The Tree of Utah

One Man’s Dream    By: © Herman du Toit Ph.D

Momen3cxOn a wintry Saturday morning in January 1986 Utah became the beneficiary of one of its greatest man-made structures, the Tree of Utah constructed at enormous personal expense by its European sculptor, Karl Momen, situated in the sterile, flat and featureless wasteland that is the Great Western Desert.  At the dedication ceremony of this unique and often controversial structure over 1000 people gathered to hear outgoing Utah Governor, Norm Bangerter, accept the “Tree”  from its maker on behalf of the people of Utah.  Utah had unwittingly become the site of this unlikely modern sculpture, notwithstanding the cultural conservatism of the state and the reticence of local authorities to come to terms with such an extraordinary manifestation of a single artist’s vision and resourcefulness.  The last time an art work of these proportions changed the Utah landscape was David Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, now submerged beneath the rising waters of the Great Salt Lake.


A Bold Artistic Gesture
for a Conservative State

The physical dimensions and mode of construction of the Tree are impressive enough.  As a manifestation of engineering virtuousity, the Tree stands as a significant example of the finest practices in steel frame and pre-cast concrete construction. It is located adjacent to the westbound lane of Interstate 80 approximately 26 miles east of Wendover and 75 miles west of Salt Lake City as this highway cuts a dead-straight line across the white desert floor.  Rising 83 feet above the salt flats the structure was built to withstand desert winds gusting at over 130 miles and hour, and earthquakes in the order of 7.5 on the Richter scale. It is estimated by the local Highway Patrol that two million cars travel past the tree annually and that five to seven cars an hour stop so occupants can study the Tree—doing so in violation of the law, as stopping along this highway is permitted only in cases of emergency.  No provision has yet been made for a pull-off or rest area for motorists at the site although proposals have been submitted to local authorities.  Interstate 80 stretches for a hundred miles towards the border town of Wendover, cutting a dead-straight line across the white desert floor. This stretch of highway is also known as the “Wendover Death Strip” because the drive across the barren land is so monotonous motorists have been known to doze off and not make it to their destination.

On a clear day the Tree is visible to travelers on the highway at a distance of 17 miles. Motorists first see the multicolored spheres, as though they are suspended by seemingly invisible means above the desert. In warm weather the trunk is lost in the convection currents of hot air rising from the blanched desert floor.  Only the spheres shimmer mysteriously and silently in the arid atmosphere. On travelling nearer, the trunk becomes visible and the balls are elevated high above the surface, changing hue with the prevailing conditions of light and weather. The Tree has been referred to by some critics as the boldest piece of visual art to be conceived in this conservative state1.

Karl Momen – Architect, Painter, Sculptor

MOMEN protypeS20B5The curious onlooker may well ask what motivated the erection of such an apparently incongruous structure in this desolate, almost alien environment?  The answer lies in the dream of its maker, the architect, painter and sculptor, Karl Momen who has carved out a significant reputation for himself throughout Europe, the U.S. and Japan.  He has had important solo exhibitions of his paintings and sculpture in New York, Stockholm, Tokyo, Berlin and Salt Lake City. Momen had gained a reputation of being somewhat of a renegade in the art-world, choosing to go his own way rather than abiding the conventional wisdom of the day. But how did this international artist gain such an abiding interest in Utah? The answer to this question and an insight into the complex motivations of his idiosyncratic approach to art are best approached through an overview of his rich and colorful career in the visual arts.

Born in 1934 near the Russian border in Iran, Momen was the youngest of 14 children and the son of a prosperous  Persian rug designer who married twice and died at the advanced age 104 years in 1957.  Momen manifested his extra-ordinary talents at an early age, beginning to paint when he was 7 years old.  By the age of 14 years he was teaching evening classes in art techniques to adults, including his own highschool art teacher!  He supported himself by painting while he trained in art and architecture, first in Germany and then in Sweden.  As a student he studied briefly under the tutelage of Max Ernst and worked on projects with the famed architect Le Corbusier. In 1961 he emigrated to Sweden with the intention of working on a six-month architectural project.  He stayed and became one of Sweden’s most prominent hospital architects, with the Shah of Iran as one of his clients and the famous Karolinska Hospital in Stockholm as one of the high-points of his architectural career.  In 1983 he was offered a contract to design another 650 bed hospital in Sweden.  The project would have taken two years to design and another six years to build.  He knew that if he accepted the commission he would have to forego his cherished desire of painting and sculpting on a full time basis.  His choice was easy. After 16 years Momen retired from architectural practice to dedicate himself to his first love—his art.

