After a year-long, nearly $7 million renovation, the famed Japanese Garden at the Huntington Library is once again open. This is the centennial anniversary of the Japanese garden, which is one of the most popular areas of the picturesque Huntington property that sits along the border of Pasadena and San Marino.
The seed of the Huntington’s Japanese Garden is a love story. Jim Folsom is like the "bard of the botanical." He is director of the gardens and has there for nearly three decades. He explains how Henry Huntington built the Japanese Garden in part as a courtship offering: "That would be one nice summary of it. And it was so quaint and iconic, so exotic and picturesque," he says.
In the early 1900s, Japanese tea gardens had become quite fashionable and a fascination of the very wealthy. To impress the woman he wanted to marry, railroad magnate Henry Huntington literally pulled an entire Japanese garden from a nearby emporium and transplanted it to his San Marino estate.
“They built it through a simple expedient," Folsom explains. "There was an import business on the corner of California and Fair Oaks across from where Boston Market is today. It was a tea garden. And it was an emporium to sell Asian antiquities. Mr. Huntington bought the entire business and moved all the ornaments and the plants here."
So the Japanese Garden at the Huntington started blooming in 1912. And one year later, Henry married Arabella Yarrington. To this day, the garden view is like a romantic painting, dotted with ponds and purple wisteria dangling over trellises. There’s the moon bridge nestled in, and it’s all draped with a majestic view of the San Gabriel Mountains.
After Henry Huntington’s death, the grounds opened to the public in 1928. The Japanese garden flourished until World War II. And then, perhaps as a reaction to the politics of the day, Folsom says it was “bad news" for the garden. "There was retrenchment. And of course the Japanese Garden all of a sudden became the Oriental Garden.”
A Japanese house from the early 20th century has been one of the main features of the garden. Over the years, crews kept covering the disrepair with coats of brown paint. That was the case until the current renovation. Folsom points to the renovated entry of the house and says removal of old paint uncovered some amazing craftsmanship and wood carvings.
“We were pleasantly, wonderfully surprised as the conservation crew started removing the paint and there was a lot more detail there than we imagined," Folsom says. I’ve had two or three visitors come ask when did you add those carvings. I say we didn’t add them. We found them. They were already there. “
Katherine Smith with Griswald conservation associates, worked on the careful restoration of the Japanese house. "We did some historic analysis we’re really trying to bring back the house to what we believe it looked like in 1912," she says. "It’s a process but a lot of fun and uncovering the carvings has been a treat. We used wood skewers and tongue depressors so we wouldn’t lose any of the fine detailing."
And what was it like to see what was revealed that had been covered up for a hundred years.
"It was satisfying," she says. "It was satisfying to see how beautiful it was."
The renovation also includes a traditional Japanese tea house, taken apart stick by stick and sent back to Japan where the son of the original craftsman did the restoration.
Folsom says the entire garden is a showcase of Japanese living arts.
“The Japanese garden has grown up and has a life. And it has to do with beauty and arts and nature. And more than a symbol, it is a realization of people coming together and growing and learning from each other and the preservation of ancient arts that have real meaning.“
The 9-acre site also includes a bonsai courtyard and traditional stone garden. The Huntington also is planning to develop a workshop area to teach traditional Japanese arts such as tea ceremonies and flower arranging.