A pond in the Hannah Carter Japanese Garden. (Photo by Judy M. Horton)

Preservation groups are up in arms over UCLA’s decision to sell the Hannah Carter Japanese Garden in Bel Air.

Advocates say that the 50-year-old garden, located a mile from the campus, is a place of cultural significance and exceptional beauty, and has long served as a teaching resource for the local community and for students of garden history, landscape architects, and garden lovers from around the world.

The garden represents the work of Nagao Sakurai and Koichi Kawana, two of the leading figures who created Japanese gardens on the West Coast in the mid-20th century.

UCLA has reportedly signed a listing agreement with real estate broker Coldwell Banker Previews International in Beverly Hills. The garden and adjoining home are expected to be listed for sale during the first week of February, after valuable art objects that are integral to the design of the garden are removed. Removal of the objects — including a Buddha stone, five-tiered pagoda, and wooden Buddha in a household shrine — began on Jan. 17.

The Bel Air Association will hold a meeting to try to stop the sale on Tuesday, Jan. 31, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Community Magnet Charter Elementary School, 11301 Bellagio Rd., Los Angeles.

Helen Funai Erickson, a former Nisei Week queen and Bel Air resident, is among those protesting the sale. She said she had taken her mother to see the gardens many years ago and sees the sale as an issue of integrity.

“The bottom line is not even just the Japanese gardens. It’s a moral issue. It bothers me that you can leave something in perpetuity to UCLA and as soon as you’re dead, they sell. To me it’s unfathomable,” said Funai Erickson.

“Japanese associations must contact UCLA and say, ‘What are you doing? You are hurting the relationship between Japan and America. You are showing you have no integrity or honor.'”

The Buddha is depicted in 16 different positions of worship on a stone said to have been carved more than 1,000 years ago. (Photo by Judy M. Horton)

The Garden Conservancy, a national organization headquartered in New York with a West Coast office in San Francisco, issued a “Threatened Garden Alert” on Jan. 12 to draw attention to the issue.

Bill Noble, the Garden Conservancy’s director of preservation, said that the garden is important not only for its beauty, but also for its cultural significance. “It demonstrates how, soon after the war, California quickly turned to the inspiration, timeless beauty, and healing qualities of traditional gardens in Japan. A spirit of authenticity as a private retreat also permeates the Hannah Carter garden; it’s one of the very few private Japanese gardens open to the public.”

Dr. Kendall H. Brown, professor of Asian art at CSU Long Beach, describes the garden as “the biggest and best private, residential [Japanese-style] garden built in America in the immediate postwar period. It also shows… a new sophistication in American domestic culture, in which garden styles including ‘California patio,’ ‘Hawaiian tropical,’ and ‘Japanese teahouse’ are combined into something that is distinctly American and wonderfully Californian.”

The Garden Conservancy, Los Angeles Conservancy, California Preservation Foundation, and California Garden and Landscape History Society, among other groups, have expressed their concern in writing to UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, urging the university to seek ways to preserve the garden and ensure public access, perhaps by selling the house and dedicating funds to an endowment.

The Garden Conservancy said in a statement that UCLA “should respect the garden donor’s intent that this significant garden be preserved with public access. The artifacts, stones, plants, and other design features that contribute to the importance and exceptional quality of the garden should be restored to their original positions. The integrity of the garden is essential to any strategy to preserve it; its value would be severely compromised if the original design is altered in any way.”

Saying that it wants “to hear more from the local community and other concerned people,” the group urged its supporters to contact Block to “ask him to stop the sale of the garden and work with the community to keep it intact and open to the public.”

UCLA announced in November that it is selling the garden and adjoining home to raise money for endowments identified by the couple who donated the property.

In 1959, Gordon Guiberson commissioned Sakurai to design “a garden that reminds one of Kyoto” on the steep one-and-one-half-acre hillside behind his home, located a mile from the UCLA campus. Over the next two years, Sakurai, with the help of Kazuo Nakamura of Kyoto, changed the overall look from a casual California country place to an exquisitely designed Japanese garden.