By the late 1980s Momen was was kept busy supplying a waiting list of over forty European companies with paintings and sculptures produced under his hand. Momen began to establish a reputation for himself as a painter and sculptor in Europe, the U.S. and Japan. He held important solo exhibitions in New York, Tokyo, Berlin, Stockholm, Monte Carlo and Salt Lake City.  His bronze sculptures were purchased predominantly by corporate customers in Europe but he also had buyers in the U.S. and Japan.  Although a  Swedish citizen, Momen acquired a residence and studio in Sausalito, California, where he he would spend his winters.  By the early 1990s his sculptures and paintings could be found in such disparate venues as Monte Carlo, Dallas and Brigham Young University.

Significantly, almost all of Momen’s sculptures—about 800 of them—have been cast at a bronze foundry in Lehi, Utah, under the supervision of a former professor of sculpture at Brigham Young University, Neil Hadlock, who was a sculptor in his own right.  Momen found that Hadlock’s work was equal to the finest European bronze casting.

The Symbol Emerges


The image of a stylized tree made its first appearance in Momen’s work as early as 1962 when design elements resembling the Tree of Utah first made their appearance in his architectural drawings at the time. It was common practice for architects to include abstracted impressions of trees as landscape elements in their renderings of proposed buildings in order to more fully represent their setting within a natural environment.   Momen therefore developed a stylized interpretation of a tree that used a trunk supporting spheres of differing sizes that would complement and harmonize with the rectilinear elements of his International Style architectural designs.  These spheres would often gently impinged on each other like under-inflated beach balls that flatten at their points of contact.  This particular stylization recurred in Momen’s architectural renderings at his practice in Sweden throughout the 1960s. Momen’s characteristic tree symbol made its first appearance in some of his major paintings in the early 1970s.  Structural Change (1973) and Detonation (1974) both include this now familiar symbol. Detonation was exhibited in various international galleries in 1978 to 1982, including the Striped House Museum in Tokyo in 1978 and the Cultural Center in Berlin in 1982.  It was also shown at the Springville Art Museum in Utah in 1984 and the following year in the Salt Lake Art Center.

For Momen the recurring image of the tree was a veiled reference to concerns with environmental issues that were prevalent during the 1970s.  In Momen’s iconography the tree became a symbol that represented the natural order of all living things – an order that was under assault by rampant industrialization and urbanization.  This tension between nature and technocracy is the subject of his painting Structural  Change.   Momen also expressed his concern for the dangers of the nuclear arms race at the time. His use of spherical forms in the work Detonation evokes the awesome power of nuclear fission and stands as an injunction to its destructive power.  In later years Momen was to interpret his tree as a symbol of preservation and survival that also represented the essential beauty of the American nation and even as a metaphor for the dynamic balance and order of the universe.

S21B6A Desert Vision

Momen’s affiliation to Utah began purely accidentally.  He once exclaimed: “I did not pick Utah.  Utah picked me!’ The story of the Tree of Utah begins with Momen’s journey across the breadth of the United States during the summer of 1981.  Momen had decided to travel by car from Washington DC. to the west coast to become better acquainted with the topography of the vast American landscape.  After a week of cross country driving he reached Salt Lake City in the sweltering heat of an August afternoon.  With no local knowledge and no experience of the city’s road numbering system he was soon frustrated in his attempts to find a hotel where he could stay the night.  After giving up on his road map found himself on the road to the airport where he conveniently checked in at the local Hilton hotel.

