2015 / Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden: Restored Japanese garden invites visitors for joy

A teahouse named Niko-An is rebuilt beside a pond of a Japanese garden which was created 80 years ago in Pasadena’s historical residential area. (Courtesy of the Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden)

A teahouse named Niko-An is rebuilt beside a pond of a Japanese garden which was created 80 years ago in Pasadena’s historical residential area. (Courtesy of the Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden)

Cultural News June 2015

By Meher McArthur

Eighty years ago on a large estate in western Pasadena, Japanese landscape designer Kinzuchi Fujii had begun the construction of what was to become his masterwork, a large two-pond Japanese stroll garden with a 12-mat teahouse.

Five years later, in 1940, the garden was completed to the delight of his patrons, Charles and Ellamae Storrier Stearns, a wealthy and worldly couple who, like many sophisticated Americans of the day, admired Japanese art and culture and wished to incorporate it into their lives.

Sadly for Fujii, this love of Japanese culture didn’t extend to a love of Japanese people, and for the first decades of the 20th century, the Japanese were treated as second-class citizens in the US, and in 1942, when war broke out between Japan and America, Fujii, was sent to an internment camp with over 100,000 other Japanese Americans. They were only allowed to pack one suitcase. In Fujii’s suitcase were the plans for the Storrier Stearns’ Japanese Garden in Pasadena, his life’s greatest work.

Kenzuchi Fujii, its creator, is just one of the many fascinating characters associated with this little known but exquisite Japanese garden in Pasadena. Located on Arlington Drive just off Pasadena Avenue in West Pasadena, the garden is a tranquil oasis with many of the features found in traditional Japanese gardens – ponds with bridges and stepping stones, a waterfall, stone lanterns and a small covered bench for sitting and enjoying the view.

Unlike European gardens, Japanese gardens are not about color and they are not about standing and smelling flowers. Instead, many shades of green gently harmonize and are only occasionally accented by the pink of a solitary azalea or the white of a water lily.

This, like most Japanese stroll gardens, is a place of contemplation and reflection. We are meant to walk through it in a relaxed but mindful state, enjoying the views and allowing the tranquility to seep through our bodies and minds.

Fujii was well aware of this ideal when he created this undulating space out of what was once a flat tennis courts, building hills from the dirt dug out to form the two ponds, so that the garden feels perfectly rhythmic and perfectly natural.

At its center is an elegant tea house positioned as if floating over the larger pond. The original teahouse was designed by Fujii and built in Japan, disassembled and then shipped to the United States and rebuilt on a foundation of three large boulders.

The garden was the highlight of Charles and Ellamae Storrier Stearns’ larger garden, which originally stretched seven city lots between Pasadena Avenue and Orange Grove, and featured a three-storey Georgian mansion.

An elegant couple who met in middle age after several previous marriages between them, the Storrier Stearns lived a glamorous life traveling between the United States (Pasadena and the East Coast) and France, where they kept homes in Paris and Nice.

They had no children, and in 1950 after they had both passed away, their Pasadena estate, including the mansion, was auctioned off. It was bought, on a whim, by another vivacious character, Gamelia Haddad Poulsen, a Pasadena art dealer who had originally gone to the sale to buy two Louis XV chairs, but when she realized no one was bidding on the whole property, she bought the lot!

Over the next few years, she sold off most of the property, keeping only the section with the Japanese garden and building a home for her family on it. For the next 20 years she was able to enjoy the garden, but in 1975, plans to build an extension to the 710 Freeway threatened the garden. CalTrans used eminent domain to take over almost half of the garden, and in 1981, a fire destroyed the teahouse. Believing the garden lost, Poulsen let it fall into ruin.

In 1985, when she passed away, her son Jim Haddad and his wife Constance, inherited the house and garden. The garden was in a sad state, and they were not sure what to do with it.

However, in the mid 1990s, when it became clear that the 710 Freeway extension was no longer going to run through their property, they decided to restore the beautiful garden, in honor of Gamelia and in order to preserve it for others to enjoy.

For the next decade they invested much of their time, energy and money into returning the garden to its original state, and were helped again by Japanese Americans.

They reconnected with Fujii’s family who still had the plans Fujii had kept safely with him in the internment camp, and these plans helped them give a second life to the garden and rebuild the teahouse (this time on a sturdier foundation).

In addition, a prominent garden designer, Takeo Uesugi, who has been responsible for designing some of California’s finest Japanese gardens, offered his services over several years to masterfully restore the ponds, hills, trees, paths and bridges to their original state, with a few upgrades including wider bridges to allow for wheelchair accessibility.

Finally, their extraordinary gardener Jose Rodriguez, who is originally from Colombia but lived many years in Japan, where he studied biotechnology and its applications to agriculture, has been making sure that the garden is not only in beautiful shape, but is managed in an environmentally intelligent and responsible manner.

Recycling all the refuse from the house and garden into nourishing compost and capturing all the lot’s rainwater and gray water, he is making sure that this lush Japanese garden is sustainable in the Southern California climate.

Now that the neighborhood seems safe from Caltrans’ bulldozers and the garden has been almost fully restored, Jim and Constance Haddad have made the garden a non-profit organization and are keen to share it with the world by opening it to the public as often as they are allowed in a residential area.

Currently, they open the garden to visitors the last Sunday of every month from 10am to 4pm, and on each of these Open Days they offer music, Japanese food-making classes or cultural programs that are as eclectic as the garden itself. On Sunday June 28th, for example, artist Barbara Thomason will present a lecture with slides about her series of paintings One Hundred Not So Famous Views of Los Angeles, based on the Japanese print designer Hiroshige’s 19th century series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Edo Meisho Hyakkei). Later in the year, they will present tea ceremony demonstrations, flute and harp music recitals and a Gagaku performance.

More information about the Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden – Pasadena’s “secret” Japanese garden – can be found on the garden’s website www.japanesegardenpasadena.com

Meher McArthur is a freelance Asian art curator, specializing in Japanese art. She is also an author of several books on Asian art, a writer on aspects of traditional and contemporary Asian art and an educator working with local art museums.