This once private 2-acre hidden gem is the only intact example of a major Japanese-style garden created before World War II for a residence in Southern California.
Japanese gardens and gardening played an integral role in the history of Japanese immigration and acculturation, particularly on the West Coast.
This garden was designed and built over a seven year period starting in 1935 when Charles and Ellamae Storrier Stearns hired first generation immigrant, and Japanese landscape designer, Kinzuchi Fujii.
It was designed as a hill and pond strolling garden, which traditionally includes water features and walking paths.
Married in 1931, Charles Storrier Stearns and Ellamae Sheppard started their life together in a three-story Georgian mansion in the South Orange Grove area of Pasadena. Built in the early 1900’s, the estate covered over seven city lots, extending almost an entire block on Arlington Drive between Orange Grove Avenue and Pasadena Avenue.
Their interest in creating a Japanese-style garden came after making several overseas trips to Japan in the 1930’s. In 1935 they hired Kinzuchi Fujii to design and create their new garden.
Born in Japan in 1875, Kinzuchi emigrated to the U.S. in 1903 and although an enterprising and capable man with a background in carpentry and landscaping, he faced the barriers and discrimination that a lot of immigrants from the Orient at that time experienced.
In 1942, shortly after the outbreak of World War II, he suffered the fate of other Japanese residents and was sent to an internment camp for the duration of the war. He never saw his beloved creation again. It was completed without him, and according to one website, he was so distraught after being interred he never went back to see the finished project.
A year after the death of Ellamae Storrier Stearns in 1949, the vast Storrier Stearns property was put on the auction block. Gamelia Haddad Poulsen, a dealer in art and antiques, attended the auction for the Storrier Stearns estate. She was hoping only to buy two Louis XV chairs. However, when she realized that no one was bidding on the whole property, only on different pieces of it, she impulsively made a bid. To her amazement she ended up as the owner of the entire estate.
Over the next several years, Gamelia sold most of the surrounding parcels that made up the estate but retained the Japanese garden and a lot on which to build a house for herself and her family. The original mansion was eventually sold and dismantled for reuse elsewhere.
In 1975, Caltrans used eminent domain to seize a strip of property on the easternmost side of the garden for use in building the extension of the 710 freeway. An easement was also taken to create an access road for trucks to use during the future construction of the freeway, which would have sliced directly through the middle of the garden. Believing that the garden was lost, Gamelia let it gradually fall into disrepair and sold off some of the valuable artifacts. The final blow came when the teahouse burned down under mysterious circumstances in 1981. After Gamelia’s death in 1985, the garden’s ownership passed to her son and daughter-in-law, Jim and Connie Haddad, who’s hands it remains in today.
The garden continued to languish until 1990, when Jim Haddad and his wife Connie decided to restore the garden to its former state for historical and cultural reasons as well as to honor his mother Gamelia’s memory. Progress was slow through 2005 until Dr. Takeo Uesugi, professor emeritus of landscape design at Cal-Poly Pomona and one of the leading experts on Japanese garden design in the United States, undertook the management of the garden restoration. To ensure the restoration was accurate, the Haddads and Uesugi followed Kinzuchi Fujii’s original plans, documents and photographs taken during its first construction. Although the garden was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005, it was really only seen by visitors during the off wedding rental or special event. Beginning in 2016, entry to the garden was finally granted to the general public on Thursday’s along with one special Sunday every month.
Even though I had been to Arlington Garden on numerous occasions, I had no idea an even more unique garden was located just across the street.
Fortunately, my good friend Lauren did know and suggested we meet up there one afternoon for lunch. Sushi and sake seemed appropriate.
An authentic twelve tatami mat teahouse is the highlight of the garden. It is named Niko-an, meaning Abode at Two Ponds.
The original teahouse was built in Japan to Kinzuchi Fujii’s exacting specifications, then disassembled and shipped to Los Angeles for reassembly in the garden.
A re-creation of the original teahouse that burned down in 1981 overlooks one of the ponds and is used for special events.
At the center of the garden are two irregularly-shaped, interconnecting ponds. A footpath winds around both ponds and over a serpentine gully which is traversed by four granite and wood footbridges.
A 200 foot-long retaining wall wraps around the north and east sides of the ponds. The wall buttresses a 25-foot-high hill formed from the ponds’ excavated soil.
The current landscaping echoes the original plantings, which mixed Japanese woodland specimens — azaleas, rhododendrons, black pines, Japanese maples, Chinese elms, camellias and ferns — with California natives such as redwoods and live oaks.
Foo Dogs along with other traditional Japanese statuary is peppered throughout the Garden.
When an atomic bomb destroyed the city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, it was predicted that nothing would grow there again for at least another 75 years. The trees were scarred and blackened all around Hiroshima. Therefore, when green shoots were found on the burned trunks of some 170 trees, people were encouraged. Hope for recovery of the trees as well as for the country and its people was stimulated. Green Legacy Hiroshima, in partnership with the Rotary Club of Tokyo Yoneyama Yuai, are spreading seeds and plants of the ‘Hibaku Jumoku’ (“A-bombed trees”) throughout the world. The Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden was chosen as the home of a second generation “A-bombed camellia” that descended from one of the trees considered lost after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Twenty-seven countries have received these plants with two located in the United States. The other is in Saint Louis. The plants symbolize the resiliency of the human spirit and the need for peace as well as the interdependency of people around the world.
The Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden is located @ 270 Arlington Dr, Pasadena, CA 91105 and is now open to the public Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and also on the second and last Sundays of each month from 10am to 4pm.
Admission with an online reservation is $7.50; or $10 at the gate. Children 12 and under are free. Members receive free admission for two to every Open Day held at the garden.