• A Japanese Garden with a bridge and a pond

      The Japanese Garden of Sierra Madre Elementary School (Photo – ColoradoBlvd.net).

      This little-known garden was created as a gesture of love and gratitude, vandalized as a sign of hate and prejudice, and restored as an act of healing.

      By Jean Sudbury

      One of the treasures of Sierra Madre is a Japanese garden at the Sierra Madre Elementary School. The original one-room schoolhouse, built in 1882 by Nathaniel Carter, became a new elementary school in 1929. In 1930, a Japanese garden was cultivated on the school grounds as a gesture of good will and gratitude from Japanese families who lived in the area, and it was dedicated in 1931.

      The Issei (first generation immigrant) fathers and their two dozen children who attended the original school in the 1920’s created the Japanese garden. They named the garden “The Temple of Learning.” The small garden contained a tiny fish pond, a miniature bridge, a Bonsai pine tree and a lantern made with canyon stones. The bridge had the signature of original designer and cement man Roy (Riyosuke) Kaya, a skilled designer of Japanese gardens for private estates in the Los Angeles area. During World War II, the Japanese garden was vandalized and demolished as a reaction to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. At that time, people of Japanese descent were rounded up and sent to internment camps, and the Japanese garden at the Sierra Madre Elementary School was submerged and forgotten. [spoiler title=’Read More History’ style=’default’ collapse_link=’true’]In the early 20th century, many private estates of Pasadena and other areas of LA had beautiful Japanese gardens created and maintained by Issei, 1st generation Japanese immigrants who lived in the area. A wealthy Southern heiress named Thomasella Hardman Graham established such a garden in Sierra Madre. Her private gardener was named Kato. His name is in the memories those who experienced the original Japanese garden at Sierra Madre Elementary School. Yoneko Hashimoto, daughter of Yukato Aisawa, attended the Sierra Madre elementary school in its early days and saw the garden in its prime. She never met Kato, yet she heard about him through Miss Thomasella Hardman Graham. The Aisawa family lived at the Graham estate in the 1920s. Yoneko shared vivid memories of the estate, called ‘’Italia Mia,’’ and its Japanese garden curated by Kato, the mystery man. The children of Sierra Madre School often were invited to the garden, where they drank tea and practiced traditional Japanese bowing in the tea house. Miss Graham loved to host neighborhood parties at her beautiful estate. Perhaps this was one of the inspirations for the addition of a Japanese garden to the Sierra Madre Elementary School in 1930. [/spoiler]

      Demolition threat and an article

      In 1969, the Elementary School was routinely tested for earthquake safety. Because it did not meet seismic standards, the school was closed and scheduled to be razed. Fortunately, the building had historical significance because of its unique architecture. It was determined that the cost of duplicating the architecture was too great, and so the building remained intact and its structure was strengthened to meet seismic standards.

      In 1992, Helen Obizowa, now ninety-two, and a student at the school in its early days, shared the idea of bringing back the garden with Lew Watanabe, a good friend and neighbor, as well as a master gardener and landscaper in Sierra Madre. He graciously accepted her invitation.

      In October of 1994, the garden was mentioned in an article in the Los Angeles Times. The sixth-grade class of 1995 became very interested in this story after their teacher, Helen Toussaint Ponterelli, shared it with them. [spoiler title=’Read More from Ms. Ponterelli’ style=’default’ collapse_link=’true’](By Helen Pontarelli): The rebuilding of this garden in 1995, by my sixth grade class provided a wonderful lesson for the students and for myself. We learned about Sierra Madre’s history as well as the intolerance that existed in the 1940’s. We read Farewell to Manzanar, by Jean Huston to learn of the miserable conditions imposed on many people of Japanese descent. These students were shocked that people could be treated so inhumanely in this country. The garden has served not only the students who worked on the garden, but has been important to all Sierra Madre School students. Today’s classes learn about Japanese culture, feed the fish, and rake the Zen Garden. The year after our dedication, docents from the Huntington Library came to visit and were impressed by the knowledge and dedication of our “docents”. What was inspired by an LA Times article, has turned into a wonderful experience to be shared by all of Sierra Madre. I was so thrilled to see the garden represented in the 2019 Rose Parade.[/spoiler]  They began to investigate, uncovering the remnants of the garden. The students received training from Japanese garden docents at the Huntington Library. As they undertook the hard work of digging out the garden, they held car washes and bake sales to help fund the project. While digging, they uncovered a portion of the original bridge created for the pond in 1930. Lew Watanabe was contracted to lead the garden regeneration. Lew’s artistry is described in Lew Watanabe: Master of Stone and Light by Kathy Childs and Del Weston.

