Wandering the West
July 29, 2008
Thomas B. Child, Jr. is the kind of eccentric I’d like to have met. I like people who are driven by a singular vision and dedicate much of their time and money creating something totally their own, using their own hands. Mr. Child died back in 1963, but his life’s work lives in Gilgal Gardens, possibly the strangest city park in the state of Utah.
An iron fence on a tree lined residential street near Trolley Square in Salt Lake has a sign on it that simply says "Gilgal". Beyond the gate lies a sculpture garden carved from huge and I mean huge native Utah stones gathered from border to border and hauled to Thomas Child’s back yard.
The theme of the garden is based on Child’s deep-felt religious beliefs. Many, but not all of the sculptures have Mormon themes, arising from his lifelong faith, a faith he served for 19 years as bishop of Salt Lake’s Tenth Ward which shares the same city block. Without doing any research, I think I can safely say this is the only place where you can see a Joseph Smith Sphinx yes, a Joseph Smith Sphinx and try saying that fast three times in a row. The Sphinx is Gilgal’s most famous sculpture, showing the head of the LDS Church founder Joseph Smith where the Egyptian sphinxes have lion’s heads.
To get to the sphinx you first walk past three huge slabs of sandstone, with ripples from an ancient sea hardened into the surface. The slabs form Child’s vision of an ancient sacrificial altar described by Joseph Smith. It even has a brick oven at one end for the burning of sacrificial offerings.
As you wander the grounds, which are accented by flower gardens maintained by the Salt Lake Master Gardener Association, you’ll encounter seventy stones placed along the paths containing Biblical, Book of Mormon and philosophical passages. It’s a bit much to read, but if you pick and choose you might find some inspiration there, or perhaps it will come from the Captain of the Lord’s Host, a gnarled 38 ton quartzite rock carved with a warrior figure and surrounded by 12 boulders, each representing the tribes of Israel.
Gilgal itself is a name from the Book of Joshua, the place in the Promised Land where Israelites first camped after crossing the River Jordan when God stopped the water from flowing so they could pass safely. With the Salt Lake Valley’s Jordan River a few miles west, Child selected his back yard as the site of a new Gilgal.
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There are twelve original sculptures in Gilgal, ranging from King Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream to a memorial to Child’s apparently patient and tolerant wife Bertha. My favorite is the Monument of the Trade, featuring Child himself. He was a masonry contractor by trade, and this small amphitheater with a cantilevered roof has a sculpture of Child, with blueprints under one arm and a Bible under the other. The flagstone, rock and brick masonry work is amazingly good, done by Child himself, and laid with perfectly even joints. The stone ceiling is held in place by a 62-ton anchor stone on the back of the monument. The walls are hung with tools of the masonry trade.
Another one that’s easy to figure out without a degree in theology, Mormon or otherwise, is the Monument to Peace. It plays off the Biblical passage "and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks." Sure enough, there are the swords, and there are the hooks and plows they evolve into.
This kind of art installation, made by people with no training in art is hard to preserve. They are disappearing from the American scene. There’s even a name for them in the art world "Visionary art environments." Gilgal itself was in jeopardy in the mid 1990’s when developers wanted to rip it out and build on the land. Friends of the then secret garden moved to raise money to buy, protect and repair it. It opened to the public for the first time in October of 2000. It is a now part of the Salt Lake City park system.
I know, this all sounds a little maybe a lot strange, but Gilgal is worth a stop, especially if you have time to relax on the benches amid the flower gardens and spend enough time inspecting each statue to marvel at the sheer amount of work involved. Child was at it for 18 years. When he wasn’t in the garden working, he was traveling the state, finding the raw material to truck back to his yard for another sculpture.
Gilgal is a place to duck into for a half hour’s peace during the running of errands in Salt Lake. It’s a place where the thought will surely cross your mind "Well, I’ve never seen that before!"
Location: 749 East 500 South, Salt Lake City (1/2 block east of Trolley Square)
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.