Momen found the hotel to be well appointed, and after the wearisome drive, hospitable.  However, he was soon to be introduced to an important aspect of the local Mormon culture.  When he tried to order a glass of wine he was politely told by a courteous hotel attendant that he could procure the wine himself at the local newsstand! Which he proceeded to do.  The following morning he was faced with two choices about which route he should take.  He could either take Interstate 15 and travel to Los Angeles via Las Vegas, or he could travel on Interstate 80 via Reno and Lake Tahoe to San Francisco.  Notwithstanding his interested in visiting Las Vegas he chose to proceed on to San Francisco.  Although it was only nine o’clock in the morning it was already hot and he stopped briefly to buy some light refreshments for the long car journey ahead.  After a couple of hours Momen had left Salt Lake City far behind.  He became aware of the surreal desert landscape through which was traveling as he made his way along the dead straight highway to his first rest stop at the border town of Wendover.  The desert heat and blazing sun would have been unbearable but for the air-conditioned environment of the car.   The thought occurred to him that it appeared as though he was driving over a blanched canvas.  The straight road disappeared toward the horizon and the heat eddies in the air obliterated the distant mountains.  He felt as if he was driving through unlimited white space, almost as if he had left the planet.  After a while Momen reached into the back for one of the tomatoes and some lettuce he had brought with him, when it occurred to him that he did not have salt for his tomato.  It first crossed his mind that he could wait until he reached Wendover where he would be able to buy some salt—then he suddenly realized that he was traversing the largest dried salt lake in the world with what appeared to be endless expanses of the white substance in every direction!

MOMEN8aMomen stopped the car on the shoulder of the road, got out, and was immediately blasted by the searing hot air.  It was as if he had opened the door into an oven.  He walked over the white crunchy salt surface and he reflected on the fact that it was not unlike powder snow, but for the 120 degree temperature difference!  He stooped down, took a pinch of the white power and ate the tomato with some haste, fearing that it might get scorched in the inferno of hot air and reflected heat that rose from the white terrain.  After taking in the alien panorama Momen returned to the welcome air-conditioned comfort of his vehicle and resumed his journey.  As the journey progressed he watched as tiny black dots in the distance grew into large vehicles, just to disappear again as they passed him on the dead straight east-bound lane of the highway.  The thought struck him that the monotony of this seemingly endless journey could be relieved by some reference point in the desert – some focus of color that would arrest the eye amid this expanse of featureless terrain.  Momen’s thoughts raced ahead of himself.  The cars; the endless see of salt.  He felt a surge of inspiration as he contemplated the possibility of superimposing some element of color upon that sterile environment as a reference point for the eye, and perhaps for the entire soul.  And who better to do it than he the artist!  Thoughts and images flashed through his mind as he realized the potential of his musings.  He felt as if  he was on the verge of a unique and powerful new discovery.  Something had to be done—but what?  Suddenly, it seemed, he found himself on the outskirts of Wendover.

At Wendover, Momen rested from his driving and took a sightseeing bus tour of the Bonneville Salt Flats where for some decades the world’s fastest cars had competed for the land speed record.  He was intrigued with the place that he had often heard of in the media. He even remembered as a boy being thrilled by the old Movietone news documentaries that had chronicled these events with drama and great sensationalism at the local cinema in his home town.  However, that night as he lay in his hotel room, images of his poignant experience on Interstate 80 kept flashing through his mind.

The next morning Momen continued his journey; then, some time before he reached San Francisco, he stopped the car on the side of the road and penciled a preliminary sketch of what was to become the Tree of Utah.  He had envisioned a large structure, symbolic of a tree that rose from the desert and was visible for miles around, and peculiarly similar to the tree symbol that he had so often incorporated in his designs. The tree held characteristic spheres high above the flat terrain like fantastical fruit in full bloom.  On reaching San Francisco he pulled out one of his earlier lithographs that contained an image of his tree symbol. He cut out the image and used it to make a three-dimensional collage depicting the tree rising adjacent to the highway on a topographical map of the desert.

Local Agencies and the Project’s Chief Patron

Momen became increasingly excited about his concept but had no idea who he should communicate it to, or who the responsible authorities might be who would have say over such a project.  After some inquiries he was referred to the Utah Arts Council.  He telephoned the Council in early September 1981 and spoke with Ruth Draper and Arle? Cruz? who were the director and assistant director, respectively.   Momen was asked to mail them a written proposal for consideration by the Council.  He immediately went to work and produced a small maquette and perspective drawings of the tree as he envisioned it adjacent to the highway near Wendover.  On completion he packed his travel bag and, with the model under his arm, boarded the first flight to Salt Lake City.  Within hours he was speaking face-to-face with members of the Arts Council—only two days after his initial telephone call to them from San Francisco.   Somewhat incredulously they ushered Momen into the first floor conference room of the Arts Council where he proceeded to present his idea with the aid of the maquette he had brought with him.  He was to revisit this room many times over the next several years as the project evolved.  However, at this initial meeting Draper and Cruz? could hardly believe that this stranger whom they had only spoken with briefly on the telephone was seriously committed to such an unusual undertaking, in a land and in an alien environment so far removed from his home.  Momen, however, was quite determined.