      On Sunday, February 4, 1995, the restored garden was officially dedicated; it was renamed “The Garden of Good Will.” The ceremony included seventeen members of the class of 1931 and their teacher, as well as Japanese drummers, dancers, and a demonstration of Karate skills. It was a festive occasion filled with love, excitement and multi-cultural connection.

      Two dolls over a bridge over a pond with koioi

      Good Will dolls at the Japanese Garden of Sierra Madre Elementary School (Photo – ColoradoBlvd.net).

      Vandalism strikes again

      In 2004, the pond at the garden again was vandalized. Someone poured soap in the pond, killing nearly fifty valuable koi. The pond was cleaned up and the surviving koi returned to their home. Seventy-seven years after the garden was created, it thrives.

      Tolerance, acceptance of all cultures and working together are the lessons gleaned from the story of the Japanese garden of Sierra Madre Elementary School. Prejudice and irresponsibility can overwhelm a small community, turning people against one another for no good reason. The students of the school felt that their involvement in the restoration project helped “heal the wounds of war.”

      Today, the garden has been expanded to include a meditation garden with a simple artistic display of canyon stones. Volunteers care for this Zen garden and maintain its graceful beauty. The efforts of the people of Sierra Madre have helped the peaceful message of the garden to stay strong. With love and tender care, this garden will continue to flourish. 

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      Contributor

      Comments

      1. Cary Cotterman says:

        I was a student at Sierra Madre School from 1961 through 1963. I lived about half a dozen houses east on Highland. My friends and I used to play all over the school grounds on weekends, and would often walk on the remains of the cement bridge that emerged from the dirt, and wonder why it was there. For a while after the restoration of the garden my wife and I would sometimes visit it during non-school hours and sit on the bench across the walkway. Unfortunately, the gate has been locked for several years now, preventing the public from viewing and enjoying the garden.

      2. I just read this article to both my Aunt Millie Solury (95), and my Grandma Mert Waite (94), both long time residents of Sierra Madre and close friends with Helen Obazowa. They really enjoyed the article. Thanks for such a well written piece.

        When I was little my best friend lived next door to the Watanbes. I was always fascinated but the amazing plants he had in his yard.

      3. John Potter says:

        I entered Sierra Madre School for Kindergarten in January, 1956. During my five years there, i was always puzzled by the lonely, faux-wood bridge, spanning a dirt area and surrounded by a railing. This was The Forbidden Zone, and we had stern orders from our teachers never to step over the rail and walk on the bridge. I secretly did, one Saturday, walking home from a friend’s birthday party in 1958. My own back story had a talented 8th grader build it sometime in the past. I returned to Sierra Madre School in June of 2017, just before attending my PHS 50th Class Reunion. No more railing, just a wonderful, wonderful sight to see. I knew about the restoration, but seeing the garden as it was made me both joyous and angry. Angry, of course, because of the hatred and xenophobia that caused its vandalism. And, angry because this wonderful place was denied me, growing up. How I would have loved to have had that garden as a part of my life, not just the mysterious, abandoned bridge to nowhere. I went to school with the Koyamatsus, the Kunihiros and the other children whose parents had been interned in prison camps. I hope that the garden continues to inspire children, and adults, as it was meant to when it was built 88 years ago.

      4. Helen Pontarelli says:

        The rebuilding of this garden in 1995, by my sixth grade class provided a wonderful lesson for the students and for myself. We learned about Sierra Madre’s history as well as the intolerance that existed in the 1940’s. We read Farewell to Manzanar, by Jean Huston to learn of the miserable conditions imposed on many people of Japanese descent. These students were shocked that people could be treated so inhumanely in this country.

        The garden has served not only the students who worked on the garden, but has been important to all Sierra Madre School students. Today’s classes learn about Japanese culture, feed the fish, and rake the Zen Garden. The year after our dedication, docents from the Huntington Library came to visit and were impressed by the knowledge and dedication of our “docents”.

        What was inspired by an LA Times article, has turned into a wonderful experience to be shared by all of Sierra Madre. I was so thrilled to see the garden represented in the 2019 Rose Parade.

      5. Nancy Shiffman says:

        I’ve lived (and gardened) in Pasadena my entire life and have never heard of this amazing garden. Thank you for sharing.

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