Well maybe the park was not responsible for saving the world by discouraging an atomic war, as its creator had hoped, but whether you come see this mirage in the desert as a religious pilgrimage or for your appreciation of art or history you will not be disappointed.
Who created Desert Christ Park? The person responsible was Antoine Martin, born in 1887 in Cincinnati, Ohio. An orphan who escaped a foster home at the age of 12, Martin was said to have been an independent person. He worked many jobs, including in mining camps in Oatman, Arizona, then finally working for Douglas Aircraft for many years.
This park has overcome many situations that could have destroyed it, from internal threats to external threats, some of which seemed much more likely than atomic destruction. Since its dedication on Easter Sunday of 1951 it has endured a major 7.3 earthquake, graffiti, vandalism, a five-year-long legal fight, and even the destructive powers of its creator.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s discuss how the park began, and why Martin created over 35 statues based on the New Testament of the Bible. Martin wanted his creations to be of sufficient physical strength to warn against and possibly withstand an atomic war. Several years after he had moved from his home in Inglewood, California to live and work in the Yucca Valley, Martin was quoted in the Los Angeles Times saying, “Civilization will certainly go down beneath atomic destruction unless the religious people of the world get together. My statues may bring mankind together before we are obliterated completely.”
He had carved his first figure of Jesus around 1949-1950, while he was still living in Inglewood California, after a scientist told him “reinforced concrete would withstand atomic assault.” Martin had developed strong religious beliefs and the destruction of war deeply disturbed him.
His first statue of Jesus appeared on the site in 1951 with a lot of media coverage. The previous year, Martin had been refused permission to erect his 10-foot, 5-ton steel reinforced Christ statue on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Martin then offered his first statue to anyone free of charge if they would publicly display it for all to see. Reverend Garver of Yucca Valley offered to give a home to “The Unwanted Christ” or as others dubbed it “The Savior That Nobody Wanted”. There were several other possibilities including Forest Lawn’s offer to purchase it, but Martin chose Gardner’s offer because he wanted no one to profit from his statue. Martin drove from Inglewood to the Hi-Desert and discovered that travelers on State Highway 62 would be able to see the statue from either direction if it was placed 50 feet above the roadway.
They transported the ten-foot high statue 130 miles to its new location. Life Magazine documented the journey of the new “Desert Christ” into the “extreme southwest reach of the Mohave”. The statue was positioned by two dozen volunteers and the park dedicated on Easter Sunday 1951. Desert Christ Park became a work in progress from 1951 to 1961. From 1953 until his death Martin lived at the park so that he could devote more time to building more statues.
Martin chose the placement of the statues carefully, before he even began to work on each one. He determined if they should stand in groups or singley, in sun or shadow. Walking through the park, one can see that the figures of Jesus have been placed to face the sun, so they glow with greater intensity than the others.
Unfortunately the park was well known for vandalism over the years, but sadly the first recorded vandal was Martin himself. He defaced the statues after an argument with Reverend Garver. Their visions differed – Garver proposed charging admission to the park and Martin protested vigorously, arguing “My statues belong to all mankind. No one should ever have to pay to see them”. He promptly knocked the noses off all the figures, except the statue of Judas, “I spared Judas on purpose, as a symbol,” he later explained.
Within a few days, Martin was back, restoring the noses, but reconciliation between the two men seemed unlikely. They then had a new disagreement which motivated Martin to hire a bulldozer and move twenty statues to the property next door. Some were damaged by the move but Martin later repaired them.
During late 1957 and early 1958, the park’s boundaries were reconfigured and Martin completed his 75-foot-by-32-foot reproduction of the Last Supper. This colossal sculpture of thirteen figures on a 9-foot scale, gathered at a 30-foot-long table was to be the artist’s last major undertaking. Martin was never in good health while he lived and worked at the park. Antoine Martin died on December 23, 1961 at the age of 74 and was buried in nearby Twenty-Nine Palms. When he died, the park was presented to the Yucca Valley Park and Recreation District.
Martin created most everything at the park; the most notable exception to this is the “Little Chapel” and the “Tomb” which are made of stone and mortar. Martin’s friend Frank Garske designed them and with the help of Eddie Garver, they built these as a favor to Martin. Garske’s building style is very recognizable as his home in Yucca Valley is very similar in style to the chapel though on a much larger scale. When Frank Lloyd Wright’s son saw the chapel, he told Garske he was one of the few people who really understood his father’s work.
For many years, the future of Desert Christ Park seemed secure. In accordance with Martin’s wishes, the site was administered and maintained by the Yucca Valley Parks and Recreation District, and no admission was charged for the publicly-owned, nondenominational park.
In 1987, the “publicly-owned” aspect of Desert Christ Park came into question. Five county residents represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed suit against the Parks and Recreation District to have Martin’s park removed from public taxpayer support. The legal battle took years to make its way through the courts and in the end a local Save Our Park Committee raised $12,000 to help the county fight the lawsuit. Just as the issue was settled in 1992, the 7.3 Landers Earthquake took off the heads and hands of many of the sculptures.
What private party would want to adopt the site and its rubble, in addition to restoring the figures’ missing hands, heads, and feet? Surprisingly, with the agreement of Martin’s heirs, the Hi-Desert Nature Museum, which is focused on desert wildlife, minerals, and Indian artifacts, purchased the property for $350, its appraised value, minus the estimate cost of bulldozing and hauling away the statues. Fortunately demolition did not occur.
By 1996 a non-profit was formed called the Desert Christ Park Foundation. With a crew of volunteers including youth groups from the neighboring Evangelical Free Church, they cleaned the site up. Around this time, vandals would visit the park overnight. They would “knock the heads off the figurines, break arms from statues or damage anything else nearby”. The Foundation organized volunteers to keep watch at night and today it is in the best condition it has been in for a long time.
Two other of Martin’s sculptures are in Yucca Valley, and unfortunately these two statues have not been immune from vandalism either. The Goddess of Flight sculpture is in the rose garden at Town Hall and the Saber-Toothed Tiger is downtown at Remembrance Park. They were repaired and refinished by local artist Michael Summer in 2012.
The park and the other statues seem in good hands now, though I don’t think any of this has prevented an atomic war – or did it?? This park is well worth seeing, whatever your motivation to visit it might be.
I want to thank Roxanne Miller of the Park Foundation for supplying information and photographs for this blog. As you can see many statues are still in disrepair. The link below to the Foundation will connect you to information to plan a visit or even better, to donate as they desperately need money for maintenance and restoration projects.
Check out their website for directions or to donate to the park:
After your visit you can hike at The Morongo Preserve:
Or have lunch in Pioneertown a few short miles away:
Take It Easy – Mojave