Some call it Salt Lake's secret garden. Others call it weird.
The quirky Gilgal Sculpture Garden, located northeast of Trolley Square at 749 E. 500 South, has its fair share of rumors and stories. The creation of former LDS bishop Thomas B. Child Jr., the unique and unusual sculptures can't be seen anywhere else. Scattered body parts of a biblical giant, a sphinx with the face of LDS Prophet Joseph Smith, four 45-ton books and a faceless warrior are some of the 15 sculptural arrangements.
But no matter what people think of Gilgal, Hortense Child Smith, one of the last surviving relatives of Child, hopes people remember the garden for what Child intended it to be: his love and devotion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"The story of the garden cannot be told without his testimony," Hortense said from her Salt Lake home. "This is one of my great concerns . . . the message might be lost. And most people will not take the time to get to the heart of it."
Child's passion for his religion is just one of the themes expressed in the folk art, created during the '50s. A love for his family, respect for the masonry trade and an appreciation for art have drawn crowds to the public city park for years. But many Utahns remember the days when the park was locked behind heavy gates, overgrown ivy crept up the sculptures, and the only way to see the park was during odd Sunday hours. It was still tucked between residential homes and behind businesses, but without the signs alerting the public where and when they could visit the garden.
Creating a sanctuary
At 86 years old, Hortense still remembers her time in Gilgal Garden with her father-in-law Child.
"Those were great days," she said, smiling between memories of "Thomas B." or "Grandpa." After marrying Child's only son, the late Robert Rumel Child, Hortense served as Child's secretary, writing down his thoughts, memories and history.
"He was probably the foremost masonry contractor in the Mountain West," she said, adding that Child's stone work is on This is the Place Monument and LDS temples in Los Angeles and Idaho Falls. Thomas learned the masonry trade from his father, who co-owned the masonry contracting business Thos. B. Child and Son together. "During his time, he probably had brick work in every Salt Lake City block."
Described as a deep thinker, Child immersed himself in philosophical and religious books. Hortense inherited a library with thousands of Child's books, most underlined and highlighted by him.
"He had such a passion for learning," she said. "He set out to prove he could be as smart as anyone in college because he never graduated from college."
And in 1947, Thomas made his first attempt to put his thoughts and feelings into religious expression. He began Gilgal, which means a circle of sacred stones, and continued creating the garden until his death in 1963.
"During the '50s he spent his whole time on the garden," Hortense said. "Thinking about it, dreaming about it, seeing it."
Child expressed his feelings for his garden in writing: "If you want to be brought down to earth in your thinking and studying, try to make your thoughts express themselves with your hands."
Child gathered the one- to 78-ton rocks for the garden from various locations in Utah. Through the help of son-in-law Bryant Higgs, Child developed an oxyacetylene torch, an advanced method of sculpting rocks. Child also hired well-known Utah sculptor Maurice Edmund Brooks to assist with the creation of the 15 sculptures and over 70 stones engraved with scriptures, poems and literary texts.
Although stones were engraved with philosophical elements, everything in the garden has a religious tie, Hortense said. Child interpreted everything in the garden, down to the minute details, which is why there is such a deep meaning behind the sculptures and rocks. For 19 years, Child served as bishop for the LDS 10th Ward, which is adjacent to the garden. Hortense described him as a "serious student of the gospel" and a "seeker of truth."
For example, the sphinx with Joseph Smith's face, the most prominent sculpture in the garden, was meant to exemplify the historical questions the sphinx answered who we are, why we're here, where we're going. By putting Joseph Smith's face on the sphinx, Child hoped to symbolically represent that these questions were answered through the Restoration of the prophet.
Although some members of the church thought he was going too far with his religious devotion and "a lot of people thought he was crazy," including most of his brothers, Child made sure he got the message out about the interpretation behind his garden. The garden was open to the public, and people from all over the world would visit the garden and sign his guest book. The Child family hosted dinners in the garden for family and friends, and Child would give tours.
"Even with all the time I spent with him, I did not realize the deep artistic feelings he had," Hortense said, holding letters, pictures and quotes from Child in her lap. "Artists have taught me how deeply artistic the garden is."
