Liberty Park is the oldest public park in Salt Lake City and, at 80 acres, it is the city’s second largest public park. Designed by Joseph Don Carlos Young, it is located between Ninth and Thirteenth South and Fifth and Seventh East near the center of Salt Lake City. Opened to the public in 1882, the park reflects the reform movements of the second half of the nineteenth century, when parks were viewed a civilizing force in the nation’s industrializing cities where, it was believed, they would improve the moral character of the residents, particularly immigrants. Like many American cities, Salt Lake City sought to create its own version of New York City’s Central Park.
Young, born in 1855, was the son of Mormon leader and Salt Lake City founder Brigham Young, who preached the value of design for practical use along with hygienic environmental planning. With his father’s encouragement, Joseph Young enrolled in architecture school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and while there, he made several excursions to New York to visit Central and Prospect parks, becoming enamored of Olmsted and Vaux's picturesque style. Upon graduation in 1879, he returned to Salt Lake City where he worked as an irrigation engineer and a dairy farm manager (near the property that would become Liberty Park), before becoming the Salt Lake’s first formally trained architect.
On March 20, 1880, the Salt Lake City Committee on Public Grounds authorized a design competition for a new park to be located on a 110-acre parcel that had been deeded to pioneer Isaac Chase in the original 1847 survey of the Salt Lake Valley. In 1852, Chase built Utah’s first grist and flour mill on the property (it is still extant), taking advantage of the fresh water spring that ran through the site. Around the mill, he planted locust trees from seeds, and eventually the land became known as Locust Patch. In 1860, Chase entered into a land swap, transferring the property to Brigham Young, who planted a sufficient number of mulberry, cottonwood, and other trees that the land became known as Forest Park. In 1881, four years after Young’s death, his estate sold the site to Salt Lake City for $27,500.
Joseph Don Carlos Young won the park design competition, receiving $100 for his scheme, which combined a formal plan with picturesque features. Designed as a space of passive recreation for urban dwellers, the park originally featured groves of trees, grassy meadows, and a small lake fed by Red Butte Creek. A large, tree-lined oval loop and a central axis road (running north to south on the line of Sixth East Street) provided circulation for horse-drawn carriages. Pedestrians could stroll curving landscaped walkways surrounded by informal plantings, and relax or play games on ample lawns. The fresh water spring fed a wooded oasis while a sulfur spring fed a bubbling fountain.
The park’s dedication was originally scheduled for July 4, 1881 but it was postponed for nearly a year because of the assassination of President Garfield. The celebration finally took place on June 17, 1882, the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. At the dedication ceremony, officials reminded those in attendance that the park’s natural beauty “was as useful as the useful—perhaps more so.” Salt Lakers enjoyed this site of recreation so thoroughly they considered the park very nearly a right; in 1889 when the City Council attempted to commercialize the park by transferring operations to a private corporation, skeptical citizens thwarted the move to preserve public access.
Eventually, the City determined that the park was large enough to accommodate a variety of semi-compatible uses and several structures were built in the following decades: a greenhouse (1903), bandstand (1911), and shelter (1949); tennis courts (1915); large entrance piers at Sixth East and Ninth South (1920); and a swimming pool (1949). Other additions included playgrounds (1912), a zoo (1914–1931), an aviary (1938), and paddleboat operations (1950s). Since the 1970s, the City and a neighborhood association have collaborated on a master plan to remove the most incompatible uses and to restore some elements of the original park design. Nonetheless, new additions have proliferated, including a police radio transmission station, new playgrounds (1978), a carousel (1984), volleyball courts, basketball courts, and a carnival. In 1980, when the City prepared the park’s nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, it noted the intact state of the original vehicular circulation, including the oval loop road and central axis road.
The park is heavily used as a site of active and passive recreation, and numerous annual events take place on its grounds, including Pioneer Days, holiday celebrations, an intertribal Native American powwow, and the city’s Fourth of July fireworks displays. In June 2010, the rupture of a Chevron Oil pipeline sent 33,000 gallons of crude oil into Red Butte Creek and on to Liberty Park Pond, forcing the closure of the park for a full year. Though Chevron paid Salt Lake City $2.3 million to restore the pond (part of a total $4.5 million 2011 payout to the city), this amount fell far short of the estimated $46 million in damages.
Haglund, Karl T., “Liberty Park,” Salt Lake County, Utah. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1980. U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Washington, D.C.
Mayorga, Carlos. “Powwow Honors Indian Culture.” The Salt Lake Tribune, July 18, 2008.
Stettler, Jeremiah. “Salt Lake City, State, Chevron Reach Oil Spill Settlement.” The Salt Lake Tribune, September 8, 2011.
Utah Division of State History and Utah Department of Heritage and Arts. “Liberty Park.” Markers and Monuments Database. Accessed June 18, 2015. www.heritage.utah.gov.
Walker, Ronald W. “Brigham Young on the Social Order.” Brigham Young University Studies 28, no. 3 (1988): 37–52.
Westwood, P. Bradford. “The Early Life and Career of Joseph Don Carlos Young (1855–1938): A Study of Utah’s First Institutionally Trained Architect to 1884.” Master’s thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 1994.