SF Unveils Newly Restored 107-Year-Old Pagoda in Japanese Tea Garden
The Japanese Tea Garden’s towering pagoda, one of the few surviving structures from the 1915 World’s Fair, has been revived to its former glory following a meticulous restoration.
Public officials, history buffs, and members of the Japanese American community celebrated the completion of the two-year project Wednesday evening with a ceremony and taiko drumming. The Japanese Tea Garden is the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States.
Visits to the Japanese Tea Garden by San Franciscans have increased by 187 percent since April, when an ordinance took effect waiving admission to all specialty gardens in Golden Gate Park for residents and veterans. The legislation was introduced by Mayor London Breed and co-sponsored by District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar.
“It’s wonderful to have the pagoda restored to its full glory. Besides being beautiful, this pagoda is a symbol of how our open spaces can support and reflect the culture, arts, and diversity of our City—a reminder of the importance of civic life, and a celebration of it,” said Supervisor Mar. “And thanks to our work making the gardens of Golden Gate Park free for all San Franciscans and veterans, cost is no longer a barrier to enjoy the pagoda, gardens, and these beautiful civic spaces.”
The pagoda was built as a temporary indoor display in the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition’s Palace of Food Products. It was relocated to the Japanese Tea Garden in 1916, where it sat outdoors for more than a century. While it underwent periodic repairs, this was its first complete restoration.
All of the carpentry, roofing, and masonry work was completed in-house by Rec and Park’s structural maintenance crew. Carpenters removed rotting wood from the interior and exterior of the five-story structure, uncovering Japanese characters indicating some of the pagoda’s original components were salvaged from shipping containers. The carpenters replaced some of the damaged wood with 100-year-old redwood salvaged from two water storage tanks at Camp Mather. Roofers re-shingled the pagoda’s five roofs, while painters restored its vermillion trim to vibrancy. Traditional bells and giboshi adorn the pagoda for the first time in decades. All were custom-made in Niigata, Japan.
Carpenters documented the layout of the badly damaged spire’s copper adornments before creating a new spire from a recycled Douglas fir flagpole, painstakingly turning it on a 16-foot lathe to shape its taper to replicate the original.
“Restoring a temporary indoor structure built more than a century ago is incredibly challenging, but the end result is nothing short of stunning,” said San Francisco Recreation and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg. “It is a testament to the talent and craftsmanship of our structural maintenance crew, the hours of volunteer work and advocacy of the Friends of the Japanese Tea Garden, and the generosity of so many, especially the Japanese American community here in San Francisco.”
“The Japanese community and Japantown are extremely excited and proud to celebrate the unveiling of the newly restored Tea Garden pagoda,” said Benh Nakajo of Friends of the Japanese Tea Garden and Japantown Task Force. “The Japanese community has always had a deep attachment and historic interest in this Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park.”
The pagoda restoration is the first half of an approximately $2 million restoration that also includes a redesign of the surrounding landscaping and restoration of its long bridge, which will be completed in fall of 2023. Award-winning designer Hoichi Kurisu, who has built Japanese gardens throughout the United States and abroad for more than 50 years, will lead the project with his daughter Michiko. Their firm, Kurisu LLC, will open the area around the pagoda to make it feel more cohesive with the rest of the garden and create a gathering space for taiko, bonsai demonstrations, and other cultural events. The design will employ stones donated from the Tatsuyama quarry in Takasago, Japan.
Rec and Park is providing $1.7 million of the funding, while Friends of the Japanese Tea Garden has raised approximately $450,000 through their fiscal sponsor, the San Francisco Parks Alliance. The Friends’ campaign has received more than 500 individual donations from across the globe. Local support includes the Japanese Chamber of Commerce of Northern California, Japan Society of Northern California, San Francisco Japantown Foundation, The William G Irwin Charity Foundation, and The Kimball Foundation.
“The Japanese Tea Garden pagoda is a treasure of Golden Gate Park that all San Franciscans should experience,” said Drew Becher, CEO of the SF Parks Alliance. “The Friends of the Japanese Tea Garden have done amazing work advocating for the restoration of the iconic landmark, and we’re proud to support them.”