The Utah Arts Council was excited about the project and Arle? Courts? sent Momen an encouraging letter offering the Council’s assistance.  After this initial meeting Momen returned to Sweden to give the project more serious consideration and to consult with engineering colleagues whom he had worked with in his former architectural practice.  Momen turned his thoughts to the shape and size of the final design.   In the initial architectural design of the project he envisioned a structure between 75 and 85 feet high.

The news media wasted no time in publicizing Momen’s proposal for a large sculpture in the mid-western American desert.  The project received immediate coverage in Swedish television news broadcasts and photographs of Momen’s model for the project were publicized far and wide.  In April 1982 a public announcement about the initiation of the project was made at the Cultural Center in Berlin.  At a special reception the director of the Center presented Momen with a ten foot high cake shaped in the form of the tree. The following day the event made national and international headlines and Momen knew that, for better or worse, he was committed to the project. Years later Momen stated that it was at this reception that he knew that he “could not back out.”

Momen3dxNot long after this enthusiastic European reception, in the Fall of 1982, Momen received a chilling letter from the Utah Arts Council informing him that they were distancing themselves from his project and, although they would not stand in his way, they would also not be able to give him any direct assistance.  Upon receiving this disconcerting news Momen immediately returned to Salt Lake City to discuss the matter with Ruth Draper, Arle? Courts? and Dennis Smith, the Chairman of the Visual Art Committee of the Art Council, at the time.   Momen respected Dennis Smith as a sculptor and for the good work that he was doing in the promotion of the arts.  Momen was to establish an abiding friendship with Smith.  Although Smith resisted Momen’s ideas initially, he soon warmed to Momen’s enthusiasm. After a subsequent meeting, Smith agreed that although the Council would not be able to give any material assistance, they would act in a consultative capacity offering advice and general guidance as the project developed. Undaunted by this lukewarm response from the Utah Arts Council, Momen turned to securing a site for his sculpture in the desert along the I-80 highway.  Dennis Smith accompanied Momen to a meeting with representatives of the Utah Land Board.  At this meeting he was informed that due to the fact that he was not an American citizen he would not be able to purchase land in what was considered to be a strategic area due to its close proximity to two US. Air Force bases.  This specious argument was brought into sharp focus by Momen’s observation that he had recently purchased a condominium in Washington DC. not far from the White House!

MOMEN4eThe Land Board representatives did however, refer Momen to the one man who owned large tracts of land in this arid region, Kosro Sumnani a local entrepeneur and president of S.K.Hart Engineering in Salt Lake City.  Although Momen was scheduled to fly out that evening he was able to arrange a meeting with Sumnani that same afternoon.  He was graciously received and, after lengthy and wide-ranging conversation, Momen showed Sumnani his model and drawings of his idea for the Tree of  Utah.   Sumnani was intrigued by the idea and after further discussion he generously offered to sponsor the project to the extent of providing the land upon which the Tree would be located.  Although the particular site in Tooele County that Momen had earmarked for the sculpture belonged to the State Board of Education, Sumnani was able to arrange a trade involving some of his land in the area.  At the conclusion of their meeting, Momen and Sumnani discovered too their mutual astonishment, that they were both of Iranian parentage and that they were both fluent in their mother tongue, Pharse.  Upon the realization of this most unlikely coincidence, Sumnani pledged even greater assistance to Momen for his project.  Momen would ultimately become the project’s chief patron. Sumnani greatly assisted Momen in preparing the numerous applications and submissions to the various authorities to obtain the necessary approvals and permits for the structure.  He pushed the project through local planning authorities, the Utah State Lands and Forestery Division, the Tooele County Planning Commission, and the Federal Aviation Administration – the last because of the Tree’s height.


