By Gwen Stauffer and Virginia Hayes – Newsletter Spring 2015
SANTA BARBARA had been “a delightful little rural community” prior to 1890, states Victoria Padilla in Southern California Gardens (1961), but by then “had definitely become a floralconscious community, eager to raise… the lesser known trees, shrubs, and palms. As the infrastructure of roads, water delivery systems and eventually electricity were implemented, estates with more refined gardens were built.” A few of them followed a national trend to include Japanese-style gardens—a fashion that spread rapidly after Japan, isolated for several centuries from foreigners, decided to show the world how far Japan had come by creating a grand display at Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exposition. Millions of visitors to the Japanese pavilion, bazaar and gardens were captivated by the simple elegance of the Japanese arts and architecture at a time when American fashion was “smothered in the gravy of Victorian taste.” Japan’s exhibit at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago continued to broaden American enchantment with all things Japanese.
There was a period in the pre- World War II history of estate building in Santa Barbara when many private gardens with Japanese elements were created, including Mrs. John J. Mitchell’s El Mirador, and The Knight and Brundage Estates, but very few of these remain in Santa Barbara today. The pre-World War II Storrier-Stearns garden in Pasadena, restored in 2010, was designed and executed by Kunzichii Fujii, the father of Frank Fujii who worked with Madame Walska to build her Japanese garden.
The trend of building Japanese gardens in the United States hit a decisive low when Pearl Harbor was bombed and, in a display of patriotism, most Japanese gardens in the United States were demolished. After the war, the influence of Japanese sensibilities on American design resumed and a new set of elite Americans built new Japanese gardens.
The Japanese garden at Lotusland, created in the late 1960s, is the only remaining post-World War II Japanese Garden that is open to the public on the California central coast between Los Angeles and the Bay area. According to Ken Brown in Japanese-Style Gardens of the Pacific West Coast (1999), “Madame Ganna Walska pursued a unique vision on her estate Lotusland. Although Walska…had never been to Japan, the popularity of Japanese-style gardens among such friends as Barbara Hutton and the exotic associations of the genre likely fueled her desire for one.” Brown also feels that “the Lotusland Japanese garden…is very much I think about the local site, lanterns mainly from the area, and Madame Walska’s love of a variety of botanical species. …these are the qualities that distinguish it from the mainstream.”
While it is true that very few “Japanese” gardens in America actually follow the strict tenets of Japanese garden design, and, even of those that do, it is argued that only gardens in Japan are truly “authentic.” This does not diminish the importance of the Japanese gardens that exist in the U.S., particularly those built during the Golden Age of estate building in America and again after World War II. These conceptual Japanese gardens, or Japanese-style gardens, are important period pieces in the history of American gardens and exemplify the incorporation of a Japanese or Asian aesthetic into American gardens at significant periods in the history of American garden design.
There are several layers of history represented in Lotusland’s Japanese garden. In the late 1880s, R. Kinton Stevens constructed a reservoir in what had been a clay quarry to collect rainwater for irrigation. After Stevens’ death in 1896, the level of water was allowed to recede. The Gavit family (c. 1918 to 1938) built paths around the lowered pond and used it for recreation.
The pond was already densely filled with Asian lotuses planted by Stevens when Madame Walska purchased the property. She conceived of a Japanesestyle garden around the pond, and her scrapbooks with Japanese-themed clippings date from 1964 through 1972. During that time, she commissioned plans from several architects and although the plans were never implemented as drawn, Madame Walska may have incorporated some of the elements into the planted garden. She hired stone mason Ozzie Da Ros and aesthetic pruner Frank Fujii to purchase and install stones, lanterns and plants. Many of the lanterns came from other Japanese gardens that were being dismantled by the owners of private estates in Santa Barbara.
The garden continued to evolve over several years including the addition of an azalea bed, designed by her garden superintendent Charles Glass. He also enhanced the adjacent “bamboo pond,” adding a waterfall and a stone lantern that was moved from another location in the garden.
Following Madame Walska’s death in 1984, the Board of Trustees hired Koichi Kawana, a lecturer at UCLA who specialized in Japanese garden design, to aid in refreshing the Japanese garden. Two significant results from Kawana’s recommendations were the installation of a Shinto-style shrine within a new grove of conifers, as well as a freestanding pergola planted with wisteria vines and low benches on a high point of the garden’s perimeter. Large black pebbles were added to define the “beach” next to the koi pond.
One underlying influence throughout the creation of the Japanese garden from 1968 until 2007 was the vision that Frank Fujii had to make a harmonious garden of appropriate plants, stones, ornaments and other enhancements to the garden. Frank Fujii guided the aesthetic of the garden even during Madame Walska’s lifetime, under the influence of the Lotusland Board with Dr. Kawana’s input, and long after. Frank Fujii worked the garden well into his 80s, but by the time he retired in 2007, the complete vision he and Madame Walska shared for the garden had yet to be realized. Before Mr. Fujii left Lotusland, he recorded aspects of his and Madame Walska’s long-term vision for continued aesthetic modifications in the garden so that one day the garden could be completed.
After three years of intense study of the complex layers of the Japanese garden, we are now considering several elements that need renovation as well as some that Mr. Fujii envisioned, all to be addressed in a large renovation project we hope to begin this year. For example, Lotusland was created as a private estate, but now that it is a public garden, many of the pathways are not sufficiently wide or appropriately sloped, or constructed with appropriate materials. Lotusland commissioned an ADA Accessibility Report, which provides recommendations for renovating paths to ensure safe access for all, and we will incorporate these to accommodate all public visitors without compromising the aesthetic integrity of the garden.
The clay-bottom pond was not originally intended to be an aesthetic feature of the estate, but has evolved to that. Lotusland is committed to managing the pond sustainably and allowing a natural bio-system to occur in the pond. Ultimately, the desired aesthetic of the pond is greater water clarity so the koi fish can be viewed, while maintaining the reflective quality on the surface of the water. The long-term vision for the pond also includes an access point at the edge of the pond containing the lotuses so that visitors may approach them more closely.
Other issues we plan to address in the renovation are removal and replacement of aging trees and plants that cannot be saved, replacement of plants long lost from the garden, restoration of lost design elements, and inclusion of new design elements to meet our accessibility goals. We are pleased to have a team of two firms who are well versed in historic landscape restoration as well as Japanese garden tradition and design —Arcadia Studios, with Derrik Eichelberger as lead, and Paul Comstock Landscape, with Paul Comstock as lead, are partnering with us to fulfill this Japanese Garden Renovation Project. The team is working now to prepare a master landscape plan and a preliminary budget, which we hope to present to donors this spring. Once we have secured sufficient funding, the team will create construction documents and a final budget to launch a competitive bid process. Construction will take several months, and the Japanese garden will be closed during that time. With enough donor support, we will break ground this fall, in anticipation of opening the garden again in spring 2016.