A local treasure has been spiffed up for an important birthday, and what a celebration it has been.
The Japanese Garden at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens has undergone a $6.8 million renovation over the past year and has just reopened this past week in time for its centennial.
Railroad magnate and real estate developer Henry E. Huntington created this 9-acre garden as part of his San Marino estate from 1911 to 1912. James Folsom, director of the botanical gardens, says this garden has been an enduring favorite of visitors to the estate since the public gained access to the estate grounds in 1928. I heard a fascinating talk by Folsom at a Huntington event co-sponsored by USC, one of “about 30” talks Folsom said he has given this past year about the garden and its renovation as the Huntington has ramped up to last week’s unveiling.
There’s so much to tell. There’s the garden as an example of the interest in “exotic environments,” in vogue in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There’s the question of what is “authentic” and “traditional” about gardens evoking landscapes from other places and how that has influenced additions and evolutions in the garden’s design. That part of the discussion resonated, as I don’t love what has seemed “touristy” about it.
There’s the toll which time, economics, and politics have taken on this and other Huntington gardens through the Depression and World War II. During and after the war, the garden lost the moniker “Japanese” and became the “Oriental garden.” A push in the late 1950s led to its restoration and re-opening in the 1960s, when we were in the “It’s a Small World” mindset.
The part that interests me the most, though, is the garden’s connection to the local Japanese American community. For many years, I have known from my dear friend Veda that her grandfather, Toichiro Kawai, was the master carpenter responsible for dissembling what is now known as “the Japanese house” in Japan and reassembling it on the estate after it was shipped from Japan. He also built the bell tower and famous moon bridge. In his talk, Folsom explained as part of this renovation, he had the red paint removed from the moon bridge in order for it to blend in better, to prevent it from “eating up your eye” in the garden. I’m with Folsom on this one.
Another JA connection I’ve been following in the local media over the past couple of years contributes to what Folsom calls the “destiny” of the garden. For more than 40 years, the Pasadena Buddhist Temple has had on its grounds the Uransenke teahouse, used by temple members to conduct and teach tea ceremony. I was vaguely aware of its presence the times we were there for their obon festival, but didn’t know anything about it. To develop ideas and prepare plans for the Huntington Japanese garden renovation, Folsom and a team of consultants, including Kyoto-based architect and craftsman Yoshiaki Nakamura, visited the temple and its teahouse four years ago. The moment Nakamura saw the teahouse, he knew that it was his father who had built it. His father constructed it in Kyoto in 1964 and reassembled here is Pasadena.
In 2010, the temple membership decided that donating the teahouse to the Huntington was the best way to preserve it and keep it in use as it was intended for posterity. Once again, the teahouse was dissembled, but this time to be shipped back to Kyoto, restored, shipped back here, and reassembled. Nakamura led the team, guided by his father’s original plans for the teahouse.
The teahouse now resides in a new ¾-acre tea garden, part of what Folsom calls “the new vision” for the Japanese Garden. Already I like this part of the garden better, although the plantings are all so new. I will return to see this part of the garden mature and settle in. I was glad to see so much interest in the garden and its history. O tanjobi omedeto gozaimasu!