Friends group restores 137-year-old Japanese garden in West Fairmount Park

On a pleasant sunny morning in West Fairmount Park, the Friends of the Japanese House and Garden (FJHG) rededicated the 137-year-old Japanese garden and marked the completion of the historic landscape’s renovation. 

FJHG supports the Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, a traditional-style Japanese house and nationally-ranked garden. The site has had a presence at its West Fairmount Park location since a Japanese garden was first installed in 1876 for Philadelphia’s World Centennial Exposition. The 17th-Century style Shofuso house and the garden designed by Japanese landscape architect Tansai Sano were brought to the site in 1957. 

This latest endeavor used Sano’s 1957 plans to restore the original design principles of the garden. 

“We’re recapturing a truly authentic Japanese garden experience,” said Kim Andrews, executive director of FJHG. “We’re inviting visitors to enjoy the garden as it was originally intended.”

The restoration team installed a new stone bridge, granite steps leading to the restored boat landing, a curving pea-gravel path and new and restored boulder formations in the pond. The restoration also straightened the Yukimi snow lantern at the pond’s edge, renovated the waterfall to increase flow, expanded the island’s size to protect the red pine tree and rebuilt masonry pond walls using original stones and boulders. 

“The most exciting thing for me was we rediscovered the boat launch,” Andrews said. 

The boat launch was built in 1957, but until recently it had been covered by bushes and over growth. After uncovering the original launch pad, the landscape team added granite stairs leading to the platform. While there won’t be boats much larger than paper origami crafts floating through the garden’s koi pond, the launch provides a place for visitors to get a close view of the pond’s inhabitants. 

“It turned from a boat landing into a great koi feeding platform,” Andrews said. 

Another highlight Andrews pointed out is the enhanced waterfall with increased water flow, which she said is much more musical. 

These changes are intended to preserve the site, maintain it as an authentic Japanese house and garden and enhance visitor experience. 

Andrews said FJHG takes a somewhat unique approach in talking about the history of the site in that the group includes not only the site’s static history but its evolving history. The group talks about both the history of Shofuso in Japan and the history of this site in Philadelphia. This includes talking about how the site has been preserved and how it will continue to be preserved in the future. 

“I [am] really proud of that because it’s unusual to include preservation into how [historic groups] talk about a site,” she said. 

Now through September, the Shofuso house and garden are open Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. –  4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m. The site is open on the weekends in October. Admission is $6 for adults, $4 for students, seniors and children ages 3 through 17. 

While the site is closed November through March, Andrews said the friends group hopes to build a visitors center in the next five years. That would allow the house and garden to remain open through the winter months. 

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