October 28, 2019
Gilgal Sculpture Garden is a garden nestled in a quiet, downtown neighborhood. A local treasure, this garden is unique to Salt Lake City. Unlike a traditional garden, this one is home to many eccentric sculptures. Most, if not all, of the sculptures have been inspired by stories and scriptures from the Book of Mormon and the Bible.
Located on 749 East and 500 South, this garden is an escape in the heart of bustling downtown. Since it is hidden behind the surrounding neighborhoods and businesses, most Salt Lake residents aren’t aware of the unique garden. It doesn’t draw any particular attention to itself — its only noteworthy feature is the small sign that reads ‘Gilgal’. Gilgal is a biblical word, referring to a ‘sacred, stone circle’. It was unquestionably a reference to various sites mentioned throughout the Old Testament in the Bible. Gilgal seems considerably fitting as the park is in essence one giant circle of stone sculptures.
The expressive statues are often abstract, some of them even considered “creepy or fanatical.” One of the more famous sculptures is a 52-ton stone carving of Joseph Smith’s head on a Sphinx’s body. These sculptures stir varying feelings in park attendants. One thing is for sure — the statues are quite impressive.
Some lesser-known statues include a modern wire-frame figure of Moroni, similar to the one that sits atop the Salt Lake City temple. A rock archway — consisting of a large center boulder seemingly held in place by other rocks — is meant to represent the keys to the LDS priesthood.
However, not all of the sculptures are religious. There’s a shrine to the creator’s wife, another to the creator himself as well as a waterfall that’s meant to celebrate Utah’s natural beauty. Regardless of whether or not you practice the LDS faith, you can’t help but admire the passion behind the park. Along with this, there is the unexpected tranquility of the area. Flowerbeds line polished rock pathways. The stone sculptures scattered around the area have held their condition, even through years of weathering. The various carved, LDS scriptures and statues are sculpted with incredible detail.
Such an impressive and well-hidden park illicits the question, where did this garden come from?
From 1945-1963, Thomas Battersby Child Jr. created sculptures in his own backyard based on his enlightening time as a bishop. Child was a devout member of the LDS church, as well as a retired stonemason. He brought in the help of his son-in-law, Bryant Higgs, and a sculptor named Maurice Edmund Brooks for a new project he had envisioned. In the coming years, they would etch out roughly 12 stone sculptures and over 70 scriptures and writings carved into rocks around the park. He worked on his personal backyard sculptures for years, up to his death in 1963.
The people who knew of the garden’s existence dubbed it, “secret garden” and “stoner park.” The site became a teenage hangout rather quickly. The glory of the hidden gem diminished when the park started to be vandalized — many of the sculptures and carvings were graffitied, crushed or broken. It wasn’t until the 1990’s when the family, who owned the property, decided to give it up. They sold it to a group that formed solely with the intention to preserve the property called, “Friends of the Gilgal Garden.” This was a coalition of admirers who wanted to save the gardens and sculptures from becoming condominiums.
This same organization has turned it into a public park, working to restore the massive garden to its former glory. Walking through the site, I could see the cracks and various stains on the statues from the years of neglect. It was an oddly secular touch. The sculptures were nonetheless impressive. It reminded me of the power physical art holds. Elements like stone are considerably harder to destroy, and in the same thread, their message is that much harder to lose. The park now is immaculate, with the flowers and gardens surrounding the stone structures.
Next time you find yourself downtown, visit the garden if you need to relax. Gilgal Gardens is an eccentric, beautiful hidden gem right here in downtown Salt Lake.