Photo of the Week

This week’s selected photo comes from a 1917 report on the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.

bbg 1917

Depicted in the photo is the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden, designed by architect Takeo Shiota in 1915. The pond is the most popular attraction at this garden but its architect’s fate was quite undeserved. He died in a wartime internment camp, a victim of racism.

Where it is

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Similar to how Prospect Park has its own internal waterway, the constructed brook flowing through the garden is fed by the city aqueduct and rainwater collected within the park. It starts at the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden, and continues through the Bluebell Wood, the Rock Garden, the Plant Family Collection, and the Water Garden. At its terminus, the stream first enters a forebay pond before pooling in the Water Garden pond.

A crowd pleaser

The garden’s Japanese Pond is enveloped in a miniature landscape that incorporates a variety of architectural and landscaping forms used in Japanese gardens. A pavilion on the eastern side is based on the architecture of a teahouse. From its small windows, visitors see a tall wooden structure, the tori-mon, which indicates an approach to a Shinto temple. In the background are three constructed hills symbolizing heaven, earth and humanity. Waterfalls add to the naturalistic scene. This was the first Japanese garden built on the East Coast. According to author Kendall Brown, the pond’s shape is based on the Japanese character shin, symbolizing heart and mind.

The garden’s opening in 1915 instantly made it a top destination in Brooklyn, as its promoters described it, a place to escape from western surroundings. It was built at no cost to the city, the public gift of philanthropist Alfred T. White.

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Racism at the Garden

Racism against Asian-Americans goes back long before the surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan on December 7, 1941. Although Shiota immigrated to the United States in 1907, most of his countrymen subsequently did not have the opportunity as a result of the Gentleman’s Agreement of that year that restricted Japanese immigration to this country. On January 25, 1938, the garden’s Shinto shrine was torched by vandals. It would not be replaced until 1960.

As wartime Japan had become the equivalent of a four letter word, descriptions wisely renamed the display as the Oriental Garden. and at Rockefeller Center, the rooftop Japanese Garden was rededicated as the Chinese Garden.

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For good measure, all the Japanese trees were uprooted and the Chinese diplomat spoke of chopping off Hirohito’s head at the ceremony. Brooklyn Botanical Garden took a less combative approach with guides warning visitors not to take their anger out on the displays. “Our fight is with the Japanese aggressor, not the cherry blossoms and goldfish.”

Shiota was arrested and died on December 3, 1943 in an internment camp in South Carolina. Before his death, he wrote a letter to his niece, describing the garden as his favorite creation. “This garden is the pride of my life.. I believe it will live long and my soul will be always living in the garden.”

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Learn More:

Although the resolution is very small and some of the photos are missing, Brooklyn Botanical Garden has a century’s worth of photos on its website, taking you back to the garden’s early years.

In the News:

New York Times reports on a community advocate who spent decades fighting to rebuild the waterfront promenade at Queensbridge Park. It reopened today.

Atlas Obscura reports on the unusual items brought up from the bottom of New York’s waterways.

A Note on This Blog:

I’ve been promoted. Starting this coming Monday, my work at the NYC Parks Department will take me from the agency’s headquarters to its office in Queens, away from the archives and towards additional responsibilities. I may not have enough time to blog daily and will sporadically add new material to this blog as time allows. To schedule future author talks, send me an email or a tweet.

I appreciate your understanding on this matter.


4 thoughts on “Photo of the Week

  1. Andrew Porter November 21, 2016 / 4:26 pm

    Excellent article, giving much previously unknown (to me, anyway) information. I have scanned in numerous postcards showing the Japanese Garden in the 1930s, and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. I’d be happy to share them with you.


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