Described by the Los Angeles Times as a rare ‘example of post-World War II Japanese private gardens in this country’, the Hannah Carter Japanese Garden in Bel-Air should be high on the ‘to see’ list of any garden historian visiting California. How surprising then, that it wasn’t part of the recent Garden History Society California Study Tour: a trip that included visits to some of the most forward-thinking garden conservation projects in the state. Why wasn’t it included? That is quite an alarming story.
In 1964, Edward and Hannah Carter bequeathed their Bel-Air house and its adjacent Japanese garden to The University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). The Japanese garden had been created in 1959 for its then owner, Gordon Guiberson. The Guibersons had commissioned renowned landscape architect, Nagao Sakurai and garden designer Kazuo Nakamura to build a Kyoto-style garden in the 1.5 acres of steep hillside below the house. The garden wasn’t just Japanese in its design, it also included many Japanese artefacts, including a temple built for the garden in Japan and shipped to the site. Charles Birnbaum (founder of The Cultural Landscape Foundation) has described the resulting design as ‘a seminal work’.
The contract between the Carters and the University allowed that, if necessary, the Carter house could be sold to provide an endowment for the garden. In 1982, changes were made to that contract to ensure that the garden would be named in honour of Hannah Carter and that it would be maintained by UCLA ‘in perpetuity’.
After her husband’s death, Hannah Carter continued to live in the house and to share the garden with friends and with its many visitors. It’s a tribute both to the Carters, and to the delights of this tranquil garden that, since it was bequeathed to UCLA nearly fifty years ago, there was a succession of only three gardeners. After Mrs Carter moved from the house in 2005 it remained empty. In Spring 2011, UCLA closed the garden to visitors ‘for maintenance’ and it has never reopened.
Imagine the surprise of Hannah Carter’s family when they discovered, quite by chance, late in 2011, not much more than a year after their mother’s death, that, despite the legally binding contract, the university was planning to sell not just the house, but also its garden.
Concerned for the garden’s future, The Garden Conservancy and the California Garden and Landscape History Society asked for a meeting with UCLA to discuss the ways in which the garden could be kept open to the public as the Carters had wished.
The meeting didn’t happen. UCLA issued a statement in which it claimed that it badly needed discretionary funds for its academic programmes. It said that public access to the garden was limited and that parking nearby was difficult. Rather more disturbing was their insistence that the garden served ‘no teaching or research purpose.’
It seems extraordinary that an educational institution of such esteem was unable to find a teaching or research purpose for this garden: a garden that Pamela Palmer of ARTECHO (herself an alumna of UCLA) describes as being of ‘cultural and artistic significance to Los Angeles’.
Putting the seeming illegality of UCLA’s proposed actions to one side, if (and this seems very unlikely) the University was completely unaware of the many highly experienced preservation organisations in California able to help them make good use of the garden, they can be in no doubt about their presence now.
By May 2012, the ‘Coalition to Save the Hannah Carter Japanese Garden’ had been formed. Led by Hannah Carter’s family it included many august historic landscape conservation and preservation organisations. They wrote to the Chancellor of UCLA asking that it ‘respect the views and desires of the preservation community’ and sit down to talk with them. Once again, nothing happened. The family felt it had no alternative but to file a lawsuit.
In July 2012, there was a glimmer of hope. A Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge granted a temporary injunction, blocking the opening of sealed bids that had been scheduled by UCLA for August.
When the Garden History Society visited California earlier this year, the next important date in the Coalition’s diary was May 2013 when the Appeals Court was due to sit. This has now been postponed until August 2013 and a decision is expected in the autumn.
These are difficult economic times. The Coalition has not questioned UCLA’s concerns. It is looking for a solution that helps the University with its financial dilemma while continuing to honour its legally binding promise to the Carters. As Pamela Palmer has pointed out, many gardens open with the help of volunteer ‘friends’ groups. Preservation groups such as The Garden Conservancy have generously offered to help manage the site in partnership with UCLA. Even the parking issue could be dealt with: UCLA already provides a shuttle to and from a Memorial Library elsewhere in Los Angeles. Why not do the same in Bel-Air? Models upon which a rescue package for the garden could be based are many and they’re close at hand.
The struggle to save this garden is important on many levels, not least for the message it gives to the philanthropists of the future. If generous donors cannot be sure that their gifts and wishes will be respected, what will this mean for our cultural heritage, not just in the United States but worldwide? The Court must deal with the legal ramifications of UCLA’s proposed actions but if, as we all hope, The Hannah Carter Japanese Garden is saved, there’s no doubt that the expertise needed for its survival is ready and waiting.