Garden preservationists won a small victory toward saving Bel Air’s Hannah Carter Japanese garden on July 27. A judge granted Carter’s heirs a temporary injunction preventing the controversial sale by the garden’s owner, UCLA.
The flap over the fate of the 1.5-acre Kyoto-style garden and adjacent house, which were given to UCLA in 1964 by Hannah and Edward Carter (Mr. Carter had been chair of the University of California Regents), started late last year when neighbors noticed appraisers poking around. Some even witnessed items being removed from the property; many were originally imported from Japan and had been there since the hillside garden was designed in 1959 and completed in 1961.
Carter’s heirs were shocked to learn that in 2010, just a year after their mother’s death, the cash-strapped university persuaded an Alameda County judge to overturn the university’s contractual obligation to the Carter family to maintain the garden “in perpetuity,” listing the property for $14.7 million.
Community meetings, email blasts, petitions, letters to the university ensued and a coalition of six preservation organizations was formed, including the Los Angeles Conservancy, the Garden Conservancy, and The Cultural Landscape Foundation. No one, including the heirs, could get the university to speak with them.
In May, Hannah Carter’s five children filed a lawsuit against UCLA for breach of contract. They want the university to honor their commitment to preserve their mother’s garden as an educational and artistic resource. “Unfortunately, there was no other choice,” explained Hannah Carter’s son Jonathan Caldwell, who is paying for the legal fees with his siblings. “We explored every opportunity we could to engage UCLA and they rebuffed us every time.”
What has riled preservationists is UCLA’s insistence that the garden, with elements like a Japanese teahouse, a black pebble beach and a koi pond, has no educational value. UCLA declined to comment but released a statement that said: “During these challenging times, campus resources are best directed toward or academic mission, not toward maintaining a garden that serves no teaching or research purpose.”
Charles Birnbaum, founder and president of the Washington D.C.-based Cultural Landscape Foundation, pointed out that not only does the university have a Landscape Architecture certificate program, but also that the garden is considered a seminal work. Its designer, landscape architect Nagao Sakurai, is renowned, and, Birnbaum added, Japanese gardens greatly influenced modernism. “This period is very under-represented in scholarship and Sakurai and the Hannah Carter Japanese are a fertile field for such study,” Birnbaum said.
Walter Moore, the attorney representing the Carter heirs, put it another way. “The deal said you have to maintain this work of art. It’s just like giving the university a Matisse but the deal also said, don’t destroy my Matisse,” he said. “Nobody left a puppy on their doorstep. This was not an unsolicited gift, this was a contract.”
With the injunction in place, the Regents cannot sell the garden and must maintain it, at least through the end of the trial, which is scheduled for May 6, 2013. But Moore and the Carter heirs hope some kind of settlement can be reached before then to prevent a costly trial.