I have found it tempting to imagine that Graham, mourning Sauerwein's death, built the Japanese garden as a Bohemian memorial. And others have speculated about Graham's feelings for Sauerwein. "Thomasella never married," wrote local historical society stalwart Phyllis Chapman in an August, 1982, article in the Sierra Madre News. "Was it because her feelings for Sauerwein were of the heart, too, and no one else filled that void after his death?" Placed below the Italian villa, a majestic alley of Irish yew trees, a conventional flower garden and a marble fountain imported from Florence, a Japanese garden is at odds with everything else on the Graham estate. Whatever its inspiration, Kato's garden cries out for explanation.
Graham was far from alone in her Oriental fascination. By the early part of the century, a Japanese garden had become a sign of sophistication for the social elite, following the rage for Japanese art that swept Europe in the late 1800s. In Southern California, rail baron Henry E. Huntington created what he called an "Oriental garden" around a large pond on his San Marino estate, after acquiring the necessary plants, gates, lanterns and other accouterments from a financially distressed tea garden in Pasadena in 1912. As it turns out, the garden--which sprawls uncharacteristically--is not really a Japanese garden at all, but a studied improvisation by Huntington's gardener, William Hertrich. Also in this faddish cross-Pacific cultural firmament, G. W. Wattles built a Japanese garden on his Hollywood estate that is now open to the public as Wattles Gardens Park, and the antique-dealing Bernheimer brothers reassembled a 17th-Century Japanese temple villa in the Hollywood Hills as the tourist attraction "Yamashiro," which is now a restaurant. Since the name Kato (pronounced KAH-toe and common in Japan) is not connected to Huntington's garden, I was hoping he had a hand in the tea garden that Huntington had stripped. But Kato's services were not needed there, either. That garden, built around 1903, was the work of a curio dealer named George Turner Marsh, who had designed the Japanese garden at the 1884 California Midwinter Exposition in San Francisco. It survives as Golden Gate Park's famous tea garden, a continuing tourist attraction, where the fantasy of Japanese landscaping made one of its earliest marks on American pop culture.
The other seminal event in the introduction of Japanese landscaping in California was the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition at San Francisco's Presidio Park, where an ambitious three-acre "Imperial Japanese Garden" was laid out by H. Izawa and a crew of temple architects and professional gardeners from Japan. This seemed a perfect place to find Kato, but here, too, he goes unmentioned in the guidebooks and pamphlets. If the Pan-Pacific Expo did not bring Kato to America, it seems plausible that it served as inspiration for Graham. Although there's no record of her actually visiting San Francisco at the time, her cosmopolitan interests would have likely drawn her there.
The history gained importance as my wife and I struggled to restore the garden and wondered if we were making the right decisions. We argued about whether the sago palms, characteristic of some Edo-style gardens, belonged on the hill, or in the garden at all. It became essential to get a better idea of what it might have looked like 70 years ago. After six months of searching, I found a Sierra Madre resident who had seen it in its prime.
She was Yoneko Hashimoto, the 75-year-old daughter of Yukataro Aisawa, who built the garden's rustic \o7 azumaya\f7 tea shelter and served as Italia Mia's groundskeeper for many years. The Aisawa family lived on the estate from about 1922 to 1930, while Hashimoto attended elementary school. "Miss Graham," she says, was an authority on horticultural matters and taught her father his gardening skills, including the Japanese techniques of which he had no prior experience.
Aisawa continued to work as a gardener in Sierra Madre until he was detained on suspicion of espionage, shortly after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. Federal authorities arrested the gardener because of his activity in Sierra Madre's Japanese Assn., which operated a Saturday language school and community center serving the 20 or so families of Japanese ancestry. Like other Japanese community leaders throughout the Western United States, Aisawa was eventually cleared of suspicion and reunited with his family behind barbed wire in an internment camp.