A postcard showing a Japanese garden at the Huntington Hotel, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Throughout its history, Los Angeles has been blessed with an abundance of beautiful parks and gardens in which to relax. In the early twentieth century, Japanese gardens were all the rage, and many dotted the Southern California landscape. Estates as well as city parks contained serene tea gardens in which to contemplate nature and just be.
Popular culture helped lead the way to the creation of many of these Oriental gardens. After American Commodore Matthew Perry and his ships entered Tokyo Bay on July 8, 1853, Japan reopened trade with the West. Textiles, ceramics, and prints soon gained in popularity both in Europe and America, leading to the term, Japonism, referring to the influence of Japanese aesthetics, art, and philosophy on Western culture. A craze for collecting all things Japanese exploded.
A Japanese garden at the Cawston Ostrich Farm, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
Painters like James McNeill Whistler, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, and Vincent Van Gogh were influenced by Japanese prints and art. Composers also integrated Japanese or Oriental themes into their work. Camille Saint-Saens composed the one act opera, “La Princess Jaune” in 1871, Gilbert and Sullivan wrote the comic operetta, “The Mikado,” in 1885, and Giacomo Puccini composed the dramatic opera, “Madame Butterfly,” in 1904. Puccini had adapted his opera from David Belasco’s successful 1903 play, which itself was adapted from John Luther Long’s 1895 novel, “Madame Butterfly.” Ukiyo-e prints influenced the Art Nouveau movement, and other forms of Japanese aesthetics influenced Pasadena’s Greene and Greene brothers in their elegant style of architecture.
Japonism extended to the exterior as well, with the creation of American-style Japanese gardens, a form of ghost image of those in Japan. Just like art, they were influenced and derived from Japanese aesthetics and landscapes, becoming their own unique form of tranquility. As professor Kendall Brown states in his book, “Japanese Style Gardens of the Pacific West Coast,” “Japanese-style gardens in North America tell us more about America and Canada than they do about Japan. As opposed to being merely “Japanese,” the gardens evince their patrons’ and consumers’ particular attitudes toward Japan,” presenting a a type of orientalism in which Westerners constructed an Orient of their imagination. Though owned by white Americans, these gardens were designed and constructed by Japanese Americans.
Westerners learned about Japanese gardens from the Japanese themselves. The Japanese government sponsored simple Japanese “gardens” of plants, decorative items, and lanterns at international expositions in Vienna in 1873, Philadelphia in 1876, and Paris in 1878 and 1884. They began constructing major gardens and pavilions starting with Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, even building Japanese tea houses in which guests could partake of tea. Many employed “geisha girls” to serve tea and greet guests. Per Kendall Brown, they created a much more elaborate compound for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, consisting of six buildings and a large “Enchanted Garden” with teahouse, iron and stone lanterns, a small island, arched bridge, and a variety of plants. In a 1904 article, Isaac Marcossan wrote that in this compound, “…the Japanese have brought the perfection of landscape beauty… .” Thus, the large craze for serene Japanese tea gardens was born.
The Bernheimer garden pagoda, courtesy of Mary Mallory.
In 1894, Australian merchant G. T. (George Turner) Marsh won the rights to create a Japanese Village at the 1894 California Midwinter Exposition in San Francisco when the Japanese set out. This was the start of Americans constructing commercial tea gardens. Entrepreneurs began mimicking this and other large Japanese gardens as adjuncts to their businesses, many near resort hotels. Some actually bought the plants and structures from Japanese exposition displays to populate their own “exotic” displays.
Brown writes that the earliest public Japanese-style garden was likely at Blair Park in Piedmont, California in 1891, followed soon thereafter by the garden in Golden Gate Park in 1895, an offshoot of the garden at the 1894 San Francisco Exposition, which had been donated to the city by G. T. Marsh. These gardens blended different types of Japanese gardens: pond, stroll, dry landscapes, and tea gardens for public entertainment.
Marsh operated Oriental Art companies throughout California, and established tea gardens with many of his businesses. He constructed a Japanese garden at the Northwest corner of California and Fair Oaks Avenue in Pasadena in 1903, with a Japanese house employed to sell art. These lavish grounds were surrounded by a walled gate, with visitors striking a large “gong” for entry. The garden consisted of undulating hills, pond, waterfall and stream, bushes and trees, and tea house, which was constructed in Japan and shipped to Pasadena. High class women held fundraisers, garden parties, receptions, and other events here at the garden. After suffering financial problems in 1911, the property was put up for auction, with H. R. Huntington buying everything, structures and plants, uprooting them, and relocating them to his estate in San Marino.
