A c. 1937 image of the Japanese garden at the Huntington, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.
In 1919, Henry E. and Arabella Huntington signed trust papers that would turn their estate into a public institution. Once opened to the public, the Japanese gardens became one of the top attractions to visitors, thanks to its peace, beauty and refinement. Remarkably, the garden was not created by Huntington gardeners, but bought lock, stock, and barrel from a commercial business operating in Pasadena, disassembled, and transplanted at the Huntington. Here is its remarkable story.
Japan reopened trade with the West after American Commodore Matthew Perry and his armada sailed into Tokyo Bay on July 8, 1853. Oriental and Japanese art like textiles, prints, and ceramics quickly became popular in both America and Europe, leading to a collecting craze for everything Japanese. This frenzy led to the term Japonism, the influence of Japanese philosophy, art, and aesthetics on Western Culture.
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An undated photo of the bridge at the Huntington’s Japanese gardens, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Painters like Henry McNeill Whistler, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, and Vincent Van Gogh demonstrated influences of the East in their art, the team of Gilbert and Sullivan created the comic operetta “The Mikado” in 1885, and Giacomo Puccini composed the renowned opera “Madame Butterfly” in 1904. Art objects quickly became popular as household items as well.
Japanese gardens first appeared in the United States at International Expositions, becoming popular with their guests as they offered a slice of beauty and refined culture. The Japanese government arranged simple “gardens” of plants, lanterns, and decorative items at foreign expositions, with the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition featuring the first Japanese garden in the United States. Soon they became a regular feature at these major tourist draws. A garden was one of the most popular attractions at the 1904 St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition, featuring six buildings and a large “Enchanted Garden” with a teahouse, iron and stone lanterns, a small island, arched bridge, and a variety of plants. Isaac Marcossan wrote in a 1904 article, “…the Japanese have brought the perfection of landscape beauty….” The craze for Japanese gardens was thus born.
American-style Japanese gardens became popular with the well-to-do, a form of ghost image of those in Japan, offering an element of cultural refinement to the estates of the nouveau riche. Kendall Brown in his book, “Japanese Gardens of the Pacific West Coast” writes that “Japanese-style gardens in North America tell us more about America and Canada than they do about Japan. As oppose to being merely “Japanese,” the gardens evince their patrons’ and consumers’ particular attitudes toward Japan,” creating a form of Orientalism of Westerners’ own imaginations. These white owners hired Japanese to design and construct the gardens.
Former Australian Oriental art dealer G.T. (George Turner) Marsh helped popularize and promote Japanese gardens in California when he won the franchise to create a Japanese village for the 1894 Midwinter Exposition in San Francisco. Born in Australia, Marsh lived for a short time in Japan, where he fell in love with the art and culture of the country. The village he designed in San Francisco featured an entrance gate leading to thatched roof pavilions, a theatre, teahouse, plants, and ornaments, and a hillside with waterfall, all elements which would become standardized items in West Coast tea gardens. After the Exposition, Marsh donated the garden to the city of San Francisco, which was employed in creating its offshoot, the Japanese Garden at Golden Gate Park in 1895. Marsh inaugurated the idea of commercial Japanese tea gardens, with most constructed adjacent to resort hotels and beach properties.
Marsh operated Oriental art shops around California, including in Pasadena at his Corner Store across the street from the Hotel Castle Green, and he soon constructed tea gardens adjacent to many of his businesses. In 1903 he constructed his first tea garden at his home in Mill Valley and then joined with John D. Spreckels to open a Japanese Tea Garden on Coronado Island as an attraction for Hotel Del Coronado guests (the tea garden was later destroyed in a storm). That same year he purchased land at the northwest corner of Fair Oaks Avenue and California in Pasadena to build an elaborate tea garden to replace the smaller store.
Two Armenian couples pose for a photo in the Huntington’s Japanese garden in 1931, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.
Surrounded by a six-foot wooden fence stained red and black and featuring a gate entrance, the garden required guests to strike a “gong” to summon caretakers. It featured a pond, undulating hills, a miniature mountain with waterfall and stream-fed goldfish pond, “idols,” a tea house, a bridge to cross the pond, a crooked bridge, and shrine. Buddhist sculptures originally from temples and dating from 1650 to 1750 dotted the property, acquired by Marsh in Tokyo. The garden’s landscape featured evergreen, pine, cypress, plum, peach, and cherry trees, Japanese maple, azalea, peony, and camellias. Brochures claimed the “house” had been purchased in Japan and disassembled for transport to California, where it was reassembled.
