City and ‘Friends’ unveil restored pagoda in Golden Gate Park

A ‘GEM’ IN THE CITY ­— The city completed work on restoring a century-old pagoda (L) located in the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department unveiled the restored pagoda in the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. City staff, government representatives, park advocates and Japanese American community members gathered Sept. 28 to celebrate the restoration of the 107-year-old structure in the 127-year-old five-acre Japanese garden.

“I’m 55 and I just got a hip replacement, so this guy is doing pretty well for 107,” Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the Recreation and Park Department, joked.

According to the department, the pagoda was originally built as a temporary indoor display for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition’s Palace of Food Products. The structure was moved outdoors to the tea garden, the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States, in 1916, the department said.

“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 vermilion trim to vibrancy. Traditional bells and giboshi (an ornament for Japanese railings) adorn the pagoda for the first time in decades. All were custom-made in Niigata, Japan,” a department statement said.

“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,” the statement continued.

“I didn’t realize what … bad shape it was in until we saw it restored,” Lucy Fisher, a member of the Friends of the Japanese Tea Garden, told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Lucy Fisher, member of the Friends of the Japanese Tea Garden and Phil Ginsberg, general manager of San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, celebrated the occasion Sept. 28. photo by Tomo Hirai/Nichi Bei Weekly

Work to restore the pagoda began in December 2018 after Ginsberg met with Fisher and several other advocates who would go on to form the Friends of the Japanese Tea Garden. According to the city, the Recreation and Park Department is providing $1.7 million of the funding for the $2 million project, while the Friends raised $450,000 through the San Francisco Parks Alliance.

The donation campaign solicited more than 500 individual donors.

Fisher said their biggest challenge was launching the fundraising effort, but the money started coming in once they opened an online donation portal.

“People donated a dollar, they donated $100, they donated $1,000. We didn’t really expect that, but that has been so terrific,” Fisher said. “And then, one of the friends wrote thank you notes to everyone who gave some money, and we got these stories back, saying they remembered being a kid here, here’s a picture of my parents and their wedding. They loved being here.”

An entourage of VIPs attended the unveiling, featuring a performance by Jiten Taiko and a kagami biraki (sake barrel opening) ceremony.
District 4 City Supervisor Gordon Mar, who represents the portion of Golden Gate Park where the garden is located, expressed his excitement and joy

over seeing the structure restored.
“Emerging from the difficulties of the past few years and the challenges and the loss and trauma that we all suffered, spaces like this are so precious, so important for us to preserve, to enhance,” he said.

The recently installed Consul General of Japan in San Francisco Yasushi Noguchi also gave his congratulatory remarks.

“This garden is truly a gem in the city of San Francisco that preserves and promotes Japanese culture for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

Like the Peace Pagoda in Japantown, the pagoda in this tea garden is a towering landmark and symbol. It is important to preserve these important representations of Japanese culture in San Francisco,” he said.

Simon Henry-Keyes, a carpenter with the Recreation and Park Department, said he was hired to work on the pagoda in January of 2020. The city carpenter said working on the pagoda was an “opportunity of a lifetime.”

“I think the biggest challenge, initially, was understanding the actual scope of the project. Understanding how the whole thing even went together,” he told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “We had to carefully, surgically, take it apart just so we could wrap our heads around how, and then put it back together so that we could rebuild it appropriately, in the same way.”

Henry-Keyes said he was in awe seeing the pagoda restored after more than two years of work.

“There were definitely times where we felt like we were just not making progress or it was really slow. So the fact that it’s actually completed, the scaffolding is down. It’s just kind of hard to believe,” he said. “We’ve been to the garden for other things this week, and I think we’ve kind of found ourselves just kind of standing around, staring at it, ‘like whoa, we actually did that.’”

While the community celebrated the pagoda’s restoration, it is only the first half of what the Recreation and Park Department described as “an approximately $2 million restoration.” Fisher said Japanese stone masons from Hyogo Prefecture will travel to the city to place stones at the foot of the pagoda and additional landscaping designed by Hoichi Kurisu, a renown Japanese garden designer, will be done around the tower. The project also entails restoring the long bridge in the garden. The city estimated the work will be completed in fall of 2023.

The Japanese Tea Garden is located at 75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco in Golden Gate Park. The garden is open from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. during the winter. Admission is free to San Francisco residents, veterans and children under the age of five; $13 for adults, $7 for seniors (65+) and youth 12-17, and $3 for children ages 5-11).

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