Santa Monica’s Arcadia Hotel built a Japanese tea garden in 1908. Cawston Ostrich Farm constructed a Japanese tea garden in late 1908-early 1909 as further attractions for visiting tourists. They offered daily lunches and tea per a January 24, 1909 ad in the Los Angeles Herald. Busch Gardens itself opened a small tea garden. The Chutes at Venice Beach opened a small Japanese tea garden and exhibit on its grounds in 1906
In 1910, the Los Angeles Parks Commission considered installing a large Japanese Garden like that at Golden Gate Park in either Eastlake or Sycamore Park, to complement the Japanese pavilion, which had operated since 1904. Makato Hagiwara, proprietor of San Francisco’s Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park, approached them on October 10 with plans and specifications for a similar garden in Los Angeles. They visited sites, and he recommended buying eighteen acres from Huntington adjacent to Eastlake Park. Unfortunately, Huntington refused to sell, and the plan was abandoned.
The Wattles garden in Hollywood, Courtesy of Mary Mallory.
When the city and development of Montrose was opened in 1913, a six acre garden was announced on November 9, 1913, with plants, stone lamps, furniture, and shrines imported from Japanese to decorate the grounds. Bridges would extend over miniature lakes, with several islands containing small teahouses planned. The city of Inglewood constructed its own Japanese garden in 1914. Several cities would go on to build their own Japanese gardens over the next 10-15 years, including Glendora in 1922. Japanese parents in Sierra Madre even constructed a garden at the Sierra Madre Elementary School in 1931, followed by parents constructing one at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles around the same time.
The Huntington Hotel in Pasadena contained its own Japanese garden when it opened January 18, 1914, with a special treat, moving picture cameramen recording people in the garden, and later showing the films at a film theatre inside the hotel. The gardens contained small tea house, pond, stroll area, and decoration. At many of these gardens, kimono-clad Japanese women or “Geisha girls” greeted and served guests.
Just before 1900, wealthy elites like John D. Rockefeller, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Abby Aldrich, and Vanderbilts also began constructing private residential gardens in response to the Japanism craze as a way to demonstrate their wealth and sophistication. Beginning on the East Coast, the rich created their own Japanese gardens, eventually spreading west to San Francisco, Montecito, Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles. Adding a tea garden to an estate revealed that the owners had achieved the ultimate pinnacle of success.
Many constructed a garden composed of multiple varieties of Japanese gardens, blending pond gardens, stroll gardens, a dry landscape for contemplation, and a tea garden as the public entertainment area.
Many Los Angeles elites began constructing their own individual Japanese gardens for their own private estates. In 1904, Adelaide Tichenor hired the Greene and Greene brothers to design both her home and gardens, insisting they visit the “Imperial Japanese Garden” at the St. Louis Exposition and incorporate a similar one around her Long Beach home. W. A. Avery of Sunset Blvd. constructed a Japanese garden at his El Nido estate in 1906, as did Harry Ainsworth at Redondo in 1906. The Joseph and Phoebe Giroux estate on Hollywood’s Gower Avenue contained a garden by 1910. In 1911, Captain Randolph Miner built his own Japanese garden on the grounds of his West Adams Blvd. home, and Dr. Rudolph Schiffman of Pasadena incorporated a tea garden into his property. George H. Ross established a large Japanese garden on his seven acre estate at the head of La Brea Ave, with Dr. Janss building a Japanese garden on his Brentwood estate that same year. Dr. James Dixon, a Scottish historian and author of a book on Japanese gardens, built his mansion at 427 N. Ardmore Avenue with a Japanese garden, per the February 3, 1919, Los Angeles Times.
The Times reprinted an August 28, 1914 Chicago Journal article, which stated, “Dame Fashion now decrees that every possessor of a country estate must have a Japanese garden or suffer that loss of caste which befalls those who fail to keep up with the procession.”
After purchasing the large McCray estate in the Hollywood Hills in 1916, Borax King Thomas Thorkildsen added an exotic Japanese garden to the grounds. As mentioned earlier, Henry Huntington purchased the entire G. T. Marsh Japanese garden in Pasadena in 1911, dismantling everything and transporting it to his San Marino estate, where it was transplanted by 1914, a possible wedding gift intended to impress his fiancee, Arabella. It would finally open to the public in 1928.
