The Hannah Carter Japanese Garden is one of the largest and most significant private residential gardens to be built in the Japanese style in the United States. In 1959, oilman Gordon Guiberson commissioned Nagao Sakurai and Kazuo Nakamura, among the most important Japanese garden creators in North America, to design a 1.5-acre, Kyoto-style garden on the steep property below his house in Bel Air. This garden was meant to complement the existing picturesque Spanish garden that A.E. Hanson put in place in the 1920s for former owner Harry Calandar. Hanson’s design included a Hawaiian garden, a twenty-foot waterfall, and a stone bathhouse. The addition of a Japanese-style strolling garden transformed the space according to Zen traditions into a secluded sanctuary of contemplation and meditation. It was the first Japanese garden built in Southern California after World War II.
Sakurai and Nakamura choreographed a sequence of “hide-and-reveal” vistas in a counterclockwise circle that reflected the human life cycle, from exuberant youth to mild maturity. One enters the garden on the low side of the sloped property through a redwood entrance gate that was fabricated in Kyoto. (It was dismantled, shipped to Los Angeles, and reconstructed by Nakamura with local artisan Benny Shinoda.) Immediately after entering through the gate, one crosses a bridge made of a single piece of natural stone and proceeds up a stone path towards the central koi pond, passing a carved stone panel depicting the seated Buddha (dating to circa 1000 CE, it is the oldest piece in the garden). The koi pond is ringed by a path flanked by pines, a black pebble beach, stone pagodas, and magnolia and maple trees. It is punctuated by zigzagging stepping stone paths and trees and stones imbued with spiritual significance; it also includes a waterfall. On the more exuberant north side of the pond, volcanic rocks and camellia trees surround a sunken Japanese-style bath. Nearby, a moon-viewing deck is fitted out with modern furniture. At the top of the garden is the hokura (family shrine) made of Cryptomeria wood and bark protecting a hand-carved, gilt Buddha. On the southern side of the pond is the small garden teahouse, discretely screened by black bamboo and pines, as well as the original palm and tropical plant-lined Hawaiian garden with its large, three-tiered, cascading waterfall.
The Guibersons traveled to Japan to personally select many of the garden’s most distinctive features, including the family shrine, the gilt Buddha, teahouse, stone lanterns, water basins, and carved and natural stones—the largest weighing 9.5 tons. They also imported a bamboo water pipe, here repurposed to scare away Angeleno raccoons rather than Japanese wild boar. Additional stones for the garden were quarried in Ventura County and used to complete the meandering paths. Taking western women’s high-heeled shoes into account, cement was used between path stones rather than traditional moss.
Three Japanese artisans (who spoke neither English nor Spanish) lived on the property for one-and-a-half years while they built the garden with the help of a crew of Mexican laborers. Though they used traditional Japanese garden construction methods, they also deployed modern machinery, including tractors, bulldozers, and cranes.
Guiberson had exacting requirements about the garden’s planting, insisting that no plant be used in the Japanese section unless it also grew in Japan (the only exception was for pre-existing California live oaks). The Japanese plant palette included traditional shades of green: pines, bamboo, evergreen and deciduous shrubs, vines, ferns, ground covers and water plants, plus seasonally flowering trees. The Hawaiian section of the garden included other ferns, trees, ground covers, broadleaf plants and palms.
In 1964, Edward W. Carter, Regent of University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) entered into an agreement with the Guiberson family for UCLA to acquire the estate—both the house and garden. In 1982, a second agreement renamed the garden in honor of Carter’s second wife, Hannah, and specified that the residence could be sold in order to create an endowment to support the garden’s upkeep and to maintain the garden in perpetuity. By 2010, however, UCLA was facing budget cuts and challenges around the steep garden’s public accessibility, which was further exacerbated by the scarcity of parking near the garden. Questioning the academic value of the garden in its care, UCLA petitioned the Alameda County Superior Court for permission to sell the garden. In 2012 the University proposed to sell both the residence and the garden but the sale was blocked when Carter’s heirs rallied the community and formed the Coalition to Save the Hannah Carter Japanese Garden. The heirs filed a formal lawsuit and in 2012 Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lisa Hart Cole granted an injunction to block the sale, calling the University’s actions “duplicitous.” In 2013, the 2nd District California Court of Appeals upheld the Los Angeles Court injunction. In 2015, the parties agreed to sell the adjacent house and the garden as a package and to require the buyer (and subsequent owners) to maintain it for at least 30 years. The future of the garden remains open.
“Agreement between Regents of the University of California and Edward W. Carter.” 1964. Accessed February 22, 2016. www.hannahcarterjapanesegarden.com.
“Amendment to Agreement between Regents of the University of California and Edward W. Carter.” 1982. Accessed February 22, 2016. www.hannahcarterjapanesegarden.com.
Brooks, Nancy Rivera. “Edward Carter of Broadway Stores Dies of Cancer.” Los Angeles Times, April 26, 1996.
Brown, Dr. Kendall H. “Why The Hannah Carter Japanese Garden Is Worth Saving.” Presentation, 2012. Accessed June 21, 2016. www.hannahcarterjapanesegarden.com.
Coleman, Laura. “Appellate Court Verdict For Hannah Carter Garden Unique.” Beverley Hills Courier, 2015.
Coleman, Laura. “Victory Grows In Trials Of Hannah Carter Garden.” Beverley Hills Courier, 2015.
The Cultural Landscape Foundation. “Nagao Sakurai.” Accessed January 26, 2016. www.tclf.org.
Groves, Martha. “UCLA, Heirs Wrangle over Fate of a Tranquil Japanese Garden.” Los Angeles Times, February 2, 2016.
Guiberson, Gordon Greene. The Japanese Garden of Mr. & Mrs. Gordon G. Guiberson at Bel-Air, California.San Francisco: Grabhorn Press, 1962.
“Judge Blocks Sale of Japanese Garden Given to UCLA.” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, July 30, 2012.
Kawana, Koichi. UCLA Hannah Carter Japanese Garden. Los Angeles: Hannah Carter Japanese Garden, 2015.
Pian, Lanna. “The Hannah Carter Japanese Garden: A Hidden L.A. Treasure.” Los Angeles City Historical Society, May 2012.
Stukin, Stacie. “Midnight in the Garden? Judge Orders UCLA to Hold onto Its Hannah Carter Japanese Garden, for Now.” The Architect’s Newspaper, August 8, 2012.
Ware, Liz. “The Hannah Carter Japanese Garden, Bel-Air, California.” Garden History Society Newsletter(2013): 25–27.