Sycamore Grove Park: A Garden for the Masses

A brief and cryptic paragraph in the October 11, 1910 edition of the Los Angeles Herald caught my eye. Sandwiched between a story about a restaurateur cited for allowing patrons to shoot craps with “dice made of lumps of sugar” and the previous night’s bowling scores, was the headline, “Japanese Will Prepare Plans for Park Garden.”[i]

The names of the Japanese in question were given as M. Hagiwara and T. Kato. As the long-time caretaker for the Japanese Garden in San Francisco, Mr. Makoto Hagiwara was fairly easy to identify. Designed in 1894 for the World’s Fair, the garden in Golden Gate Park is considered to be among the first in the U.S. and has a devoted following (Hagiwara is also credited with having invented the fortune cookie ensuring a whole other group of fans).[ii] The identity of T. Kato took a bit of digging, but I believe him to be Tokunosuke Kato, who is listed as either a gardener or florist in a number of Los Angeles city directories.[iii]

Kato was born in 1861 and came to the U.S. in 1891. He never married but lived for many years at 813 Washington Boulevard with his nephew and a rotating cast of Japanese boarders. After more than 30 years in Southern California, Kato appears to have returned to Japan in the early 1920s.[iv] It is not known how many gardens he designed while in the U.S. Only one appears to have survived to the present.[v]

Figure 1: Photograph by Charles Beam. For much of its early history Sycamore Grove Park remained relatively wild. Source: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection,  http://jpg2.lapl.org/pics20/00019809.jpg

Figure 1: Photograph by Charles Beam. For much of its early history Sycamore Grove Park remained relatively wild. Source: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection, http://jpg2.lapl.org/pics20/00019809.jpg

Unfortunately the plan for a publically-owned Japanese Garden in Los Angeles did not materialize. Kato and Hagiwara appeared before the Park Commission on October 10, 1910. They were asked to consider two possible locations: Sycamore Grove and Eastlake (now Lincoln) Park. The two men returned seven days later, recommending a site adjacent to Eastlake Park. At the time, the land was owned by Henry Huntington who seemed willing to sell… at the right price.[vi] However, despite support from a number of community groups, the matter was not discussed further.[vii]

I can certainly see why creating a quietly serene Japanese Garden at Sycamore Park would have appealed to the Park Commission. For many years, the park had been a particularly raucous place, full of rambunctious children, picnickers of every ethnicity and (gasp!) beer drinkers.

Figure 2: On the surface the park seemed to be a sylvan ideal, the reality was much more interesting. Source: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection, http://jpg2.lapl.org/pics20/00019799.jpg

Figure 2: On the surface the park seemed to be a sylvan ideal, the reality was much more interesting. Source: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection, http://jpg2.lapl.org/pics20/00019799.jpg

As early as the 1870’s, Sycamore Grove was a place for Angelenos to let loose. In 1874, the Los Angeles Herald reported that members of the German “Turn Verein” organization celebrated May Day in the Grove with “glorious sport [and] plenty of beer.”[viii] Members of the group had gathered at their hall in downtown, marched through the streets of Los Angeles to the Plaza and then piled into carriages for the short drive to the park. The Herald’s reporter noted that the “beer stands were surrounded, besieged and captured” by the revelers. The “whole was a scene of roistering mirth, good will and happy freedom.”[ix]

Besides the Germans, the park served as a meeting place for the Italian Mutual Benevolent Society, the New Italian Society, the French Benevolent Society, the Emerald Club, the Ladies Benevolent Society and hundreds of other associations organized by state, professional or ethnic affiliation (Highland Park’s 90042 blog has a great summary of picnic pictures from the Los Angeles Public Library). The crowds were so large, that local historians have suggested that one of the reasons Highland Park was annexed to the City of LA was to gain access to a police force big enough to deal with the rabble-rousers.[x]

