Walk Like A Reformed Egyptian
Tucked away, secluded in a residential neighborhood of Salt Lake City lies a small garden filled with unusual and symbolic sculptures. It is all too easy to miss from the street. It is just marked by a simple sign which reads “Gilgal.” Many long-time Salt Lake City residents are unaware of its existence. I remember hearing about it in college; my curiosity was piqued when I saw a picture of the notable sphinx with the head of Joseph Smith. I finally decided to take a trip and see what Gilgal Garden was all about.
On the cast iron gates at the entrance of the garden is the plain sign. It's look is consistent with the area. The entrance is somewhat removed from the sidewalk. At first glance, nothing immediately stands out as odd or peculiar. There are some wooden benches and flowers, but before you know it, you are in the middle of a true curiosity.
The quiet is the first thing that stood out to me. The garden is close enough to downtown, in the middle of a neighborhood, but even with other visitors there, the garden maintains minimal sound intrusion. The place seems to invite a certain reverence.
Gilgal Garden was created by Thomas Battersby Child, Jr., a masonry contractor who lived in Salt Lake City. He was also a bishop (for over 19 years!) But his spiritual devotion did not end with his church callings. He built Gilgal Garden as a tribute to deeply held beliefs, a symbolic structure set apart from the world. Construction began in 1947 when Child was 57 years old, and he continued to work on it until his death in 1963.
Child searched the state for stones that would suit his needs, often hiring trucks and the like to help him transport materials. He brought in over 62 tons of stone in the process of creating his garden. Upon his death, the garden fell into private ownership. The owner, Child's neighbor Henry P. Fetzer, considered using the space for condominiums after the upkeep and repair was taking a toll. Instead of this curious sanctuary disappearing, a group called Friends of Gilgal Garden purchased an option and ended up buying the property. The city, as well as the LDS Church, contributed funds in order to purchase and protect the property. It is now a public park, open year-round.
I won't explain every sculpture in the garden, even if I took enough pictures on my phone to do so. I think the uninitiated should go in with as little information as possible in order to enhance their own experience. But as the Joseph Smith Sphinx is the more well-known oddity of the park, I'll reference the information from the official site in order to give an example of how to approach and think about the sculptures.
Of the sphinx, Child wrote it is “the basis of thought or inspiration for all that is built around it.” The sphinx is puzzling, for sphinxes The face is usually reserved for a God or a pharaoh, roles Joseph Smith never had. And to complicate things, below the carving of Smith's face is an etching of the Salt Lake City Temple with a constellation of stars depicted on its side. It's an outstanding sculpture from a technical standpoint, especially the face, which was made with an oxyacetylene torch. The symbolic significance of the sphinx is explained on the garden's site:
The Sphinx represents Child’s belief that the answers to life’s great questions cannot be discovered with the intellect, but only through faith. The sphinx is an ancient symbol of riddles and mystery. Joseph Smith’s face symbolizes Child’s conviction that the LDS Priesthood reveals to mankind the answers to life’s mysteries.
It is definitely worth the trip and if you view each sculpture with that interpretation as a framework, you get a sense of what Child was trying to accomplish. If you're in Salt Lake City, pick a time and go. Maybe an early morning stroll will be your fancy. Or perhaps a pre-dusk walk will be suitable for some contemplation and admiration. Regardless, former mayor Rocky Anderson was spot on when he called Gilgal “an absolute jewel.”
The website has detailed information concerning each piece of art in the park, including audio and visual information.