A 1904 ad in the Pasadena Star claims that A.Y. Okita served as designer and builder. The Pasadena Evening Star later featured an ad supposedly quoting “one of the greatest landscape gardeners in America” stated “The Japanese garden is the most worthwhile of al the places I have been in years.”
The G.T. Marsh Japanese Tea Garden in Pasadena served mostly upscale society ladies looking for a cultured and refined location to hold teas, parties, and meetings, with newspapers listing many of these types of events. While beautiful, the gardens were expensive to maintain, leading it to suffer financial difficulties. A March 26, 1911, ad in the Los Angeles Times announced the first auction at the property of the N.J. Sargent Collection of Oriental Art. A May 14 Los Angeles Herald story reported that the garden “may be cut up into lots.”
On August 20, 1911, the Los Angeles Times announced that Huntington had purchased the $12,000 property and all its buildings, decorations, and plants, which he intended to move and transplant at his 500-acre estate in San Marino, which he had purchased from the Shoup family in 1903. After completing construction of the mansion around 1910, his overseer William Hertrich began organizing the layout and construction of gardens around the property.
In the book, “100 Years in the Huntington’s Japanese Garden,” author T. June Li states that Huntington purchased the garden in order to facilitate the development of his own garden with mature plants, shrubs, and trees, creating something that would appeal to the elegant Arabella Huntington, the widow of his uncle, whom he was courting and would marry in 1913.
The book “Founding of the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery” reveals that the Japanese garden would fill an open canyon near the home, requiring the removal of a dam and hundreds of loads of gravel and dirt, the construction of terraces and then re-grading the area, laying down concrete bottoms for the ponds, and creating paths. Retaining walls were constructed in early October along with a waterfall and rockery. Hertrich wrote to Huntington: “The plants in the Pasadena Garden I have not taken out yet, but all of the rocks are piled up near the entrance, about two carloads.…I have not done anything further about moving the Japanese house. At the present time am employing about 70 men… .”
Hertrich wrote in early November, “The Japanese Garden is beginning to get some shape now. the big pond is full of water, and the reflection of the surround trees on the hills is a very good feature of it. Some of the walks are dug out and a few hills and valley complete, with the water pipes in, ready for planting. Most of the plants at the Pasadena Garden are boxed. They weigh from 500 pounds to 2 tons apiece; expect to plant some of them next week.” Approximately 25 truckloads of plants arrived at the estate.
Toichiro Kawai was hired in late 1911 for the hard work of relocating the buildings and creating new features for the garden. Much work went into moving the house from the tea garden to the Huntington property. The workers disassembled it for the move, put it back together once it arrived, and then plastered and stained it. Hertrich wrote to Huntington in December about the hard work in placing the purchased materials in the canyon. “Have done a big lot of work in that canyon since you left California… Made some very good artificial rocks with my own men. It was hard work for everybody to handle all those big plants on account of transporting them by hand, down on one side of the canyon, across the pond, and up on the other side.”
The garden’s construction was completed in February. In early March 1912, photographs were mailed to Huntington in New York. His secretary immediately recognized its beauty, responding, “I think you have created a joy forever. It seems like a beautiful dream, and I congratulate you on a great achievement. Mr. Huntington is tremendously pleased… .”
In 1913, the Chiyozo Goto family was hired to serve as caretakers for the garden, the same role they had occupied when it was owned by Marsh. They were required to dress in Japanese costume and greet guests. That year, the “Garden Chronicle of America” called the Japanese garden “the crowning glory” of the Huntington estate. Very few gardeners were assigned to help manage the grounds, and by the 1920s, it was overgrown. The Gotos returned to Japan in 1923.
Eventually the Japanese garden was restored, becoming an oasis of calm and peace. The Japanese garden along with its teahouse were restored in 2013, and remains one of the most popular areas of the Huntington today. A classy reminder of bygone days, the Huntington Japanese garden reveals the long hidden story of its construction by G.T. Marsh and and its saving by Henry Huntington.