Secret SLC: The Sphinx of Salt Lake

Salt Lake is a city built on secrets. Its origin tale is wrapped up with the “Bible 2.0” Exodus of Brigham Young and his followers, the Latter-day Saints, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (officially) or the Mormons (colloquially and historically). The Mormons first arrived here in the Great Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, after a long and insanely dangerous trek from Nauvoo, Ill. Technically it was Mexican territory, but the Mexican-American War was about to get underway and much bigger dogs than Brigham and his rag-tag band of Mormons were squaring off for a fight. Brigham wanted his followers to be left alone to practice the LDS faith and, yep it gets weird, to establish a short-lived autonomous nation called the Kingdom of Deseret (which got as far as developing its own language and currency, BTW). It is, as we say around here, a heck of a story.

In the late 1800s, federal troops, sent here to put the kibosh on this whole Kingdom thing, discovered rich veins of copper and silver and paved the way for the age of the silver barons and more outside influence. The east-west railroad brought an influx of laborers who would add diversity to the mix, and Utah’s admission to the United States, in 1896, brought even more changes. Still, Utah remained apart with a dominant religion, which often dictated politics and individual conscience. The point is: this whole delicious frontier mix of history made an atmosphere perfect for the cultivation of mushroom-like secrets.

THE SPHYNX OF SALT LAKE CITY

  • What: A Collection of Esoteric Sculptures called Gilgal Garden
  • Where: 749 E. 500 South, SLC

It was a legend among Salt Lake teenagers in the ’70s and ’80s: a bizarre sculpture garden located in the middle of Salt Lake with a menagerie of odd Mormon-themed statues and rock art installations. What adventurous teen wouldn’t want to sneak into a strange yard filled with bizarre carvings featuring ominous Biblical verses set in the stones, and (why not?) a sphinx-like creature bearing the visage of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith? 

The works sprang from the mind of outsider artist Thomas Battersby Child Jr., a Mormon bishop, local businessman and stonemason. Child tinkered relentlessly in the backyard of his childhood home building his Gilgal (a word that means “circle of stones” in Hebrew and is a place name in the Book of Mormon). Child was self-taught; he made it all up as he went along, and his creations are excellent examples of outsider art. The sculptures are large and imposing, and a walk through the garden is a tour through Child’s eclectic fascinations with masonry and his musings on the relationship of Mormonism with the ancient world. The show pony is the Sphinx-Smith, but be sure to note Child’s self-portrait, a man constructed entirely of bricks. 

After Child’s death, the garden became an oddity—almost an urban legend—and, while the mystique of hopping the fence to see the place was a dare-worthy part of life for SLC teens, the artworks fell prey to the elements and vandalism. In the late 1990s, the property was put up for sale, and a coalition of private citizens, public entities and nonprofit groups worked to preserve the site. 

Gilgal Garden

ABOUT THE BOOK: Secret Salt Lake opens a window into the weird, the bizarre, and obscure secrets of Salt Lake, that are often hiding in plain sight. The guidebook, written by Salt Lake magazine editors Jeremy Pugh and Mary Brown Malouf is a collection of odd tales, urban myths, legends and historical strangeness here in the Beehive State. Get your copy from Reedy Press today and read more about the secrets and oddities of Utah.


Get the latest on arts and entertainment in and around Utah. And while you’re here, subscribe and get six issues of Salt Lake magazine, your guide to the best of life in Utah.

Jeremy Pugh and Mary Brown Malouf
Jeremy Pugh and Mary Brown Maloufhttp://www.saltlakemagazine.com
Jeremy Pugh and Mary Brown Malouf are the co-authors of Secret Salt Lake City: A guide to the weird, obscure and strange secrets of SLC. Availalble from Reedy Press and wherever books are sold. Jeremy is currently the editor of Salt Lake Magazine. Mary sadly passed away in 2020 but her work and words live on here at saltlakemagazine.com.

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