Salt Lake City, Utah
At first glance, Thomas Battersby Child, Jr. was kind of a normal guy. He was a stonemason. He was a Mormon bishop. He died in 1963. And for the last 18 years of his life, he worked in his back yard on what he called Gilgal.
Gilgal is an Old Testament word that means "circle of stones." Tom did indeed build a circle of stones in his yard -- and then he built a lot more. He built a sacrificial altar. He built a stack of four giant granite books. He carved a sphinx that weighed 25 tons and gave it the face of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith. He erected a life-size statue of himself wearing brick pants.
Profound? Spiritual? Beats us.
Much of the mystery surrounding Gilgal has to do with an extreme lack of interest in it until fairly recently, which means that anyone who could explain it is now too dead to ask. We've seen enough odd back yards to know that they can seem mysterious even when they're not. The Lindbergh Crate Museum has a toilet paper cannon and a giant carrot in its back yard. Imagine what the academics will say about that 40 years from now.
Still, Gilgal certainly is eccentric. Only a few blocks from midtown Salt Lake City, it's tucked behind old homes and a Chuck-A-Rama buffet. Its a hodgepodge of biblical references, LDS doctrine, and inscribed rocks.
Gilgal provides plenty of odd visuals. Oversized human body parts are scattered down a mossy man-made hill. A towering barbed spike is topped by a wire-frame trumpeter. Near the sphinx is a man with a sword, carved into an upright slab, with his head replaced by a lumpy boulder. Mormon theology might help to explain some of this, sort of, but frankly most Mormons are as puzzled by Gilgal as everyone else.
Tom was fussy about the rocks that he chose for Gilgal, the largest of which weigh over 100,000 pounds. They were reportedly shipped into the city by boxcar and hoisted into the yard by a crane. This sheer bulk was seen as Gilgal's insurance policy after Tom died. After all, what future owner would ever want the expense of hauling away hundreds of tons of rock? But that's precisely what a Canadian company proposed to do when it announced its plan to clear the yard and build condos on the property.
The Salt Lake City arts community rallied to Gilgal's defense, outbid the Canadians, and preserved the half-acre enclave. At the time, many of its neighbors confessed that they hadn't even known that it existed.
Gilgal is now an official Utah state park, with its sculptures repaired and its grass neatly trimmed. It's still, however, a puzzle. When Tom was alive, he supposedly gave tours with a portable organ for musical background to the stories he'd tell about each statue. But Tom never wrote those stories down. Although he chiseled dozens of Gilgal's rocks with often lengthy passages from Sophocles and Rousseau and Brigham Young, none of them explain, for example, why he placed a big grasshopper on the ground next to a disembodied head. Or why he engraved a quote from the prophet Job and then embedded his stone-carving torch into the rock (Maybe he was inspired by the Scythe Tree?).
As for Gilgal itself, Tom left only a plaque dedicating it to a number of obscure acquaintances and to Queen Victoria, who had been dead for 50 years. It isn't much help.
Some latter-day interpreters of Gilgal say that Tom made it massive so that it would survive until the Second Coming. We saw no messages from Tom to that effect, but, then, there are a lot of rock slabs to read at Gilgal. And we might have been distracted by the body parts and the brick pants.