They plan to later sell the 800 South property where the existing middle and high schools are located about a mile from the elementary school to help cover the cost of the new school buildings.
School officials are still raising money for the classroom buildings. They expect the recreation area phase to be finished in November.
"It's exciting," said Rowland Hall spokeswoman Susan Koles. "We're happy to at least get started on part of it."
During her two decades at Rowland Hall, Athletic Director Kendra Tomsic has scheduled games on fields the school rents from Salt Lake City because the school's current field is too small for regulation games. And it's a tight squeeze for gym classes sharing the field with students doing outdoor lessons during the school day.
The ground breaking is "a dream come true for our school," Tomsic said. "It's just nice to have a place to hang your hat."
The school announced in 2011 that it bought the overgrown lot after Utah Democrat Rep. Jim Matheson won approval for a bill to move it down a complicated chain of ownership from the federal government to the cemetery, then to the school. A century-old law had required the land to revert to the government if it were ever sold by the cemetery for a use other than burials.
Opponents of the sale said the school's construction would spoil views, bring in traffic and trample open space. City council members approved the plan, but required the school to safeguard views and maintain some open space.