Block 12 Mess Hall Garden East Entry (hero image)

photo by: Jeff Burton, Manzanar NHS

November 2, 2015

Restoring the Historic Japanese Gardens of Manzanar

  • By: Lauren Walser

There are many gardens at Manzanar National Historic Site. Some are along the driving tour route and are easy to spot by visitors to this desert landmark. Others are buried beneath layers of sand and debris. Some are simple rock formations, and others are elaborately designed landscapes, with ponds, bridges, streams, and fences.

Together, these gardens—one of the most important collections of Japanese gardens in the country—stand as symbols of resistance and resilience.

They were created by the Japanese-Americans who were confined at Manzanar War Relocation Center in the 1940s. It’s estimated that there were, at one point, more than 100 gardens inside the fences and underneath the guard towers at this 814-acre site in eastern California’s Owens Valley. The men and women held there built the gardens between the rows of barracks, outside the mess halls, and along the firebreaks, as a way to improve living conditions and add beauty and hope to the desolate prison landscape.

The gardens also created communal spaces for those interned at the center. They were places for children to play and for families to gather.

The most common gardens were small plots outside of the barracks apartments, typically near the entrances. The first such garden began on April 19, 1942, less than a month after the camp opened. It was the design of Southern California landscaper William Katsuki, who created the garden outside his barracks in Block 24. By October 1942, there were so many gardens throughout Manzanar that the Manzanar Free Press held a garden contest, which is believed to have spurred even more gardens.

After Manzanar closed in 1945, many of the gardens were bulldozed or buried along with most of the other buildings at the center. Debris, sand, and silt covered the ponds, and vegetation grew over the site.

When the National Park Service conducted an archaeological survey in 1993, only a few of the biggest gardens were still visible.

Since then, Jeff Burton, an archaeologist at Manzanar National Historic Site, and his team have worked to uncover the gardens. Using newspaper accounts, oral histories, photographs, consultations with Japanese garden experts, and archaeological excavations, Burton and his crew—many of whom are volunteers—are finding and, in some cases, restoring or recreating the gardens. So far, 20 have been excavated, mapped, and stabilized.

A management plan for the gardens is currently in the works, and will outline how they will be researched, restored, maintained, and interpreted in the coming years. Some gardens will be preserved as-is, kept in their state of abandonment to show the harsh desert conditions faced by those who were confined at the site. Others have been or will be brought back to the way they looked in the 1940s.

For more information on preservation projects at Manzanar and other sites of conscience (places with difficult histories), don’t miss the Fall 2015 issue of Preservation magazine.

Historic Block 34 Mess Hall Garden

photo by: Manzanar NHS

The elaborate Block 34 mess hall garden won first place in the Manzanar Free Press garden contest in November 1942.

Lauren Walser headshot

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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