2012 / Japanese Garden at Huntington reopens after major renovation (monthly article version) Dr. Takeo Uesugi oversaw design for project

The Japanese Garden at The Huntington Library: The zig-zag bridge leading into the Zen Garden. (Photo by Martha Benedict. Courtesy of The Huntington Library)

The Japanese Garden at The Huntington Library: The zig-zag bridge leading into the Zen Garden. (Photo by Martha Benedict. Courtesy of The Huntington Library)

Cultural News 2012 April Issue


A century-old Japanese garden reopens after major renovation

The historic Japanese Garden at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California, is on track to reopen April 11, 2012, celebrating its centennial after undergoing a comprehensive, year-long, $6.8 million renovation and improvement project. Among the new features in the nine-acre garden will be a ceremonial teahouse set within a new three-quarter-acre, traditionally landscaped tea garden.


The primary goals of the project have been to restore the garden’s historic core (preserving the Japanese House, improving water infrastructure, and repairing or replacing bridges) and to enhance it with the tea garden, a new waterfall, and increased accessibility.


“For researchers, students, and casual visitors alike, here is a visual feast as well as a cultural and historical icon beautifully restored,” says Steven S. Koblik, president of The Huntington.


Serving as an iconic backdrop at The Huntington, the Japanese Garden was developed by Henry E. Huntington (1850–1927) between 1911 and 1912, soon after the completion of his residence (now known as the Huntington Art Gallery).


The garden includes a series of koi-filled ponds, a historic moon bridge, and a Japanese House—scenic elements that together make up one of the most frequently photographed landscape views in Southern California.


The garden also plays an important role in the educational mission of the institution as the site for numerous school tours and public programs fostering understanding of Japanese tradition and horticultural art forms.


It features a raked-gravel dry garden (karesansui) in the Zen Garden, a bonsai court, a display of suiseki (“viewing stones”), a bamboo forest, and now a ceremonial tea garden that will build awareness and appreciation of the traditional Japanese “way of tea.”


“The Japanese Garden is arguably the most popular spot at The Huntington and has drawn more than 20 million visitors since the institution opened to the public in 1928,” says James Folsom, the Telleen/ Jorgensen Director of the Botanical Gardens.


“It is a garden that functions on multiple levels—a magical place that is intimate and inspiring. At the same time, it teaches us about Japan’s unique landscape traditions, craftsmanship, horticulture, and rituals.”


Despite the Japanese Garden’s beauty, age had taken its inevitable toll. Rotted wood, termite damage, crumbling plaster, and shifting soil that threatened retaining walls all demanded attention.


A team of international experts—architects with backgrounds in historic preservation, horticulturists, landscape architects, engineers, and craftsmen—assembled to take on the project led by Folsom along with David MacLaren, The Huntington’s curator of Asian gardens, and Laurie Sowd, vice president for operations at The Huntington.


New Teahouse


The new ceremonial teahouse, named Seifu-an (Arbor of Pure Breeze), was donated to The Huntington by the Pasadena Buddhist Temple in 2010. Built in Kyoto in 1964, the teahouse was disassembled from the temple grounds, shipped to Kyoto, restored, and shipped back to San Marino in May 2011.


Kyoto-based architect and craftsman Yoshiaki Nakamura (whose father built the original structure) oversaw the restoration. It then was painstakingly reassembled under the tutelage of Nakamura and other expert craftsmen who had traveled from Kyoto for the project.


When the Japanese Garden reopens, visitors will see the teahouse set in a new traditional tea garden, situated on a picturesque ridge with a view that extends northeastward, across the Japanese Garden’s canyon, and toward the San Gabriel Mountains. The tea garden will feature a traditional entry gate, winding paths, a stream, and a ceremonial waiting bench.


Landscape architect Takeo Uesugi and his son, Keiji Uesugi, both affiliated with California State Poly­technic University, Pomona, oversaw design for the entire Japanese Garden project, including the creation of a new waterfall to the south of the Japanese House.


