The Verdant Geisha
She was a very rich man’s plaything: beautiful, exotic, manicured, exceedingly fashionable at the time of her debut. Many of her charms had not only weathered the ensuing decades, but deepened. Still, repair and restoration were called for, and because it’s southern California, augmentation too.
Fortunately the subject in question is not an aging starlet, or the subject of a mediocre movie directed by Rob Marshall. Rather, it’s the 9.5-acre Japanese Garden at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, just a freeway and 12 miles north of downtown Los Angeles. Part of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, the Japanese Garden celebrates its centenary this year—and reopens today following a yearlong, $6.8 million refurbishment and expansion.
According to a Huntington spokesperson, it’s Yelped more often than Blue Boy or Pinkie, which in San Fernando Valley parlance might well signal a blue film but in the San Gabriel Valley refer to late 18th-century oils by British painters Thomas Gainsborough and Thomas Lawrence, respectively, both of which reside in The Huntington’s permanent collection (never mind their Gutenberg Bible).
What, then, is new? A lot—and fortunately very little.
The project’s primary goals were to restore the garden’s historic core as envisioned by Henry E. Huntington, the transportation magnate who commissioned the garden in 1911, an adornment to his estate of nearly 600 acres that T. June Li, curator of the Chinese garden at The Huntington (and editor of a forthcoming book on the garden scheduled for a fall release), explained was very much in keeping with the taste of the Gilded Age, during which both plutocrats and hoi polloi were exposed to Japanese aesthetics and architecture through widely publicized, culturally pervasive events such as the World Fairs of the late 19th century.
Core work included the renovation and restoration of the late Meiji period, five-room Japanese House (good-bye non-original thick brown paint, hello beautiful natural woods and replicated dark Japanese plaster!), the repair and replacement of bridges (including the garden’s signature moon bridge), and improving aquatic infrastructure (leaving the enormous koi unmolested). Completely new is an authentic 48-year-old ceremonial teahouse, relocated from the Pasadena Buddhist Temple, named Seifu-an (Arbor of Pure Breeze), and set in a traditionally landscaped tea garden. Easily accessible via new “step-less” paths, the teahouse and garden are adjacent to another augmentation: a second discrete bonsai court.
Perhaps most significant as a go-to destination for botanists, cultural anthropologists and green-thumbs of all stripes (and those who love them), the addition of the tea garden means the Huntington now boasts all three types of traditional Japanese garden forms: a raked-gravel dry garden (within the walled Zen Garden, added in 1968), a strolling garden (Henry’s original garden, with its paths lined with flowering peach, apricot, Formosan cherry, cycads, wisteria, a plethora of pines, as well as camellias and azaleas of jaw-dropping beauty), and the tea garden. “It’s quite extraordinary,” noted James Folsom, Director of the Botanical Gardens, adding that a more traditional strolling garden is now in the works, part of a new master plan for the garden that also came out of its Year of Hibernation and Rebirth.
Think of the garden as a whole … and as a rite of spring. Slideshow below.
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