The Artful Dam

By Lynne Olson

The Draw at Sugar House is heavily engineered to halt the progress of a major flood. It also tells a story of Utah’s past, and offers pleasure for those who visit it.

This is an important project, and one I hope will point the way toward the future—environmental sculpture that coincides with civic infrastructure. This would be the first flood control system in America that has not only been designed as a work of art, but also accommodates many layers of functionality, from safe highway crossings to trails, wildlife corridors, educational programs and tourist magnet. (Patricia Johanson, 2014, in an email to Mary Kay Lazarus)

The epic history of the American migration west has inspired generations of scholars and novelists. Utah created an official state holiday to honor the courage and tenacity of the thousands of people who were driven or drawn to find a sanctuary in the valley of the Great Salt Lake.

The Mormon pioneers recorded their experiences in countless journal entries, which include descriptions of the difficulties they encountered during their first year in “Deseret.” They arrived in July 1847, too late to plant much more than subsistence crops. When most of those failed due to pests and drought, the pioneers took advice from Native Americans who introduced them to foods indigenous to the region. The following spring, settlers foraged for edible greens and wild berries, and they learned to use the flowers, seeds and roots of something they had never seen before, the native sego lily.

The saga of how the sego lily saved the lives of Mormon pioneers became so ubiquitous that in 1911 the plant was designated as Utah’s state flower.

This summer, a monument to the native Calochortus nuttallii will be dedicated in Sugar House Park. A giant sego lily is the signature feature of The Draw at Sugar House, designed by Patricia Johanson, world renowned as a pioneer in ecological art. Each structural and aesthetic element of The Draw recounts a place or event in the journey of 19th-century immigrants through the canyons of the Wasatch Mountains into the Salt Lake basin.


I never design until I have discovered the meaning of the place. Each place has a unique set of conditions, and we need an intimate understanding of what it has been, is now, and will become in the future, in order to create a design that is more than a willful act. (Patricia Johanson, Art and Survival: Patricia Johnson’s Environmental projects, by Caffyn Kelley: Islands Institute, 2005)

Seen from the ground, the paved trail and tunnel under 1300 East by Sugar House Park. appear to be attractive, albeit unusual pedestrian features for an urban business district. The green pavement; rugged red-sandstone walls; wide and well-lit tunnel; and natural landscaping invite bicyclists and joggers to pause for a moment and wonder what they are seeing. However, from the heights of nearby buildings or from an aerial perspective, The Draw resolves into a series of miniaturized landmarks that invites those who are familiar with the story to recreate the pioneer trek in their minds.


The artistic elements, historical narrative, educational programs, wildlife habitat and public amenities in “The Draw” are all overlaid on functional structure—Parley’s Trail, the pedestrian tunnel, retaining walls and flood control. (Patricia Johanson, 2013)

Planning for Parley’s Trail began in 1992, when Salt Lake City adopted an open space plan that described an off-road bicycle-pedestrian corridor connecting the mouth of Parley’s Canyon to the Jordan River Parkway. Salt Lake County’s Master Plan for the trail recommended a below-grade trail crossing at 1300 East, where a Utah Central Railway spur once crossed the road.

In 1998, students from Beacon Heights Elementary’s KOPE Club decided to tackle the problem of how to cross the dangerous highway that intersects Parley’s Trail between Sugar House Park and Hidden Hollow Nature Preserve. KOPE, Kids Organized to Protect the Environment, was a problem-solving club for mainly middle schoolers that took on specific environmental challenges and saved Hidden Hollow (see CATALYST, June 2018).

The following year, KOPE sought input from resource specialists including community leaders, transportation engineers, flood control planners, and police and other public safety officials. They recruited students from Dr. Peter Martin’s Community Transportation class at the University of Utah, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Their study supported the children’s conclusion that a tunnel was the best approach for a safe street crossing. (See “Sugar House Draw,” CATALYST, April 2004, and “The Draw at Sugar House,” CATALYST, May 2006.)