MOMEN6iDon Reimann Commences Construction

MOMEN7KixBy October, 1983, Momen had called for tenders for the building of the structure from several local construction companies.  He received three or four estimates which ranged from $300,000 to $500,000, however he could not obtain a firm estimate as no one at this stage new the condition of the soil at the site.  In working with the various local authorities, Momen soon discovered that their were mixed feelings toward the project.  Some people were very excited and very helpful, while others were quite negative and even somewhat resentful about the plans that were being made. In October 1983 Momen received a construction proposal from a contractor by the name of  Don Reimann with a company by the name of  Style Crete.  Reimann had a reputation as the finest concrete caster in the state. The Reimann family had been in the stone casting business since soon after the pioneers entered the valley, and had worked on a variety of imposing structures, including the ZCMI Center in downtown Salt Lake City and temples for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ogden and Provo. Moreover, Reimann and his sons at Style-Crete were one of the few companies in the world who would attempt to cast concrete spheres over thirteen feet in diameter.  One of Reimann’s sons, John, was completing an architecture degree at the University of Utah and Reimann thought that this would be an interesting and unusual project to introduce his son to the intricacies of his profession during the final year of his studies. Reimann recommended Devon M.Stone of Midvale as the structural engineer for the project. A building permit for the Tree was granted at the end of January 1984 and Don Reimann’s company was contracted. Momen took a permanent suite at the Hilton hotel in Salt Lake City and hired Frank Harris, a cameraman from Los Alimos to document the construction process.  Harris and his wife had settled in Utah and both were soon engaged on a daily basis in filming the preparations for the Tree at Reimann’s warehouse in Salt Lake City.

Assembling the Right Materials and Techniques

MOMEN8sOne of the most important considerations at the ouset of the project was the kind of material finishes that should be employed on the large concrete spheres. In the absence of any better material Momen and Reimann had contemplated having to use some form of ceramic tile.  Tiles were not a satisfactory solution as tiles could crack and break over time.  During the month of March 1984, after lengthy discussions and inquiries about various materials, Momen and Reimann discovered that chrysacolla and anhydros copper silicate were ideal materials and that this unique material was native to Utah!  The blue and green rocks were quarried in southern Utah about 500 miles south of Salt Lake City. Don Reimann contact the owners who agreed to donate one hundred tons of the stone to the project. They would however have to collect the material themselves.  In mid-March 1984 Reimann and eight sons spent three days hauling the stone from southern Utah with the aid of two large trucks.

A stone cutter was immediately contracted to cut the stone pieces to size with a diamond saw and the Reimann family set to work with the casting of the enormous concrete spheres. Each sphere required a mold. In order to make the molds wooden jigs had to be constructed over which concrete was carefully applied using a hemispherical screed that pivoted on the north and south axes of the spherical former.  Once the concrete had set the surface was waxed and new concrete was cast over the convex forms.  Once the concrete had set the mold was separated from the convex form and it was then ready to be used as a concave mold for the final sphere. The molds were produced as quarter segments, allowing four successive castings to be welded and bolted together to make a complete sphere.  Each of the six spheres was constructed in this fashion.  The trunk of the tree was cast in like fashion using a tubular former to make a mold that would cast three longitudinal sections which were also welded and bolted together.

Momen3kxThe Project is Beset by Technical and Financial Challenges

Good fortune and propitious circumstances were soon to be overshadowed by some of the most demanding challenges that Momen had ever faced in his career.  A few months into the project it was discovered that the amount of steel reinforcing that would be required by the structure had been under estimated.   New calculations by Devon Stone now indicated that the final weight of the piece would far exceed the one hundred tons originally estimated.  It was also at this critical time that the media again became interested in the project.   KTVU and KSL sent television crews out to interview Momen and to obtain footage of the construction site near Wendover.  Public interest was heightened by a flood of articles and television reports.  The exposure received by the project also brought with it  controversy and debate about the artistic merits and appropriateness of the project as a public structure.  Due to the technical difficulties with the steel reinforcement of the structure Momen moved the completion date of the Tree from June to October 1984.  He had already sent invitations to numerous civic and national dignitaries, including  President Reagan who graciously declined the invitation but nevertheless sent a message wishing Momen great success with his project.