In 1912, Oriental good importers Adolph and Eugene Bernheimer purchased land atop a small hill in Hollywood, constructing an exotic $250,000 22-room Japanese mansion and grounds, which the November 15, 1914 Los Angeles Times called, “Yama Shiro,” or large house on the hill. They imported a 600 hundred-year-old pagoda to decorate the eight-acre grounds, along with decorative urns, lamps, figures, waterfalls, arches, and stones. The home became an immediate sensation for its dramatic appearance, with the paper stating, “…it looms upon the view like a vision from the skies of the celestial kingdom itself… .” By the 1930s, it operated as the Hollywood Scenic Gardens and Oriental Palace, opened to the public, with a brochure touting, “It is estimated that two million dollars have been spent to make it one of the finest showplaces in America.” The Gardens were open 9:30 am to 6 pm every day with a twenty five cent entry fee, ten cents for children under 12. Adolph later constructed Pacific Palisades’ Bernheimer Gardens after an argument with his brother.
In 1907, Nebraska businessman Gurdon Wattles hired architects Myron Hunt and Elmer Grey to design an elegant winter estate on Curson Avenue as his winter escape, which he later named “Jualita.” While visiting Japan in 1908, Wattles decided to incorporate a Japanese garden into the grounds. As Allan Ellenberger writes in his biographical sketch of Wattles, the magnate hired Fugio, a Japanese landscape designer, to supervise eighteen California-born Japanese gardens in the construction of the showpiece, incorporating all the urns, lanterns, sculptures, marbles, and plantings imported from Japan. Within a few years, Wattles opened his rose, Italian, and Japanese gardens to the public on Tuesday mornings. The Japanese gardens extended up a hillside on the back of the grounds. They remained on the property after the family donated the lands to Los Angeles as a park in 1950s, which the parks department allowed to deteriorate. Only ruins now survive.
The movies even incorporated Japanese gardens and themes into their product, turning out many Oriental stories. Many shot in local gardens, with DeWolf Hopper filming at a Sierra Madre Japanese garden in 1917, and an early silent film shooting at Dr. Marsh’s Pasadena garden before it closed in 1911. The November 21, 1920 Los Angeles Times even reported that Robertson-Cole company would construct a Japanese garden for Sessue Hayakawa and an English garden for Pauline Frederick at their new Gower Street and Melrose Avenue studio. Metro Studios even constructed a small Japanese garden as well, which they employed for both publicity stills and filming.
Movie stars created Japanese gardens for their own estates, led by Hayakawa himself at the former Castle Sans Souci. Noah Beery built none at his Hollywood home in 1922, and Corinne Griffith installed one at her home in 1924.
The middle class eventually followed the craze as well. Bungalow courts and modest homes incorporated small features like stones, urns, or other decorative elements for their own versions of occidental gardens. The Los Angeles Times contained semi-regular features on Japanese gardens in the 1910s and 1920s, explaining how to construct or maintain them. The September 3, 1905 Los Angeles Herald had even noted for those who couldn’t afford a real garden, that small porcelain miniatures could be employed to decorate a home.
By the late 1920s and early 1930s, these exotic landscapes were called Oriental gardens instead of Japanese gardens as the Japonism fad faded. Militaristic tensions from Japan in the late 1930s led to many calling them scenic gardens instead. Of course, after war was declared in December 1941, many of these once elegant and tranquil oriental landscapes were viciously destroyed by fervently militaristic Americans. Many were never restored or rebuilt.
After the war, many new gardens were constructed in a symbolic rapprochement with Japan and as a celebration of California’s Japanese and past at such places as Descanso Gardens, Irvine Gardens, and the Water Reclamation Plant in the San Fernando Valley. Others were gradually reopened to the public in various ways, such as what is now Yamashiro’s restaurant, or the serene 100-year-old garden at the Huntington Library and estate. From 2007-2013, Pasadena’s Storrier-Stearns Japanese Gardens from the 1930s were restored and rebuilt, now open to the public.
Though adapted into American versions of Japan’s tranquil islands of beauty, these California Japanese gardens still offer quiet outposts of serenity and contemplation, places of gentle beauty in an often busy and cacophonous world.