Gilgal Garden

Tucked behind the Wonder Bread Bakery on Fourth South in Salt Lake City is a twenty-five-ton stone sphinx bearing the face of Joseph Smith, the first president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). It is one of the most significant public stone sculptures of its size in the United States.  The sphinx sits at the base of a circular hillock on which several themes are played out. One contains two human hearts carved of stone – one purple, one white. Another contains a stone cricket, a well, and the stone head of a man. The back of the hillock is littered with the stone body parts of what appears to be a giant whose square face looks like a caricatured Polynesian man, whose brow and thick lips are turned into a frown.

Nearby, a muscular, Yul Brynner-like body is etched into a huge boulder which is tipped on its short end. The form holds a long sword. An uncarved rock plunked on top appears to represent a head. Nearby, a giant flagstone stage presents a stocky figure of a man dressed in a stone jacket. His trousers are carved brick.

This is Gilgal Garden, where for decades locals crept onto the grounds at night, got high, and struck postures among the statuary. One trickster, now in his sixties, remembered, “We’d laugh hysterically, the dog would bark, the lights would flip on, and we’d zip off into the acid night.”

Wild tales circulated about the garden, including that the builder was a polygamist or that he was a mad Mormon bishop who wandered about the streets muttering to himself. Some say he was excommunicated from the Mormon Church for creating this zealous display. Visitors to the garden didn’t seem to know quite what the place was but there was an undeniable sense of titillation in maintaining Gilgal as an enigma.

In the 1990s it looked as if Gilgal was going to suffer development. Artist David Sucec stood up in protest of the development and ultimately gathered some like-minds to form Friends of Gilgal Garden (FOGG).  After years of effort and negotiation, FOGG was able to gather funding from Salt Lake County, the LDS Church, the George S. and Dolores Dore Eccles Foundation, and several private citizens.  They purchased the site in 2000.  FOGG now curates the garden and employs craftspeople to repair elements of the sculptures based on professional conservator’s recommendations.  The Salt Lake County Master Gardener Association  donates thousands of hours clearing and replanting the garden.  Last month the garden celebrated ten years as a Salt Lake City park, so it seemed an appropriate time to recall the monument’s evolution.  With the bat guano gone, the paths reclaimed, the scriptures explained, and the sculptures revealed — it’s not as mysterious as it once was, but it would have been a pity to lose this singular display of passion in stone.

Thomas B. Child (1888-1963), creator of Gilgal, was a complex man. He was, indeed, a Mormon bishop for 19 years. He was a retired masonry contractor who wanted to create a garden where people would ponder “the unsolved mysteries of life.” To one degree or another, he succeeded.

Between the time Child died in 1963 and 2000 when FOGG acquired it, Gilgal’s protector was Grant Fetzer. I spoke with Fetzer more than 20 years ago when he lived adjacent to the garden in the Craftsman-style bungalow which was built for Child in 1920. Fetzer – who then decorated his living room with drawings of Mormon history, framed prints of Disney characters, and his wife’s doll collection — grew up on the block, in the garden, and under the supervision of Child. He respected him as he respected his own father, and spent his youthful summers helping to haul rocks to the yard which were subsequently sculpted into these curious figures. By the time I spoke with him, he had been trying to maintain and explain for 30 years what had become an unfunded, fenced-in, overgrown, attractive nuisance.

According to Fetzer, the first piece Child built in the garden was a twelve-foot high flagstone structure with a large white stone cross inset. Fetzer spoke in a mixture of personal ideals, metaphors, and phrases from Child’s inscribed quotations. “The cross here is symbolic of the sacrifice of the Savior. I think it’s interesting.” He pointed to a stone that looked like it had been hit with a hammer. “Child used to enjoy that. Of course, the Savior was nailed on the cross.”

The crucifix evidently created a controversy for Child. Fetzer said, “I guess people didn’t know what to think just because it’s used by the Catholic Church. There is nothing wrong with it. It’s a symbol of death and life, but it’s like anything – one way you look at it as a death and an ending, and another looks at it as rebirth and new life.”

Walking to an alcove, Fetzer continued, “This part right here was just to show the love he had for his wife, Bertha Rumen Child. He placed it [the bust, not the love] in here.” Fetzer allowed as how he had been dealing with vandals who wrote with markers all over the face, and snubbed out cigarettes out in the eyes.

Child was an enthusiastic reader all his life. He never graduated from high school so, to compensate, he spent his time reading the complete works of Shaw, Hawthorne, and Emerson. He also read the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Bible, and Mormon doctrine. He took notes on everything he read, then filled journals with quotations by the authors, embellished with quotations of his own.

His daughter-in-law, Hortense Child Smith, who considered herself a kindred spirit of Child, happily typed these volumes for him. I spoke with Smith around the same time in her Mormoniana-packed home in the foothills of Salt Lake City. She had since re-married the great-great-grandson of Hyrum Smith (Joseph Smith’s brother) and displayed a large bust of Hyrum in her living room. She also had a bust of Christ and a small statue of “Joseph Smith with the Father and the Son.”