MOMEN4aAt the height of this intense focus of media attention, Momen received news that would cause his blood to run cold.  The soil tests had indicated that the selected sight was wholly unsuited to supporting the finished weight of the projected construction.  Whereas original plans had indicated a modest concrete platform at the base of the structure, new calculations called for a ninety foot deep foundation comprised of twenty five reinforced concrete piles of one foot diameter each supporting an eight foot thick concrete foundation!  This was an unexpected and totally new ball game for Momen who had thought that he had the end of the project in sight.  This new revelation would result in a delay of least six months and more than double the cost of the project.  Momen weighed the options before him.  He could possibly redesign the Tree, reducing the size and mass of its main trunk, its branches, and the spheres.  Thoughts of canceling the project crossed his mind.  If he did cancel the project this action would give the lie to all his detractors and to the increasingly vociferous opponents of the project.  If he pressed on, how would he be able to finance the additional costs? Momen took a few days off to ponder the predicament and finally decided that there was no going back or opting out of the project that he had committed himself and his friends to.  The work would go on and the Tree would be completed as planned.  He decided to sell the condominiums he had bought a couple of years  previously.  He also sold his cabin in northern Sweden as well as some prize pieces of his personal art collection.  With the funds he raised in liquidating his assets, Momen was able to instruct the construction team to go ahead and to make the necessary changes to the original design.


Word about Momen’s unexpected obstacles and shortfalls had soon got around and suddenly suppliers refused to deliver materials on credit.  Some suppliers demanded pre-payment before even considering an order for the project.  However, soon Momen’s additional funds became available and he set about ordering the heavy steel pipes for the piles.  The pipe was supplied in thirty foot lengths and three sections had to be welded together to make up the full length of each pile.  Before they could be driven into the desert they had to be sand blasted and treated for corrosion protection from the hostile saline environment.  Because of the excessive length of the piles there were not many companies who were equipped to successfully drive these long pipes into the ground.   A large crane had to be brought in from out of state by Acme Crane.  Because of the unknown conditions of the subterranean soil at these depths Momen could not get a fixed estimate for the work from the pile driving company and he proceeded on blind faith.   It turned out that the piles sank easily and quickly through the first thirty feet as they were pounded through the soft, residue of the pre-historic lake bed that had once covered this region. Reinforcing steel was placed inside each pipe and they were filled with concrete.  This operation occupied Don Reimann and his sons for three continuous weeks.  By the end of that Fall they had managed to pour the enormous foundation base.   At the onset of winter the crew withdrew to Reimann’s Salt Lake factory to work on the large concrete spheres.

MOMEN6e2The next important decision was to determine how the color striations and markings on the large spheres were to be accomplished.  There was no natural materials available locally that matched the colors called for by Momen’s design.   After considerable deliberation Momen decided to import the finest quality ceramic tile from Italy, again at enormous personal expense.  Because of the scarcity of this high quality tile the order had to be pre-paid before it was shipped.  The best means to attach the tile material to the concrete spheres had also to be determined.  After considerable investigation by Reimann, a special brand of epoxy was identified as the most suitable adhering material.  It also turned out to be the most expensive product of its kind.  For three months after Christmas 1984 Don Reimann and his workers occupied themselves with gluing first ceramic material and then the blue and green, piece by piece, to each of the concrete spheres.  As soon as the spheres were completed work commenced on the trunk and supporting limbs of the Tree.  However, Momen’s cash reserves had run dangerously low by this time and he was compelled to seek various loans.  A loan raised in Sweden was not enough and he turned to his local artist friends, Dennis Smith and Gary Smith who agreed to co-sign for a $30,000 loan from Copper State Saving and Loan Company.

The project lurched precariously forward but soon Momen was forced to turn to his good friend Kosro Sumnani for yet another loan of  $150,000.  The end was not yet in sight and by September 1995 Momen had exhausted these funds also.  At this late stage in the project he was compelled to call a halt to the operation and Don Reimann and his team were called off the job.  Work came to a stop and Reimann moved on to other contracts.  Eventually Momen was successful in raising another loan of $30,000 in Sweden and work on the Tree resumed.  The project was now very near to completion and plans were being made to erect the structure on its base.  However, just before this final operation,  Reimann discovered that the Tree would need cathodic protection to stop the steel reinforcing materials from being corroded by the salt environment. They were able to find a company that would do this specialized work.  Momen was barely able to find the money for this unexpected expense.  Then, in what seemed like a cruel twist of fate, just when Momen and his team thought that they had accounted for every outstanding contingency, it was determined that the structure would also have to be equiped with lightning protection.  Miraculously, Momen was able to come up with sufficient funds to pay for this as well and the construction was completed in September 1985, just 17 months after construction had commenced.