The last piece Child created was a purple stone meant to be sculpted like a globe. But Child became sick and died shortly after, so only faint outlines of the world's continents are visible on the rock.
Saving the garden
Mary Lee Peters is still amazed at the diversity and amount of people who came out to support Gilgal when its future was on a chopping block. Artists, historians, community activists, the Heritage Foundation, people concerned about housing and others concerned about open space "came out of the woodwork," passionately, in favor of keeping the garden one of Salt Lake City's treasures.
But another group also stepped forward with more money and a different plan in mind: a real estate company. The Canadian company hoped to tear down the garden and the two homes on the property and turn the prime Salt Lake space into condominiums.
With Hortense at the helm, together the "friends" of the garden formed the non-profit Friends of Gilgal Garden, an organization dedicated to preserving and restoring the property.
"It was a diverse group that came together for various reasons, but the goal was the same," Peters said.
Formed in 1998, the group persuaded the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Lands to act as a mediary. and they started raising money to make the $600,000 purchase. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints pledged $100,000, as did the Eccles Foundation. Salt Lake County then pledged $400,000.
"At the time, the administration wanted to support Friends of Gilgal from a historical point of view, not a religious one," said Val Pope, Salt Lake Parks Division director. "They wanted to preserve the folk art and history."
With the help of other private donations, FOGG raised enough money to purchase the garden and transfer the property directly to the city. So more money could be raised for maintenance, the city sold the two homes on the property.
FOGG established a contract with the city so the city has minimal maintenance duties and opens and closes the gates. FOGG is the curator of the garden and bears the expense of renovations and conservation.
Restoring the treasure
With added support from volunteers in the Salt Lake area, FOGG hopes to restore the garden to the condition Child had during its prime.
"The Friends of Gilgal Garden have worked very, very hard to begin to restore the garden," Peters said. "It was very much a living part of the community when Child was constructing it."
Utah Master Gardeners have spent four years volunteering and doing gardening work at Gilgal. The group is responsible for the initial cleanup and ongoing planting.
"It was so overgrown at the beginning that homeless people were living in the back, and you couldn't even see where they were living," said Traci Dahle with the Salt Lake group. "We wanted it to be a place for kids to go, rather than homeless people and druggies. We wanted to make it more of a beautiful, serene, content park."
Dahle said the group volunteers 200 to 300 hours a year planting and upkeeping donated flowers. Through old paperwork, pictures and memories from Hortense, the group has tried to use plants similar to what Child used, which are mostly biblical plants. Recently, the group planted an almond tree at the Last Chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes sculpture, where an almond tree had originally been but died the same year Child did.
The next big project FOGG is hoping to finish by the end of the summer is the construction of a retaining wall at the back of the garden, where the garden borders a business parking lot. Bob Bliss, a professor and former dean of architecture at University of Utah, said the retaining wall will be an open structure rather than a straight wall, so there will be room for plants. Bliss has been in charge of numerous architectural projects at the garden, including the redesign of the new entry way, which used to be a service drive.
Unfortunately, much of the restoration includes restoring sculptures ruined over the years by vandals or people climbing on the art. In addition to pieces that have been chipped or knocked over, some have been stolen.
"It kind of seems to be a magnet for youths," Hortense said. "It has an aura about it, a mystery. But there isn't anything mysterious about it. There's a lot of deep, philosophical things."
"We hate to put signs up because it spoils it. But it's a perfect place for children who love to climb rocks."
Currently, one of the hands in the Malachi sculpture is being replaced while the other is being restored. One of the hearts in the cave is also being restored. Child's working shed is also being rehabilitated. FOGG is in the process of purchasing more property from the Fetzer's, where a fruit cellar and more sculptures like a bust of Child's wife and a pigeon house are located.
Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts and Parks is helping to put together an interactive CD about the garden to be launched in schools, in hopes that the educational tool will encourage more field trips.
"There are people who claim it needs to be a national treasure," Hortense said, "and maybe someday it will be. But it needs to be restored first."
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