Thomas B. Child Jr.

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Thomas Child Jr.

Thomas B. Child Jr. was the creator of Gilgal Garden, a “visionary art environment” in Salt Lake City, Utah. According to his daughter-in-law, Hortense Child Smith, the garden should be remembered for what Child intended it to be: his love and devotion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Thomas Battersby Child Jr. was born in 1888. He had a successful career as a masonry contractor, and at the age of 57, he began creating a garden that consumed much of his spare time and money. In the 1950s, he worked on the garden full time.

Hortense Child Smith worked as his secretary and wrote down his thoughts, memories, and history.

"He was probably the foremost masonry contractor in the Mountain West," she said, adding that Child's stone work is on This Is the Place Monument and Latter-day Saint temples in Los Angeles and Idaho Falls. Thomas learned the masonry trade from his father, who co-owned the masonry contracting business Thos. B. Child and Son together. "During his time, he probably had brick work in every Salt Lake City block.”[1]

According to the Gilgal Garden website, Child “went to incredible lengths to obtain huge stones weighing up to 62 tons for his sculptures. He had great respect for the natural beauty of his materials. He traveled the state, scouring mountainsides and streambeds for ‘a boulder in which I could put over the idea and tell the story and still have it a stone.’ Child often hired large trucks and heavy equipment to extract the stones and bring them to his yard.”[2]

All the finish work was done on the site of the garden, where he had a complete workshop. “One of the most important artistic innovations in Gilgal Garden was Child’s use of an oxyacetylene torch, like those used to cut steel, for cutting stone. The heat of the torch removed the waste rock and fused the surface of the remaining stone, giving it a polished sheen. Child’s son-in-law and assistant, Bryant Higgs, was a skilled welder and pioneered this sculpting method. Higgs taught well-known Utah sculptor Maurice Brooks to sculpt with the torch. Following Child’s careful instructions, Brooks carved features on several of Child’s works, including The Sphinx, The Monument to the Trade, Daniel II, Malachi, and The Last Chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes.”[3]

Child interpreted everything in the garden, down to the minute details, which is why there is such a deep meaning behind the sculptures and rocks. For more than 19 years, Child served as bishop for the Latter-day Saint 10th Ward, which is adjacent to the garden. Hortense described him as a "serious student of the gospel" and a "seeker of truth.”[4]

Although some members of the Church thought he was going too far with his religious devotion and "a lot of people thought he was crazy," including most of his brothers, Child made sure he got the message out about the interpretation behind his garden. The garden was open to the public, and people from all over the world would visit the garden and sign his guest book. The Child family hosted dinners in the garden for family and friends, and Child would give tours.

"Even with all the time I spent with him, I did not realize the deep artistic feelings he had," Hortense said, holding letters, pictures and quotes from Child in her lap. "Artists have taught me how deeply artistic the garden is."

The last piece Child created was a purple stone meant to be sculpted like a globe. But Child became sick and died shortly after, so only faint outlines of the world's continents are visible on the rock. Child died in 1963. His neighbor Grant Fetzer bought the property and the Fetzer family maintained the garden for 35 years, opening it briefly on Sundays for tours. A non-profit group, Friends of Gilgal Garden, was formed in 1998 with Hortense Child Smith leading the effort to raise money and purchase the garden, which they did in 2000. Gilgal Park is a city park open to the public. Restoration of Child’s sculptures continue.