Press Release - Japanese Garden
The Japanese HouseHistory
The five-room, 1,376 square-foot Japanese House at The Huntington is a cultural resource with a unique story to tell about the adaptation of Japanese culture in Southern California. According to early 20th-century newspaper articles and other evidence, elements of the house were created in Japan, then shipped to California around 1904 and assembled for George Turner Marsh (1857–1932), who had bought it for his commercial Japanese garden in Pasadena. Marsh was a dealer of Oriental art who built several commercial tea gardens and created a Japanese garden for the 1894 World’s Fair in San Francisco.
Marsh’s Japanese house in Pasadena lacked a kitchen or bathroom and was placed on the corner of California Blvd. and Fair Oaks Ave. to serve as a gallery to display paintings and other objects for sale, surrounded by an extensive garden with winding paths, bridges, lanterns, and plants native to Japan. The garden was designed to appeal to tourists from the eastern United States who flocked to Pasadena each winter, and to the millionaires who had built winter residences in the city. But, by 1911, it was failing financially, and Marsh sold the entire property, including the Japanese house, stone statuary, and plants, to Henry E. Huntington (1850–1927) to construct a Japanese garden on his San Marino, Calif., estate.
While little is known about the Japanese carpenters who originally built The Huntington’s Japanese House, it is known that the craftsman Toichiro Kawai (1860–1943) disassembled and reassembled the house for The Huntington’s garden. Kawai was a carpenter with a specialty in shipbuilding and woodcarving who had emigrated from Japan.
Huntington hired the Goto family, who had worked for Marsh, to maintain the garden and live in a small house built behind the Japanese House. While little is known about how Henry and Arabella Huntington used the Japanese Garden during the three months they spent on the property each year, oral tradition suggests they did show the garden to their visitors.
When The Huntington opened to the public in 1928, visitors were able to view the house from the Japanese Garden, but during World War II staffing shortages and the political climate caused the Japanese Garden to be neglected, with parts of it inaccessible to the public, and the Japanese House fell into disrepair. In 1958 the Japanese House was refurbished through the efforts of the San Marino League, a local philanthropic women’s group. However, the house received only minor repairs in the ensuing years, and the structure—composed of natural materials, including wood, paper, and reed mats—was in need of a comprehensive rehabilitation and preservation.
A few of the house’s exterior details, notably the raised leaf patterns on the protruding cross-beams at the main entrance, reveal the slightly ornate taste of the late Meiji period (1868–1912) in Japan. Although it was designed to display Japanese art objects, and was intended primarily as an art object itself rather than a residence, the size and sequencing of rooms reflect traditional Japanese ideas about space and function in domestic architecture.
This kind of two-story wooden house is known as a wagoya. It is topped with a hip-and-gable roof, or irimoya-zukuri. The facade faces east, with a projecting entry, framed by wood columns, accented with a distinctive Chinese-style curved gable, or karahafu. Wrapping around the south and east sides of the house is a veranda, or kirime-en, enclosed by door sills, or kamachi, and storm shutters (amado). Evidence of the work of Japanese-trained carpenters is clear in the many Japanese characters (kanji) written on wood accents and framing throughout the house.
Inside the house are movable partitions (shoji); alcoves (tokonoma); wood-paneled doors to the outside that can be left opened or closed; and floor mats (tatami), made of compressed rice straw with a woven rush covering.
Traditional Japanese houses, including The Huntington’s, are designed so that inhabitants can enjoy nature and the gardens around them while seated on the floor. Inner walls can be easily removed to make a room larger, or they can be kept in place for privacy.
The Huntington’s Japanese House includes Japanese woods, such as persimmon, red pine, and zelkova (Keyaki). Most of the structural elements are of American woods.
The Centennial Renovation Project
As part of the Japanese Garden’s centennial renovation project, The Huntington brought on Kelly Sutherlin McLeod Architecture, Inc., based in Long Beach, Calif., to conduct the research, planning, and execution of a preservation program for the historic structure.
The house’s preservation plan focused on the exterior and aimed to retain and restore original materials wherever possible. Major alterations were not made, and treatments were designed to emulate and re-create the building’s original finishes and design intent.
After the conservator removed nonoriginal flat paint from the exterior wood features, they applied a penetrating sealer to protect and maintain appropriately aged finish. Decay at rafter tails was repaired while maintaining as much historic material as possible. The original fine, dark Japanese plaster was also replicated as part of the renovation project.
One of the most prominent and complex features of the Japanese House is its distinctive roof, but many repair jobs over the years had obscured the original design and shingle type. The entire roof now has been restored to its original, slightly undulating, shape, with new shingles that replicate the originals.
A focal point of the main facade of the house is the curved, flared-gable portico over the entry. The wood bases of the portico’s columns had been partially buried by stone paving, likely during the 1960s. Excavation revealed that the columns originally rested on traditional wood bases set on granite pads. Although the bases had deteriorated into dust, their shape remained imprinted in the surrounding mortar, providing the evidence necessary to re-create the wood bases for the columns.
The grade around the entry has also been lowered to accommodate new pathways for pedestrian access, to shed water away from the house, and to create a more generous margin between the ground and the house’s wood sills and posts. With the paving returned to its lower level, the replacement entry column bases are visible again.
This background sheet was compiled using research conducted by Kendall Brown, professor of Asian art history at California State University, Long Beach, and noted expert on the history of Japanese landscape and gardens outside of Japan; and Naomi Hirahara, a journalist and novelist who is an authority on Japanese culture in Southern California. Their work will appear in a book to be published by the Huntington Library Press in fall 2012 on the history of The Huntington’s Japanese Garden.