In 2003, Salt Lake City invited competitors to submit proposals for a Sugar House Pedestrian Crossing. The winning design by local landscape architect Steven Gilbert (now principal of ArcSitio Design) and famed environmental artist Patricia Johanson was chosen for its careful attention to the cultural and ecological history of the place, and its potential to enhance the transportation corridor. The pedestrian passageway was to be inviting and open to the sky for most of its length, with massive sculptures at each end. A draw, in the world of geography, is a low area, sloping down in one direction only and sloping upward in three others.

The gigantic “Sego Lily” with its stem and slender leaf emerges from a grassy bowl, a microcosm of the Sugar House Park basin. Sugar House Park surrounds a detention pond for Parley’s Creek and 1300 East functions as a dam. 1300 East at this point south is actually listed on the State Registry of Dams. Gilbert says he worried that the state dam engineer would object to a tunnel that would breach the barrier. Instead, the dam engineer welcomed construction of a spillway that would direct excess floodwater safely away from the park and back into Parley’s Creek on the west side of the road.

A flood control lift gate, located where the Lily Bulb now overlooks Parley’s Creek as it disappears under the road, is frequently overwhelmed during flood events, so another spillway was required to relieve pressure on the dam in the event of a 100-year flood.

The Sego Lily at the Draw was designed so the “petals” function as the dam’s armature. The east petal crests a reinforced berm that will resist scouring if floodwater overtops the embankment. It is lined with seven veins (a reference to the seven creeks that flow into the Great Salt Lake Valley) around irrigated rows for growing typical pioneer food crops. The beds will double as drainage channels, if needed, to direct floodwater down to the bottom of the Lily.

The north petal is a heavily engineered wall with a curve to add extra strength. It will catch and turn powerful waves of water so they won’t erode the soil under the road. The Lily’s green stem and leaf complete the sculptural flower and are part of the trail that leads to the pedestrian tunnel. They also work as conduits for any water that overflows the Park pond and road.

The third petal of the Lily is a maze of planter boxes and benches, colored like the rest of the sculptural features to match the towering red sandstone “hoodoos” on the west side of the crossing. It provides seating and a pathway from 1300 East . down to the tunnel’s entrance at the base of the Lily.

The west end of the tunnel is guarded by the four giant “Witches,” representing the famous landmarks of the Hasting-Mormon Trail. A 1916 U.S. Geological Survey described them: “The name ‘Witches’ is suggested by the form of the cap rock of one of the monuments, which is shaped something like the fabled witch’s hat.”

Between these two enormous images, the underpass and trail to Hidden Hollow recall parts of Echo Canyon, with an exposed coal seam and rock strata distorted by a slip fault. The “living wall” west of the Witches is stepped and battered, pocked with niches for nesting birds and festooned with trailing plants.


If the heart of this project is infrastructure—highway improvements, flood control and stormwater purification—its soul is the living landscape: —the sounds of chirping insects and birds, the croaking of frogs, the whir of bats, dripping and gurgling water—all carefully recorded in Mormon journals.  “Willow Springs,”, “Copperas Spring”-—- which ran over red sand and looked like blood—– and “Oil Spring,”, where Mormons greased their gunstocks and wagons, are all real places, and so the art unfolds like a contemporary journey-in-miniature, as we retrace the pioneers’ steps through a sculptural landscape.—Patricia Johanson, presenting “The Draw at Sugar House” to an audience at the Getty in Los Angeles

Johanson’s land art floods the imagination with the memories, symbols, and feelings of the men and women who walked the same path over 100 years ago, as well as reminding us of the forces of nature we do our best to negotiate with. This Pioneer Day, as The Draw at Sugar House installation nears completion, take time to visit and contemplate the images which reflect the lives and dreams of those in the past, and even the future, as we walk in the same footsteps.

How to visit the Draw:

You may enter Hidden Hollow from the parking lot behind Whole Foods in Sugar House. The trail begins north of Petco. A short walk will get you to the Draw. Alternatively, approach from Sugar House Park on the east side of 13th East.

Lynne Olson enjoys volunteering for the Sugar House Community Council at Hidden Hollow and for the Parley’s Trail Coalition. Sheri Lyn Sohm also contributed to this article. Lynne’s  article,”Then and now: Kids Organized to Protect the Environment,” appeared in the July 2018 CATALYST.

This article was originally published on June 29, 2018.