Edward Carter, then chair of the UC Board of Regents, purchased the Guiberson estate and donated it to the University of California in 1965 with the understanding that UCLA would maintain the garden. After a mudslide damaged the garden in the late 1960s, Kawana, UCLA professor of art and campus architect, designed the reconstruction. The garden was renamed in honor of Carter’s wife, Hannah, in 1982.

Campus officials estimate the sale of the property would generate adequate revenues to establish the approximately $4.2 million in endowments and professorships identified by the Carter estate to benefit UCLA’s academic mission. Among them are professorships in business administration at the UCLA Anderson School of Management and in internal medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA; a professorship and a research center in 17th-century European art; and funding for use at the discretion of the director of UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute.

Any additional money generated by the sale would be utilized to help fund campus priorities at the discretion of the chancellor, campus officials said. The sale of the garden and home is part of a larger effort by UCLA to sell underutilized properties in order to generate revenue to support core educational programs and the public mission of the university.

Some of the structures in the garden, such as the gate, the garden house, the shrine and bridges, were built in Japan and reassembled here. Campus officials say they are evaluating which artifacts have the greatest cultural, architectural and historical significance, and will display them at an appropriate campus location in recognition of the Carters’ generosity.

Organizations and individuals with a specific interest in Japanese gardens are being contacted as potential bidders.

Despite being listed on travel websites and in visitor publications, the garden hosts only 2,000 visitors per year, by reservation only, the university said, adding that the residential location and the availability of just three parking spaces severely restrict use of the property and its hours of operation.

Campus officials estimate that landscaping and maintenance of the garden cost $120,000 a year. Staffing and docent expenses come to an additional $19,000 annually. Deferred maintenance costs are estimated at $90,000.

“The decision to sell the garden was made only after extensive deliberation and analysis,” UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Scott Waugh said. “While we value the garden and the cultural heritage it represents, in this time of financial constraints, we need to direct our resources toward UCLA’s core academic priorities of teaching and research.”

Agreements with the Carter estate stipulated that if UCLA ever sold the house, $500,000 from the proceeds would be used to establish an endowment for the maintenance of the garden in perpetuity. Agreements also called for proceeds to fund the specified professorships and research.

However, campus officials estimate that the endowment would generate no more than $25,000 a year, far less than necessary to cover the cost of maintaining the garden. Maintaining the garden in perpetuity, officials say, would jeopardize UCLA’s ability to fulfill the Carters’ intent to benefit the university’s academic mission.

Edward Carter died in 1996. Hannah Carter vacated the residence in 2006 and died in 2009. In September 2010, a judge cleared the way for a possible sale, granting UCLA’s request to set aside the obligation to maintain the garden in perpetuity so that the academic intent of the Carters’ gift can be fulfilled.

“The sale of the estate and the garden allows us to ensure that we meet the intent of the Carters to directly benefit UCLA’s academic mission through their generous gift,” said Rhea Turteltaub, UCLA’s vice chancellor for external affairs.

The campus newspaper, the Daily Bruin, supports the move. In a Jan. 22 editorial, it said, “Ever-decreasing state funding has taken a toll on UCLA’s academic programs and research, so when an opportunity arises that could help mitigate this financial pressure, it is the university’s responsibility as an academic institution to take it. Even if it means letting go of a cultural treasure …

“Since UCLA could not, or would not, realize the garden’s potential, it is best if another institution or organization takes the reins. There is no question about the garden’s cultural importance and it should be preserved to educate others about landscape architecture, Japanese traditions and Buddhist religion. But in a time of financial stress, UCLA should not be the one to do it.”

The Daily Bruin also asked students what they thought of the sale. One of them, communications studies major Stephanie Lee, commented, “As a Japanese person, that’s sad. I wish I had known that UCLA owned a garden.”

For more information on the Bel Air Association meeting on Tuesday, call (310) 474-3527 or email baa@belaironline.org.

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  1. David – You say it should be preserved. By whom? Will you step up with a donation sizable enough to keep it open?

  2. Do not let the university sell the Hannah Carter Japanese Gardens. I recall very well when Hannah and Ed Carter dedicated this beautiful garden, and it is unthinkable that the university would consider its sale. It is a monument that should be preserved.