois, arrived in Salt Lake City in February of 1875. He was among a group of Presbyterian missionaries who came to Zion to challenge the dominion of the Latter-day Saints. For decades Utah’s leaders had opposed the notion of compulsory education, believing pioneer children needed only basic literacy and arithmetic. McMillan envisioned a regional network of mission churches and low-cost day and boarding schools. These schools would bring formalized, higher instruction to the territory, construct cultural bridges within isolated settlements, and draw souls to the Presbyterian faith. Against the advise of his colleagues, who warned him of crude living conditions and a hostile populace, he decided to establish his ministry in central Utah.
Reverend McMillan arrived in Mount Pleasant on March 3, 1875. By chance, the first person he met was Jerry Page, the town postmaster and a Liberal who introduced the newcomer to his fellow apostates. Recognizing a mutual opportunity, they soon reached an agreement. In exchange for McMillan’s promise to open a school in which to educate their children, the Liberals sold their unfinished Hall to him at a reduced price and pledged to support his ministry. The first sermon was delivered on March 7; classes began with an enrollment of 44 students on April 19. These dates marked the founding of the First Presbyterian Church and Wasatch Academy. They also represented a leap forward for the Presbyterian Movement in Utah and education in the Intermountain West. During the next eight years, McMillan oversaw the formation twenty-three churches as well as forty mission schools stretching from St. George, Utah in the south to Malad, Idaho in the north. The progressive influence of this system hastened ideological change and the passage of Utah’s Free Public School Act in 1890.
The building Reverend McMillan purchased from the Liberal Club typified the “vernacular style” of architecture, in which local needs, materials and traditions strongly influence a building’s design and composition. As such, Liberal Hall closely resembled the LDS meetinghouses commonly found in towns throughout the Utah Territory. Its builders’ use of locally sourced materials, as well as its modest scale and simplistic detailing also reflected the frontier community in which it was created.
The structure was built mostly of pine harvested from the nearby forest. It rested on a rock foundation and was floored with log supports overlaid with tongue-and-groove planking. Rough two-by-fours framed the walls, which had adobe bricks stacked in the spaces for insulation and an interior layer of plaster coated with white paint. Six large, arched, Gothic windows admitted abundant sunlight into the main meeting area and gave the place an ecclesial appearance. Shiplap, a type of overlapping wooden-board siding, shielded the building’s exterior from the elements. Hand-cut cedar shingles, known as shakes, covered the steeply pitched gabled roof. A steeple, most likely added by McMillan soon after he purchased Liberal Hall, was erected to house a church bell – the first to toll in Mount Pleasant – manufactured by the Clinton H. Meneely Bell Foundry of Troy, New York.
During the next two decades, the building served as both schoolhouse and church. As enrollment increased, Wasatch Academy purchased land one block to the southwest and began to build new facilities on the site of its present main campus. Liberal Hall hosted its last classes in 1892, but continued to provide a home to the congregation until it burned on July 4, 1920. Though the building suffered only partial damage, the fire led to significant changes to its form and function. Workers removed the ruined steeple and covered the damaged roof with corrugated metal. With the completion of a new church in 1923, Liberal Hall no longer served a vital role to the school it originally housed or the Presbyterian community.
The Freemasons purchased Liberal Hall in 1926 to provide a home to the Damascus Lodge No. 10 of Mount Pleasant. Since its establishment in 1895, the Lodge had met in quarters rented above four different businesses fronting Main Street. With a place of their own in which to conduct their private affairs, the Masons transformed the building. They boarded up the large Gothic windows, allowing sunlight to enter the lodge room through smaller rectangular windows framed high up the walls near the ceiling. The exterior shiplap siding was covered with stucco. They also excavated a partial basement and added a Greek Revival-style porch to the main entranceway.
The Damascus Lodge occupied the Hall in the spring of 1931 and formally dedicated it on June 6. It became the center of Masonic activity in Sanpete County during the next three decades, but by the late 1950s only four Master Masons resided in Mount Pleasant. With travel having become a hardship for the majority of its members, the Lodge moved to Provo in 1958. No longer of use to the Masons, Liberal Hall was sold to the North Sanpete Senior Citizens Corporation in 1972.
Joseph Loftin became the Head of School in 1986. Wanting to reforge Wasatch Academy’s connection to its birthplace, in 1990 he made the following trade with the Senior Citizens Corporation: an aged school vehicle (a van with 300,000 miles on it) in exchange for Liberal Hall. Mr. Loftin’s sharp negotiating skills notwithstanding, the transaction indicated Liberal Hall’s present monetary value and condition. Having stood for well over a century, its functional capacity was diminished; its walls and foundation had begun to disintegrate. Furthermore, the Academy did not possess the means to undertake a costly renewal effort at the time. Liberal Hall remained decrepit and essentially unusable for the next twenty years.
An extensive preservation effort, funded largely by the Pierce Family, began in 2011. The school engaged Jack Brady of Layton, Utah to apply his expertise in the field of historical architecture. He was compelled to extrapolate his designs from the only surviving photograph of Liberal Hall taken prior to the 1920 fire; he also crawled around and under the building in search of clues to its various phases of construction. By these methods, Mr. Brady drew up plans to retain the structure’s historic integrity, while also modernizing its infrastructure to accommodate 21st century technologies.
Paulsen Construction of Salt Lake City, which specializes in the preservation of historic buildings, performed a partial deconstruction, after which it completed a seismic retrofitting to stabilize the foundation. During these processes, the adobe was removed from the walls and replaced with insulating foam. Crewmembers rehabilitated the original tongue-and-groove flooring and restored the Gothic windows. After stripping away the stucco, they preserved the original shiplap and rebuilt the steeple from specifications Jack Brady determined from its burned remnants. The Meneely Foundry bell, removed from the premises in 1920, was reinstalled and tolls once again on Main Street.
Last April’s rededication celebrated Liberal Hall’s past and affirmed its continuing evolution. The school’s museum collections have been conserved and placed on display there for the enjoyment of all. The accumulated historical records of the Academy repose there as well and an ongoing process of digitization will soon make them available online. Workspaces and computers allow students to conduct research in furtherance of Wasatch Academy’s project-based-learning philosophy. Liberal Hall also fosters the region’s development by serving as a cultural site within the Utah Heritage Highway 89 and Mormon Pioneer Heritage Area. Liberal Hall has been an instrument of progressive change since its inception. Renewed and re-equipped, it carries on its mission.
Director of Liberal Hall
The Liberal Hall Symposium Series is dedicated to promoting free expression of thought, ideas and creativity within a healthy and diverse community. By respecting differences and celebrating diversity, our Liberal Hall Symposium Series aims to support, display and uphold the creative efforts of talented people within the local community.