Tucked away between the bustling and busy streets of Orange Grove Boulevard and Pasadena Avenue lies a beautiful and historical relic that has withstood the years of changes and challenges.
By Reina Esparza
The Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden on Arlington Drive can be easy to miss if you drive too fast, but its scenery and history make it a Pasadena jewel.
The garden itself is a green oasis with splashes of color and authentic pieces from Japan. Owner James Haddad weaves through the paths of the garden, carefully observing every leaf and stone. Absolutely nothing is left unchecked.
He walks through the property much as his mother, Gamelia, once did many years ago when she came upon the vast estate of the Storrier Stearns family. She had gone with the intention to buy two Louis XIV chairs. After coming upon a tea house, she decided, on a whim, to buy all seven lots of the property.
The property, with its original garden and a greenhouse, belonged to Ellamae and Charles Storrier Stearns before the sale. The Japanese influence of the garden began when the couple went on their first trip to Japan in the early 1920s, shortly after moving onto the property.
“They went to Japan and they were there for probably several months and they came back with trinkets, souvenirs,” Haddad said. “She placed them over here where the tennis courts were…she came out and polished the brass and made them look very nice. She really appreciated having them around, all of the ornaments, the humanistic origin of these ornaments; lanterns and such.”
Ellamae was so happy with these items that the couple returned to Japan the following year and came back with even more significant objects, which included stone lanterns, one of them being 12 feet high. Instead of keeping them on the tennis courts, she sought to give them a more suitable resting place.
“So she went up to Montecito where Kinzuchi Fuiji was working and hired him on the spot because he was just about done with the job he had there, and she brought him down here,” Haddad said. “So for the next seven years he worked on the garden until he was interned during World War II. He had six Japanese gardeners with him. They worked long hours. There was no machinery in here, it was all done by hand.”
Besides their hands, Haddad explained, they used a three-legged staff and a rope hoist to move the heavier items, such as with the big boulders that they laid in the garden.
There were at one point three ponds, one of which was used for overflow from the rains. Kinzuchi Fujii returned to Japan to acquire the materials needed to put together the tea house. He also brought back many plants, which included camellias and azaleas. One of the flowers in the garden today is close to 65 years old.
Pasadena’s missed opportunity: a museum
Eventually, the garden was finished and the Storrier Stearns put the property up for sale. That was when Haddad’s mother, after having walked the grounds of the estate, came into the auction and bought the mansion and all the land it was on.
“An hour later she came home and my father and I were just sitting down for lunch and she’s walking through the kitchen door and she says ‘you’ll never guess what I just did,’” Haddad recalled.
Gamelia sold four of the seven lots and intended to use the other three lots for a museum setting, considering her possession of thousands of paintings from California artists. The city informed her, however, that she was not allowed to do so, which left her unsure of how to use these lots.
Gamelia tore down the original mansion and, in the late 1950s built the house that currently sits on the property. Over the years however, the garden became more difficult for her to manage with her day job.
Fire and revitalization
In 1981, a fire destroyed the original tea house, which was a situation that fell into Haddad’s hands when he inherited the property after his mother’s death in 1985. Although he received a multitude of offers to buy the property, he chose to keep it and work on it through the years. This included rebuilding the tea house from scratch.
“I had to rebuild it, it took me four and a half years because I had to build it in a manner that was appropriate to city ordinances, building codes,” Haddad said. “I also had to build it according to the Japanese manner. It was difficult for the building inspectors because they’d never seen this type of building before.”
After many years, the garden was revitalized. A stream runs near the house. Koi fish glide through the ponds as a waterfall pours down. The new tea house, though closed off to the public, quietly sits, pulling the whole garden together. Despite conflicts and even thefts of original and historical pieces from the garden, Haddad still finds great appreciation in the greenery of this peaceful garden.
“We’re sympathetic to beauty,” he said. “I can talk to the leaves when I walk by, I can touch them, I can caress them. People don’t do that. They do not touch the leaves; they forget about them. But it’s a living thing too and it’s so much a part of our life because we are breathing air because they are fixing it for us.”
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