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Folk art garden celebrates five years of survival

For decades, it was a place to sneak into at night - a place to tell tall tales, for an adventure, a fright or romance amid the strange sculptures emerging from the shadows and beneath overgrown ivy. It was Salt Lake's secret garden.
/ Source: The Associated Press

For decades, it was a place to sneak into at night - a place to tell tall tales, for an adventure, a fright or romance amid the strange sculptures emerging from the shadows and beneath overgrown ivy. It was Salt Lake's secret garden.

Now, five years after a group of artists and citizens banded together to save Gilgal Garden from destruction, it's a bright, welcoming sculpture garden, a monument to its passionate creator and a much beloved little corner of quirkiness in the city.

Gilgal was the hobby of the late Thomas B. Child, a stonemason and devout Mormon. From 1945 to 1963, Child sculpted and arranged dozens of stones, many weighing several tons, into a sculpture garden celebrating his religious faith and respect for the masonry profession.

Child took the name from the biblical story of Jacob, who asked the Israelites to create a circle of stones after they crossed the Jordan River and christened the site Gilgal.

"There's something about that garden that just hooks you. It just absolutely fascinates me," said Cathy King, a member of Friends of Gilgal.

Friends of Gilgal was formed in 1999 when a Canadian company was arranging to purchase the mid-block site, raze the garden and build condominium units. The Smithsonian Institution's Save Outdoor Sculpture program was among groups that donated money to save the garden, said Susan Kenney, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian's American Art Museum.

Friends of Gilgal raised $685,000 to purchase the half-acre of land, which sits behind the home in which Child, his wife Bertha and their three children lived until his death in 1975.

The yard served as the storage area for his masonry business before he started sculpting the monuments.

"The way he wrote it in his memoirs he wanted to leave something for his family so they would be able to see and touch and feel the things that were important to him in his life," said Child's nephew, Frank Child, who apprenticed with his uncle.

Frank, 70, helped his uncle complete one of the sculptures in the garden by constructing the brick pants that would become a more than life-size, sculpted self-portrait of Child. His likeness stands in a stone alcove surrounded by the tools of the stoneworking trade as a monument to his profession.

Below the monument to the stoneworking trades is part of a Thomas Carlyle poem etched in stone - one of many phrases carved into flat stones throughout the garden:

"Two men I honor, and no third. First the toilworn craftsman. ... A second I honor and still more highly; him who is toiling for the spiritual ..."

The most well-known of the garden's pieces is a sphinx with the face of Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Hortense Child Smith, 86, who was married to Thomas Child's son, Bob, says she probably knows more about the garden than anyone alive.

"He wrote in longhand all of his thoughts and thinking and plans, and I typed every word of that," Smith said. He also willed her his more than 1,200-volume library featuring the works of Carlyle, Longfellow and Shakespeare, but it's the riddle of the sphinx she's asked about most often.

"The sphinx stands for the unanswerable questions in life. Who we are and why are we here?" Smith said. The image of the Mormon church founder is there because Child felt "that Joseph Smith the Seer has come and brought the answers to the unanswerable questions," she said.

The majority of the garden's sculptures have biblical themes and many of the stones on the ground are carved with Mormon hymns and Scripture. Child served as a Mormon bishop for 19 years.

"There were some in the church who felt that putting Joseph Smith's face on the sphinx was a little controversial," Frank Child said.

"Yeah, there were people who shook their heads and thought he was a crazy old fool," Smith said.

Located just off a busy retail corridor in Salt Lake City, the garden's hidden location and strange subject matter increased its popularity as a place for young people to sneak into and explore.

When the home was sold after Child's death, the new owners allowed access to the garden through their yard for only a few hours each Sunday. Far more people remember exploring the garden by hopping the fence behind a buffet restaurant to the north.

"It was always kind of an interesting a place at night. To hop the fence and be in that quirky place, it was a nice place for a date," said Frank Child.

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