While annexation may have added to the number of policemen in the area, the beer continued to flow freely at Sycamore Grove. So much so, that in 1899, the “puritanical” citizens of Highland Park took their concerns to city hall. Mayor Eaton, elected in a “spasm of reform,” had recently replaced Al Snyder who, according to the good people of Highland Park, had allowed the “scum of crib-town and the toughs” to host “Bowery Balls” in the park.[xi] The mayor was sympathetic but suggested that Los Angeles was “too large … to hold people down too firmly.” His “over-fastidious” constituents argued that if he did not shut off the alcohol, they would take matters into their own hands. The mayor quickly capitulated and vowed to refuse any exceptions to the city’s beer laws for Sycamore Grove picnickers.[xii]

The site became an official city park in 1904. And while historic photographs might lead us to believe that Sycamore Grove functioned as a sylvan ideal (figures 1 and 2); the written record tells a wonderfully mundane story of minor transgressions and gripes.

Figure 3: The tennis courts at Sycamore Grove Park were a constant source of concern. Source Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection. http://jpg2.lapl.org/pics20/00019791.jpg

Figure 3: The tennis courts at Sycamore Grove Park were a constant source of concern. Source Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection. http://jpg2.lapl.org/pics20/00019791.jpg

The gruffness of the park’s caretakers was (repeatedly) commented on, as were the rickety picnic tables that would occasionally dump their occupants and their lunch on the ground. Mr. Will Gould, President of the New England Society proposed that the newly-constructed speaker stand should be moved so that the orator was not “compelled to revolve round like an office chair in order to reach his audience.”[xiii] Mrs. Dora Oliphant Coe, who assured the commissioners that she was “not one of those women who are trying to get their fingers on the reins of government,” was “peeved” because there were “never any band concerts” in Sycamore Park. Mrs. Oliphant Coe also wondered why the city had put barbed wire around a carousel next to the park. In its response, the Commission suggested that the carousel was operated as a lure by the owner of an unauthorized “refreshment” (i.e. beer) stand who was interested in profit rather than fun.[xiv]

The tennis courts at Sycamore Grove were a surprisingly consistent area of complaint (figure 3). Dan Jones pointed out that Los Angeles had, “the least number of tennis courts of any city in the West” and he volunteered plans to turn the park’s two tennis courts into three (figure 4).[xv] According to other letter writers, the tennis courts were frequently “monopolized by school children.” A petition from 1921 suggested that the Commission raise the age limit of those allowed to play on the courts so that the “employed” could get in a game on Saturday and Sunday.[xvi] Mr. C. Harwell shared with the commission rules that were currently being discussed for the tennis courts in Exposition Park. The rules forbade “unruly behavior, “rallying behind or between” the courts and suggested that “petty disagreements arising among players should be settled quickly and a sportsmanlike manner as possible”.[xvii]

Figure 4: Tennis players volunteered plans to turn the park’s two tennis courts into three. Source: Letter of Dan D. Jones to Honorable Board Park Commissioners, October 7 1914, Los Angeles City Archives and Records Center, Box c-752 RP-11-69

Figure 4: Tennis players volunteered plans to turn the park’s two tennis courts into three. Source: Letter of Dan D. Jones to Honorable Board Park Commissioners, October 7 1914, Los Angeles City Archives and Records Center, Box c-752 RP-11-69

Letters from Commission staff record the attempts to control alcohol sales, to manage the crowd by requiring permits and to chastise users who behaved badly. [xviii] However, the conversation was never one sided. Over the years, the public was engaged in a systematic dialogue with the Commission. In so doing, the park’s users shaped the idea of Sycamore Grove, not as a quiet Olmstedian place of rest and repose, but as a vibrant and boisterous social space.

I would like to thank Mike Holland of the Los Angeles City Archives and Records Center for his help with this post. While we didn’t ultimately find a plan for the Japanese Garden (which was kind of a long shot anyway), Mike pulled out all sorts of other source material that made for wonderful reading.