She explained that when Child began Gilgal in the early 1940s he was in mid-life, retired from brick masonry and from his contracting business, and retired from 19 years as a Mormon bishop. Plagued by his lack of formal education, Child began reading voraciously and casting about for a means of self-expression. Gilgal became his testimony in stone to the Mormon Church.

“The apparent overriding theme he wanted to express was the scriptures through stone,” she said. “Because he was a leader in the Mormon Church and spent his life in its service, people immediately think this garden is only for Mormons. There is a lot of Mormon doctrine in there, but he was not just a student of Mormon theology. The great philosophers – Henry James, Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, and the great of the poets were all very familiar to him. He defended his right to express himself and did so, but not without great opposition. When he was building it many thought that he was crazy to do it. In fact they told him so.”

Smith pulled out some of Child’s writing:

“Gilgal! The name intrigues me! I’m using it some way to name my hobby – that is when I get through dreaming about how best to use it and where to place it. Gilgal means a stone circle or a circle of sacred stones.”

In another journal Child wrote:

“I am locating a Gilgal in our modern Promised Land; wherein the last days the mountain of the house of the Lord is established in the top of the mountains, and it is exalted above the hills; and people are flowing unto it.”

This was written during the second half of the Twentieth Century.  Did he really talk like that?

From the 1940s through the early 1960s Child spent most of his time conceiving and building monuments. He wandered around the hills of Northern Utah, the south end of the Salt Lake Valley, and southern Utah looking at stone. If necessary, he bulldozed a road to reach a boulder. He brought gigantic rocks, weighing up to 62 tons, to his yard. He rented winches, tractors, and massive cranes from Geneva Steel to get rocks into place. One boulder was so massive it rolled the truck and broke the buckle off the back of the tractor. He attracted volunteers to assist him, then paid them in food – mostly Snelgrove’s ice cream, a home grown brand which was bought out by Dreyer’s. One by one his sculptures to liberty, nature, peace, Mormonism, and the Bible took place in his yard.

Child hired Maurice Brooks, a gravelly-voiced, cigarette-smoking sculptor, to assist him. In fact it was he who carved the portrait of Bertha.  (Evidently, Bertha was more attractive than this bust would indicate.)  Together with Child and his son-in-law, Bryant Higgs, they developed a way to cut stone called the oxyacetylene method. It was a tedious, sweaty business. The dismembered giant, which evidently represents Daniel II in the Bible, took four years to execute.

According to Sucec of FOGG, “The sphinx was postmodern, long before the term was coined.  The collaboration between Brooks and Childs was/is also remarkable.  Without Brook’s facile sculpting, Child’s ideas would be interesting in a quaint sort of way but not so much aesthetically.  Without Child’s attitude and fearlessness, the sculptures (the sphinx especially) would be more illustrative and narrower in references and experiences.”

Eventually Child hired a full-time gardener and carved rocks into planters to set on the brick walls. Pansies and impatiens spilled over the planters and down the garden walls. Meandering walkways were formed, most of which consisted of flagstones with hymns and scriptures carved into them. He provided a circular driveway so people could motor through the garden. Hollyhocks, foxgloves, and morning glories bloomed on the hill and trimmed vines grew around the bases of the statuary. Trees were often chosen for their symbology – a weeping willow for sorrow, an almond tree for the one in Ecclesiastes. Every addition to the garden had an intensely deep meaning which is explained further on the website:

Fetzer remembers, “We used to take tours through there. We’d lug a pump organ out, Bishop Child would talk a little bit, and they’d sing. His daughter sang with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, so they either sang as a quartet or they’d invite the crowd to sing along. It was not a short tour because, after all, it was his life.”

During those days, the Gilgal guest book flowered with comments of inspiration and beauty. The neighborhood children loved the place. Child’s wife, Bertha, was a good hostess but, according to Fetzer, objected to the expense of this ‘hobby’ which burned through tens of thousands of dollars. Child wrote:

“The observer will note that this in an immense and rather expensive hobby. Although I have an insatiable urge and desire to complete it as soon as possible, it will probably take the remainder of my life to finish; and in case I should not live to see its completion, it is my hope that my posterity will bring it to a proper conclusion.”

It did take the remainder of his life. When he died in l963 he was working on a seven-foot diameter world globe in which they planned to etch the continents, then hoist onto the larger-than-life stone stack of religious books. The project sat exactly where it was when he died. The funeral cortege drove through the garden. Child had arranged for his son to scramble down into his grave and level his casket so he could lie as he lived – level and square.

That same year his favorite tree in the garden, the almond, died. Bertha died three years later, and their son died five years after that. The Fetzer family, who had grown up with the Childs and with Gilgal, purchased the property along with all the surrounding houses. Their only neighbor was Wonder Bread.