Historic Japanese House


The Japanese House at The Huntington is an example of an upper-class dwelling common in Japan from the late 19th to the early 20th century. Much of the structure was built in Japan and shipped to California around 1904.


It was refurbished in 1957 through the efforts of the San Marino League, a philanthropic women’s group based near The Huntington, but the house received only minor repairs in the ensuing years, and the structure—composed of natural materials, including wood, paper, and reed mats—was in need of a comprehensive rehabilitation and preservation.


This work has been led by preservation architect Kelly Sutherlin McLeod of Long Beach. Historical research associated with the project revealed a great deal about the structure, and the conservation team’s discoveries about original roofing material, wood finishes, and configuration of the front portico’s original columns helped it restore the building accurately.


Infrastructure, Accessibility


Repairs to the Japanese Garden’s central pond system were a major part of the project, along with the renovation of the original concrete faux-stone pond edges and faux-bois (false wood) ornamental trellises. The project also includes new and rebuilt pathways for easier access.


A Historic Garden


The Japanese Garden at The Huntington was inspired by widespread Western fascination with Asian culture. Founder Henry E. Huntington shared this interest, and with the support of his superintendent, William Hertrich (1905–1962), he decided to build his own Japanese garden in a scenic canyon on his San Marino estate.


Many of the garden’s original elements were moved from a property owned by George Turner Marsh (1857–1932) in nearby Pasadena that had failed as a commercial tea garden. Purchased in its entirety by Huntington, Marsh’s garden included the Japanese House that, once relocated to The Huntington grounds, became the dramatic focal point of the garden.


Huntington commissioned a Japanese craftsman to build the moon bridge as an added feature. It was painted bright red for years—a color fashionable in American versions of Asian gardens at the time. In 1992 it was stripped and allowed to return to the natural gray-brown of the Douglas fir and redwood structure, a color more common to moon bridges found in Japan.


After the institution opened to the public in 1928, the Japanese Garden became a major draw for visitors. But by the advent of World War II, staffing shortages and the political climate led to the closure of the Japanese Garden, and the house fell into disrepair.


In the 1950s, members of the San Marino League helped support the refurbishment of the buildings and surrounding landscape. In 1968, The Huntington added the Zen Garden and a bonsai display that was expanded in 2010.




Constructed on the slopes of a canyon, the garden boasts several beautiful forms of Japanese red pine, handsome spreading junipers, large cycads, arbors of wisteria, and 30-foot-high sweet olives.


From January through April such fruit trees as the Japanese flowering apricot, ‘Pink Cloud’ cherry, flowering peaches and single- and double-flowered plums provide a succession of color. The lavender blooms of wisteria add to the spring show along with camellias and azaleas in white, red, and many shades of pink.


Alongside the large pond are a weeping willow overhanging the bridge, clusters of cycads, and junipers. Pines, which are mainstays of the garden, include Japanese black pine, Japanese red pines (common, weeping, umbrella, and Dragon’s Eye), set in a backdrop of non-Asian pines such as Aleppo, Stone, Canary Island, and Torrey. Lotus, water lilies, and iris decorate the ponds in spring and summer.


The raked-gravel dry garden, also known as karesansui in the Zen Garden, is intended for contemplation. The gravel is raked to evoke the feeling of moving water, interrupted here and there by rocks. This is a symbolic garden where the viewer quietly uses his or her imagination to interpret the scene. The garden glows in the fall as the leaves of the ginkgo turn to shimmering yellow.


The Bonsai Court, created in collaboration with the Golden State Bonsai Federation (a nonprofit educational organization that promotes the art of bonsai throughout the state), features more than 70 mature examples of this Japanese art—trees pruned on a miniature scale in shallow pots to represent tree forms of ancient age and natural, elegant lines. Beautiful specimens take decades to create and can live for centuries.