The Sierra Madre School Arts Discovery Room was the venue for a capacity crowd of over 80 attendees on Saturday, March 19. The occasion was a free slide show and speakers’ presentation on the origins and restoration efforts of the Japanese Goodwill Garden. The garden, which was completed in 1931, was originally designed by cement master Roy Kaya and maintained by Issei, or first generation, Japanese-American parents of Sierra Madre students in 1930.
Presenting an enlightening collection of historic slides and thorough commentary, Associate Librarian and Sierra Madre Historical Society Archivist Debbie Henderson, served as moderator and emcee. Henderson’s notes and photos documented a thriving Japanese-American community in Sierra Madre early in the 20th century, including a Japanese employment agency, farmers, a Japanese language school and cultural center, and a population of Japanese-American citizens who were instrumental in the production of the annual Japanese Wistaria Festival.
Henderson recounted local chronology. Just after Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929, Sierra Madre passed a bond measure to erect a new elementary school. Henderson showed a slide of four students posing in 1930 with the model they erected from the architectural plans of the new Sierra Madre School. One of the students, Mitsuo Kunihiro, drew repeated rounds of audience applause on Saturday.
The spritely Kunihoro paraphrased from his notes. “I tend to be forgetful,” said the 90-year-old. He recalled Sierra Madre resident Roy Kawa’s detailed, faux bois cement work, his fellow students, one of whom could read the architect’s plans, which is how the group of boys were able to construct the model of the school. He thanked his old teachers who worked so hard to bring him up to speed as a non-English speaker when he began kindergarten, and especially Mrs. Wheeler, his teacher who oversaw the building of the model. “(She) was right on top of us!” he chuckled to appreciative laughter from the assembly.
Recounting his efforts in the early garden, Kunihoro said, “The Nissei fellas didn’t do much, but our parents did all the work.”
Natalie Sandoval was one of the 6th grade students in 1995 who was instrumental in the rediscovery and restoration of the garden. She told her story, in which her mother, Linda Sandoval, who read a 1994 LA Times article to Natalie and her friends one Sunday. The girls disbelieved there was a Japanese garden on their school grounds. Small explorations led them to discover a circular rock pattern poking out of the soil, and, “a cement thing that said R. Kaya, 1931,” according to young Sandoval.
The archeological site planted a seed within the 6th grade class. Their teacher, Helen Pontarelli, encouraged the group to conduct library research, thinking that would be the end of it. But the Goodwill Garden had taken root in the imagination of these youngsters.
Soon their parents were in on the act, providing baked goods for countless Sierra Madre community events, making “garden angels” for sale, assisting with car washes; anything to raise funds for the garden restoration.
The students had contacted renowned landscape sculptor Lew Watanabe for guidance. Unbeknownst to the students, Watanabe had been approached the previous year by Sierra Madre Nissei and school lunch duty lady Helen Obizawa, on behalf of the Japanese Cultural Society. While the students and school had no money for the garden’s restoration, Watanabe told Saturday’s audience, “This was one of the most gratifying projects I ever worked on.”
Watanabe is the subject of a 2005 book, Lew Watanabe: Master of Stone and Light, by Kathy Childs and Del Weston. Watanabe has worked as a stone and landscape artist for more than 40 years, sculpting commissions for some of the finest Pacific Coast gardens. Two of his pieces are in the permanent garden collection at Descanso Gardens.
Watanebe’s designed the restoration project with maintenance in mind. No use having an elaborate bonsai garden that cannot be pruned and groomed by volunteer parents and students. He described the waterfall’s construction, with water hitting a pool in a recessed cave. The sound of the water is thus magnified. The new cement master, who restored the bridge and other features, is Gerald Twiddell. A plaque commemorating twin craftsmen Kaya (1931) and Twiddell (1995) rests at the koi pond.
News of the 1995 restoration reached an international audience through Koi Magazine. Watanabe thanked Sierra Madre School parent Linda Sandoval, mother of Natalie, who also spoke on Saturday, for her tireless efforts at promoting the garden’s progress. Because Sandoval continually wrote newspaper articles, said Watanabe, “Word got out.”
A continued restoration was launched in 1998, with the addition of a new Tori-style gate, pergola and the replacement of a broken lantern. Maintenance duties are performed by current 5th grade students, since enrollment was shifted to K-5. The Goodwill Garden is an integral part of the school’s curriculum, and two current students delivered their thoughts on the importance of the koi pond and Zen garden.
The celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Japanese-American Goodwill Garden also included a call for financial support from the community. Volunteers donate their time but materials such as pumps, koi, plants, water, electric power and wood demand replacement. Donations may be sent to Sierra Madre School Goodwill Garden, 141 W. Highland Avenue, Sierra Madre.