Fetzer had a great affection for Gilgal. He didn’t feel compelled to add anything. “It was his yard, not mine. I just live in his home and share it with people.” Fetzer placed brightly-painted lawn furniture in one corner of the garden where they held family picnics. They played croquet amongst the monuments as well as kick-the-can, which was a popular children’s game at the time, but which had by now become a popular euphemism for avoiding and prolonging an issue until someone else has to take care of it.

Gilgal proved too expensive for Fetzer to maintain as Child had. Snelgroves closed, so there went the cheap labor. The flowers died off and the vines clambered over much of the writings, making the place more cryptic than ever. The site became increasingly bothersome as the good-natured Fetzer tried to control the traffic through there. They found evidence that people had sacrificed pigeons in the garden. He came upon couples having sex in the garden, and encountered countless youngsters stoned out of their minds. He said, “We tried to seal it off at one time by locking all the gates. We’d have them climbing over the fences wearing their formals. I’m amazed at the intrigue. I don’t know what it is.”

Gilgal was a gift not quite accepted by the Mormon Church. Though it ultimately contributed to FOGG, in the 1980s there was nothing in their church library about Gilgal or about Child. Church spokesperson at the time of these interviews, Jerry Cahill, said he had never heard of it but would like to visit it sometime. The Museum of Church History and Art curator at the time, Richard Oman, had been there and considered Gilgal an exciting, spontaneous outburst of honesty and personal vision. He saw it as a fine example of folk art not unlike the tapa cloth from Tonga depicting Temple Square, or the Peruvian gourd carved with pictorial panels from the Book of Mormon which their museum displayed. Oman added that floats in parades are expressions of folk art – and that’s an expression with which Utahns are fondly familiar.

When I asked Smith what her church thought about Gilgal she said, “I don’t think they thought about it. I don’t think it was ever considered in any of the councils of the church. Ever.” She said that, “One of the apostles of the LDS Church came to Thomas and Bertha’s fiftieth wedding party and Bishop Child tried to get him to go out and look at Gilgal, but he wouldn’t. That disappointed Child. She continued, “I don’t think it was a snub. I just think that they didn’t understand and they have other pressing matters. I’m guessing, but that’s my feeling about it.”

What did her husband, great-great-grandson of Hyrum Smith, think of Gilgal? “He loves it, you bet,” she said. “He’s been down there with me when I was giving tours and he loves it too. But it’s such a very different statement of the gospel . . .”

She flipped through another of Child’s written volumes:

“I realize that this hobby will never by very popular. It is for only those few who desire to ponder their religion and have an urge to express it. To get the significance of it you must understand the gospel . . . appreciate and love nature and get the point of view of the working man, especially one who works in brick and stone. I have been told that it is a waste of time and money, that I am a crack pot, a nut. But I have also been encouraged by the very few who feel that it is original thinking in art.”

Perhaps the overwhelming symbolism in the garden made the brethren just a little queasy. The sphinx, the hands, the heart, the tools – symbols familiar to Freemasonry and to scholars of early Mormon history – are little-used publically by Mormon Church members, who prefer more private symbology and ritual. Child’s extensive reading about Freemasonry undoubtedly influenced his designs, though he was not himself a Mason. The massive effusiveness of it all, along with the arcane symbolism, and use of the huge cross may have been just a little too much for his church to accept.


Now, nearly fifty years after Child’s death, Gilgal is recognized as a ‘visionary art environment.’ No more choirs with pump organs, funeral corteges, ritualistic sacrificing, howling at the moon, or wandering around the ruins under the wafting spell of Wonder Bread baking. The wackies, counterculture types, and artists who sneaked into the garden at night oozing with irony when Gilgal was at its most seedy were likely not the target audience Child dreamed about. Probably the cute twenty-something couples and vans full of wheelchair-bound citizens who come there now, are.

“Can I create a sanctuary or atmosphere in my yard that will shut out fear and keep one’s mind young and alert to the last, no matter how perilous the times?”

Gilgal has probably accomplished that – and the opposite of that — during its decades of near-completion, dilapidation, and renovation. Perhaps one bemused visitor who was wandering around Gilgal wearing a floppy overcoat and pink spiky hair understood it best: “This is obviously a person with strong beliefs. Who am I to call him crazy?”


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One Response to “Gilgal Garden”

  1. TJ October 26, 2012 6:15 pm

    I was one of those wacky counter culture types visiting the stone garden at night hopping the fence in the early 90’s. I had nothing but respect for what Childs created and enjoyed reading his writings and was amazed by the sculptures. The one thing I remember most was his writing about his wife, how he loved her dearly and thought one of her best qualities was how she entertained guests. This is one of the qualities I looked for in my wife that I have been married to for 18 years.

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