MOMENeA Structure of Significant Stature


The Tree consists of a central steel-reinforced concrete trunk supporting six large pre-cast concrete spheres, the largest of which measures 13 feet, 6 inches in diameter and weighs 60 tons.  The spheres are supported by thick-walled diagonal steel pipes, or limbs, that penetrate the spheres and continue through the hollow cores to their opposite surfaces.  The steel limbs are secured to the virtical surface of the trunk by the dual means of bolting and welding to steel plates on the trunk’s surface, which, in turn are secured by horizontal rebar embedded within the concrete trunk. Each weld was heat treated several times to relieve stresses in the metal to ensure that the joints do not fail. The combined weight of the spheres, the limbs and the main trunk is supported on an eight foot thick concrete foundation.  The foundation is supported in turn by 25 steel encased concrete piles that were driven 90 feet into the loosely compacted desert clay to ensure permanent stability of the structure. Allowance also had to be made for the expansion and contraction of the materials during the wide temperature variations in the desert.  On completion, Devon M. Stone of Midvale,  the engineer responsible for structural specifications during the construction, was satisfied that the Tree complied “300%” with all safety criteria.

The original estimate of materials called for 200 tons of concrete, 100 tons of rock and 100 tons of steel.  However, by the conclusion of the construction the project had consumed 100 tons of chrysacolla rock, 4 tons of epoxy, 160 tons of steel, 15 tons of colored cement and sand, 18,000 imported ceramic tiles, 5 tons of welding rods, 7 tons of timber for mold formers, and 20 tons of plaster.  All-in-all the structure ended up weighing 875 tons and had consumed 21,000 man hours of labor.  The project had also cost Momen over $1 million of his own funds, which was more than double what original estmates had indicated.

Critical Response to the Tree of Utah

MOMEN7lxEven before ground had been broken for the foundation, media interest decended on the project.  Newspaper headlines such as Tree artist wants to put more flavor in the ‘salt’ and Utah Mulls over Karl Momen’s Monumental Meatballs proliferated .  Not to be outdone the Washington Post carried a headline that read: Sure, the Redwoods Grow Taller, But They Don,t Have Coconuts.  These statements by the media were indicative of the derisive attitude adopted by many critics of the Tree.  Many of these often self-appointed art critics took it upon themselves to voice their condemnation of something that had suddenly sprung up within their midst and which was contrary to anything that they were familiar with.  Although the Tree stood in a swirl of local controversy, world wide interest was arroused and more than 600 individual publications have carried news of the Tree since its inception.  The Swedish press gave the Tree heavy coverage because of Momen’s nationality.  The Japanese media also showed great interest.  Numerous articles appeared in art and architecture magazines.  Significantly, overseas interest was more informed and more positive than local reports would indicate.  Ironically the Tree may have have raised more crtitical awareness overseas than in Utah itself.

Opinions of the work varied from critics who saw the Tree as an unfortunate invasion of the desert to others who heralded the work as a sophisticated piece of environmental art.  Some local reports questioned Momen’s generosity in embarking on such a costly endeavor and then making a magnanimous donation of the Tree to the people of Utah.  Proposals to construct a pulloff for motorists at the site were condemned by some for encroaching on Utah’s skimpy road finance.

Tree of Utah | Momen Foundation


To educate and inform Utah residents, regional communities, K-12 students, and millions of interested travelers along Interstate Highway 80, about the principles and practices of modern sculpture, architectural design, and environmentally specific artworks. The Tree of Utah Momen Foundation (TOUMF) envisions a purpose built museum and interpretive center at the Tree of Utah site at mile marker 27, to explicate and supplement the rich educational value of this cultural landmark through arts programs and a biennial International Sculpture Exhibition showcasing artworks that explore and celebrate the unique characteristics of the Bonneville Salt Flats.

To raise funds as a not for profit charitable foundation for the construction of a museum and interpretive center at the Tree of Utah, and to accrue an endowment for the maintenance and staffing of the facility and its art and educational programs; thereby ensuring and perpetuating the educational value of this cultural landmark for millions of travelers and tourists in perpetuity.

Your donations help fund our mission to create a unique educational diversion for potentially millions of travelers along the I80, many of whom have questioned the significance of the Tree of Utah but have yet to be provided physical and intellectual access to its rich cultural significance. TOUMF is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization; therefore, your generous contributions are tax-deductible. Go to: Tree of Utah Momen Foundation

About the author:

Herman du Toit, Ph.D. is the former Head of Museum Research at Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Provo, Utah.