February 19, 2016

Photo Essay: The Japanese Garden That Almost Became a Freeway

Five years in, and I'm still finding the most interesting places in LA.

Well, this most recent place is technically in Pasadena...but close enough.

The Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden is a historic landmark that's just starting to make a comeback...

...after having fallen into disrepair after CalTrans tried to tear it down.

It was originally built by landscape designer Kinzuchi Fujii at the behest of Ellamae Storrier Stearns, an aristocratic woman who had married well (three times!)...

...and wanted to transform her estate's tennis courts into a showcase for the Japanese art she'd collected during her trips abroad in the 1930s.

Despite the anti-Japanese sentiment of the time, Ellamae gave Mr. Fujii carte blanche in terms of the design and the plantings, from the cork oak tree... the teahouse waiting room...

...the ponds...

...the Korean grass, and the rocks, which were all hand-selected from the Arroyo and brought in, one by one.

Not all of its aspects are traditional to Japanese landscape design, but it does include a zig-zagged "Devil's Bridge" to ward off evil spirits... well as a variety of other water crossings...

...including the "Red Bridge," which has been painted black.

This is the second teahouse in its current location.

The first one was crafted in Japan to Mr. Fujii's exact specifications and shipped overseas to be assembled here...

...only to burn down in 1981 under suspicious circumstances (possibly from a cigarette ash, a theory that remains unproven).

The view from inside the replacement teahouse—fit for an emperor, with 12 mats—is spectacular and ripe for meditation.

Unfortunately, Mr. Fujii never got to complete it himself. He only had five years to work on the garden before he was sent to a Japanese internment camp in 1941, where he stayed until the end of World War II.

When Ellamae Storrier Stearns died in 1949 without an heir, five of the estate's seven city lots were auctioned off, leaving only two—the house and the garden, including old horse stables and a shed for the former tennis courts.

Local Pasadena art collector and curator Gamelia Haddad Poulsen—who attended the auction simply for the two Louis XV chairs—ended up snapping up the whole shebang.

By the time Gamelia passed away in 1985, she'd lost all hope for and stopped maintaining the garden, which she thought was being seized by CalTrans under eminent domain for the construction of the 710 freeway (which never extended north of Alhambra). It had gotten in pretty bad shape back then.

She passed the entire property on to her son and daughter-in-law, Jim and Connie Haddad, who have been working to restore it since 1990 and who successfully landmarked it in 2005. It's now one of only two Japanese gardens listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

When you visit, you're literally in the backyard of the Haddads' one-story home, which was built after the mansion was dismantled (with one room now residing at the USC Pacific Asia Museum).

If you're lucky, Jim will take the time to walk you around and talk about his mom—and about the day she came home and said, "You'll never guess what I just did."

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Photo Essay: A Sanctuary Among Sewage

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