Creative Communities

Big dig: Japanese Garden in Fairmount Park

Posted: Monday, July 27, 2015
Source: Courier Post

The paths around the Shofuso House and Garden, in Fairmount Park, once directed an estimated nine million people to the various buildings and booths at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia. Now they are quiet, meandering and overgrown.

A 19th-century stone lantern moved from the Japanese garden after the Centennial sits along one of these shaded paths, forgotten. But next week, a team of archaeologists may uncover its original home.

The planned archaeological excavation of the first Japanese garden in North America, which was part of Japan’s Centennial exhibit, was neglected and buried following the fair.

On Saturday, AECOM, the archeology team, will do a public dig; visitors will be able to watch the archaeologists in action as they begin to uncover the original paths of the garden and cornerstones of the Japanese Bazaar, the original exhibition building.

Kim Andrews, the executive director of the Shofuso House and Garden, said until a few years prior to the Centennial, Japan had been closed to the west, so “the government decided to go all in on their exhibit in Philadelphia.”

Crowds came to watch the Japanese workmen build the bazaar. The workmen wore traditional garb and used joint methods, rather than nails or bolts, to hold the building together.

“People couldn’t believe it,” Andrews said. “Japan had been a mysterious country up to this point.”

Following the Centennial, most of the exhibition buildings were removed; one of the few remaining structures was Memorial Hall, which is now the Please Touch Museum.

“The garden remained in a state of disrepair,” Andrews said, but “there was still this memory of where the Japanese culture had been.”

In 1953, the Shofuso house, a traditional Japanese house, was built in Nogoya, Japan, for an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. After the exhibit, the house was moved to West Fairmount Park and the modern-day Japanese garden was built around it.

“The aesthetic standards for Japanese gardens are very simple,” Andrews said, explaining that over the years, while the cultural integrity of the site was retained, the garden was not maintained with exacting Japanese standards; sculptures were placed incorrectly and “we’ve had many more specimens in the garden than we should have.”

Since arriving at Shofuso five years ago, Andrews has worked to change this and make the garden as authentic as possible.

“It’s a very unique cultural facility,” said Shawn McCaney, the program director for creative communities for the William Penn Foundation, which funded the excavation.

The excavation is the first step of Shofuso’s master plan to improve the grounds, build a visitor center and increase their visibility in the park. This fits into a bigger master plan for West Fairmount Park that would improve accessibility and usage by building trails, playgrounds and adding picnic tables in between the prominent destinations in the park.

“I’m so excited about (the Shofuso) plan because it ties in so well to what we want to do,” said Kathryn Ott Lovell, executive director of the Fairmount Park Conservancy.

Lovell said the park suffers from a lack of funding, but hopes projects like the master plan at Shofuso, and the bigger West Fairmount Park master plan, will help to connect the cultural centers to one another, as well as connect the park to the surrounding neighborhoods.

“There’s not a great amount of connectivity to the community adjacent to the park,” Lovell said, explaining that while 1.6 million people are visiting the Philadelphia Zoo and the Please Touch Museum, “they’re parachuting in and parachuting out” of the park.

McCaney thinks the archaeology at Shofuso could “help animate and improve utilization of West Fairmount Park.”

“Folks just love archaeology sites,” McCaney said. “It’s a way to understand the deep history of our community and bring history alive.”

“It’s not something that many people get an opportunity to see every day,” said Doug Mooney a senior archaeologist with AECOM, and the head archaeologist for the Shofuso excavation. “People can stand right next to us and be able to talk to the archaeologists and ask questions.”

Mooney explained the team began the archaeological project at Shofuso with research, and were lucky in that there were many surviving maps and records of the site. Next, they use ground penetrating radar, which he described as “a little sled on wheels.” The radar sends back waves that suggest what might be underground.

“This is an initial study,” Mooney said. “I can’t say we won’t get any evidence of plants. If it is really well-preserved, every place where some sort of planting is done, evidence of this hole survives in the ground.” Mooney explained that differences in the color of the soil can suggest where planting occurred.

Once the garden is excavated, Andrews is unsure of whether they will rebuild it as it was, or consider one of the other ideas that has been floated, such as turning it into an interactive playground, which would act as a gateway to Shofuso from its neighbor, the Please Touch Museum.

“We’re here to be accessible to the public,” Andrews said.

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