[i] Japanese Will Prepare Plans for Park Garden”, Los Angeles Herald, Tuesday morning, October 11, 1910, California Digital Newspaper Collection, Available: http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnchttp://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc; The American Florist, Chicago and New York, July 30, 1910, volume 35, no 1156, p. 650

[ii] L.A. Chung, Paula Marie Parker, Lyle York. “Hot Stuff: [Final Edition]” San Francisco Chronicle, 07 July 1993: 2/Z1; Days Gone By: In 1894, San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden introduced the fortune cookie to America Contra Costa Times, 23 June 2013: B.3; Erik Sumiharu Hagiwara-Nagata “A Brief History of the Japanese Tea Garden” http://www.hanascape.com/aboutus/teagarden/

[iii] Los Angeles City Directories, 1911, 1915, 1917 and 1918 Available at the Los Angeles Public Library, http://rescarta.lapl.org/ResCarta-Web/jsp/RcWebBrowseCollections.jsp

[iv] The U.S Census for 1910 and 1920 is available through Ansestry.com. Kato is not listed in the Los Angeles city directories after 1918. This combined with the absence of death records, lead’s me to believe that he returned to Japan.

[v] In 1994, Karl Schoenberg of the LA Times described his attempt to locate the elusive Mr. Kato after he found the designer’s initials carved into a rock in his garden. Although misidentifying the man as Tokutaro Kato, the garden’s current owner has posted a video of the site on-line. Schoenberger, Karl “In Search of Mr. Kato: A Quest for the Creator of a Mysterious Japanese Garden Conjures Up a Faceless Ghost, Modern Prejudices and a Willful Heiress” Los Angeles Times, October 09, 1994, http://articles.latimes.com/1994-10-09/magazine/tm-48301_1_japanese-garden-design; “Private Japanese Garden to be Sold” Eden: California Landscape and Garden History Society Journal, 1997 Vol.1. No3, p. 2; “Post Script” Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1994

[vi] Minute Book, Parks Commission, October 10, 1904 – November 18, 1912, Meeting of the Board of Park Commissioners of The City of Los Angeles, Monday October 10, 1910; Minute Book, Parks Commission, October 10, 1904 – November 18, 1912, Meeting of the Board of Park Commissioners of The City of Los Angeles, Monday October 17; “Plan Japanese Garden Adjoining Eastlake Park”, Los Angeles Herald, Volume 33, Number 17, 18 October 1910

[vii] On November 7, 1910, members of the North, Northeast and Northwest Improvement Association appeared before the commission supporting the idea of a Japanese Garden. Minute Book, Parks Commission, October 10, 1904 – November 18, 1912, Meeting of the Board of Park Commissioners of The City of Los Angeles, November 7, 1910

[viii] “Turn Verein Picnic” Los Angeles Herald, Volume 2, Number 29, 5 May 1874

[ix] “Turn Verein Picnic” Los Angeles Herald, Volume 2, Number 29, 5 May 1874

[x]   The First Suburb, KCET http://www.kcet.org/socal/departures/highland-park/the-highlands/the-first-suburb.html

[xi] “Too Puritanical: Mayor Eaton’s Opinion Of Garvanza Precinct” Los Angeles Times, Jul 1, 1899; ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times (1881-1990), pg. 7

[xii] Ibid

[xiii] Letter from Will D. Gould to City Parks Department, April 3, 1914, Los Angeles City Archives and Records Center, Box c-752 RP-11-69

[xiv] Letter from Dora Oliphant Coe to J.B Lippencott, President Park Board, July 7, 1914. Letter from Park Commission Secretary to Mrs. Dora Oliphant Coe, July 15, 1914, Los Angeles City Archives and Records Center, Box c-752 RP-11-69

[xv] Letter of Dan D. Jones to Honorable Board Park Commissioners, October 7 1914, Los Angeles City Archives and Records Center, Box c-752 RP-11-69

[xvi] Letter to Park Commission, June 8, 1921; Letter from N. P. Way to Park Commission, March 22, 1921, Los Angeles City Archives and Records Center, Box c-752 RP-11-69

[xvii] Letter from C. Harwell to Park Commission, November 14, 1916, Los Angeles City Archives and Records Center, Box c-752 RP-11-69

[xviii] Letter from Park Commission Secretary to San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad Company, July 18, 1913, Los Angeles City Archives and Records Center, Box c-752 RP-11-69

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