Dr. Peter Raven Recounts the Creation of the Japanese Garden


In his nearly 40 years as Missouri Botanical Garden President, Dr. Peter Raven oversaw a period of unprecedented growth, including the creation of some of the Garden’s most beloved areas — the Margaret Grigg Nanjing Friendship Garden (Chinese Garden), Blanke Boxwood Garden, and English Woodland Garden among them.

In his autobiography Driven by Nature: A Personal Journey from Shanghai to Botany and Global Sustainability, Dr. Raven, now President Emeritus, shares for the first time his own reflections and perspectives on this remarkable era of Garden history, and much more.

In the following excerpts, Dr. Raven details the development of one of the Garden’s most cherished landscapes: the Japanese Garden, Seiwa-en.

In the early part of 1973, while the Master Plan was still being developed, it was fortuitous that a small delegation representing the St. Louis Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) came to pay me a visit. They had a question: would we consider placing some Japanese features in our Garden? I was immediately supportive of the idea because, quite familiar with the popularity of the Japanese Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, I knew such features would add interest for our visitors. Behind the Climatron there was a small pool that we had decorated with a lantern that one of our trustees had purchased when the Japanese exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 closed. I thought that the surroundings of that pool might be a perfect place for a small exhibition of the Japanese gardening style. As soon as [lead consultants] Geoff and Missy heard of this idea, however, they basically asked, “Are you nuts?” The scope and placement I had envisioned didn’t please them at all; it would be more suitable, they thought, to develop a much larger Japanese garden near the improved lake that they had planned for the southwest corner of the Garden. Some trustees were skeptical for different reasons; they wondered if it would be appropriate to include such a starkly different kind of garden in one that had fundamentally English roots. It seemed to me, though, that we had the scope to display different sorts of garden design, and that doing so would enrich the experience of our visitors. I also saw the Japanese Garden as a way of strengthening the global outlook that was indispensable for building a sound regional and national future. Eventually my view prevailed, and the Japanese Garden was incorporated into the Master Plan. (It would rapidly become the Garden’s most popular display feature after its completion in 1977.)

Once the draft Master Plan had been accepted by the Garden’s board of trustees, we were ready to begin to implement some of its elements…

One of the first and largest pieces was the design and construction of the Japanese Garden. Since Geoff and Missy lacked the background it would have taken to design a proper Japanese Garden, we had to search for someone who could lay out the space properly. George Hasegawa, head of the local Japanese American Citizens League chapter, put out a call to other chapters around the country to see whether they might have anyone to suggest, and indeed they did. Professor Koichi Kawana, of the Department of Art at UCLA, was in charge of the Japanese gardens then owned by UCLA. He had recently designed some original Japanese elements for the plantings around the Los Angeles Waterworks. It seemed that Professor Kawana and his partner Carol Parish might be the ones to fill the bill for us.

Following his first visit to St. Louis, Koichi produced a painting of how he thought the eventual Japanese garden might look, and we knew that any idea of having a small Japanese garden “near” the lake was history.

Koichi Kawana, the architect of our Japanese Garden, painted this vision of what he thought the completed garden would look like and then worked hard for more than two years to make it a reality. [Ink drawing by Koichi Kawana. Courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden.]

In Koichi’s bold concept, Seiwa-en (the garden of clear, pure harmony and peace) was to encompass the whole lake, in the style of a strolling garden that might have been built by a wealthy individual in Japan in the late nineteenth century.

Presented with such an exciting vision, Bill Klein and I began seeking funds to make our Japanese garden a reality. With the help of state House of Representatives leaders Ken Rothman and Richard Rabbitt, both from St. Louis, we secured state appropriations of $300,000 in 1975 for excavating the greatly enlarged lake and then $75,000 in 1976 for additional work. Bill Klein worked with the legislature and the governor’s office tirelessly to persuade them to provide these appropriations for our project.

In order to be eligible as a private institution to receive these funds, we granted easements to the state in perpetuity for the land where the Japanese Garden was to be located. We also received grants from the Missouri State Arts Council, and some of the design elements were funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition, several of the trustees and other enthusiastic patrons of the Garden supported the project generously. After a groundbreaking ceremony in the fall of 1974, the project was underway.

Actual construction began in the summer of 1975, starting with a year of excavating for the future lake. While the digging was proceeding, Koichi visited for a few days every two or three months and began to place stones—which we brought in from selected quarries in Pennsylvania, Colorado, and elsewhere by the truckload—in specific orientations and at specific places around the shore and on the Tea House Island and other islands in the lake. He would stand and direct the placement of the individual stones to a man with a crane, and once that was done, the stones would be two thirds buried in the soil, in keeping with Japanese custom. During the times when Koichi was unable to be on site, Karl Pettit III supervised the placement of stones and features, expertly carrying out Koichi’s plan. A great deal of triangulation was necessary to be sure that the various stones and lanterns would appear at exactly the right position on the lake’s edge when it was refilled. In addition, wooden rangui posts had to be placed around part of the lake’s margin, the two waterfalls built and their stones anchored, and bridges constructed. Karl either supervised these tasks or carried them out himself; he also designed and supervised the construction of the Plum Viewing Arbor and the restrooms, in consultation with Koichi, who remained in charge of the overall project management.

The project was large and demanding, so it was exhilarating to see the new garden gradually take shape. The stone lanterns, water basins, waterfalls, and eventually a teahouse—a gift from Missouri’s sister state in Japan, Nagano Prefecture—slowly came together to make an aesthetically pleasing whole. As the work progressed, we built out the individual gardens, planting them primarily with traditional Japanese plants including oversize bonsai pines, flowering cherries, peonies, azaleas, water lilies, and lotus. For the selection of these plants, our outdoor horticulturist John Elsley, newly arrived from England, suggested sources and choices to Koichi and secured the plants. He, Karl, and Koichi were a formidable trio, and we owe the great beauty of the resulting garden largely to them.

The completed garden occupied more than 14 acres, almost a fifth of the entire Missouri Botanical Garden, with its features laid out around the irregular shore of a 5.5-acre lake. In keeping with the traditional Japanese idea of a garden as a symbolic microcosm of nature, the garden was simultaneously a horticultural display, a work of art, and a place inspiring contemplation and peace. Every aspect was imbued with meaning and purpose. Koichi told me that if I ever allowed anything in it to be painted red (a later design feature that originated in China) he would surely come back and haunt me forever.

In 1977, we celebrated beginning to fill the lake in Seiwa-en, the Japanese Garden. From the left are pictured Roy Taylor (University of British Columbia Botanical Garden, visiting), me, Geoff Rausch, Karl Pettit, Koichi Kawana, Jim Casper (representing our contractors, Harold Casper & Sons), and John Elsley. [Courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden.]

The Japanese Garden was formally dedicated on Thursday, May 5, 1977. During the ceremony, a group of Shinto priests held traditional ceremonies by the lake in somewhat cloudy weather. Their leader had assured me that it would not rain, and sure enough it did not. My parents were able to be there for the ceremonies. My father and I stood on the hill at the north end of the garden, looked out over the crowd, and watched everything that was going on. Dad was quiet, but I could tell how pleased he was. In return, I felt warmly about all he had done through his life to encourage and support me.

Signed copies of Driven by Nature: A Personal Journey from Shanghai to Botany and Global Sustainability are available from MBG Press.

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