A Historical Garden Restoration: Kuni’s Garden

What does it take to rebuild history?

Mukai house and garden, 1929ca

Kuni Mukai’s Japanese garden, designed and installed 90 years ago, for years was left to grow wild, with the north ponds cracked and leaking and the south pond buried and forgotten.

In 2012, a Garden Committee formed when the Vashon community began the effort to secure control of the Mukai house and garden historical landmark. It was an enthusiastic group eager to start planting and gardening. Challenges immediately arose. The biggest was the lack of access to Mukai until the June, 2016 legal decision that finally allowed community control of the site. The next challenge was to harness the green thumb enthusiasm of the members to dig into planting and weeding the garden. Bringing a historical public garden back to bloom needed a phased approach; a framework of research and a planning driven design and, then, at last – the planting. It was hard to have a group of island gardeners – all doers—miss planting seasons through several seasons of research and planning.

The Facilities and Garden Committee was formed in 2016, to oversee restoration of the Mukai house and the garden. Current members are landscape architect Bob Horsley, Benno Bonkowski, Steve Brown, Lynn Greiner, Dan Connolly, Mary Bergman, Kay Longhi, and Erik Mortenson. The members all bring, and freely share, a variety of skills and experience, fueled by passion and ‘Can-do’ or ‘Already did it” grit. This committee worked closely with Artifacts Consulting, a nationally known historic preservation firm that provides advice on major historic preservation projects.

Artifacts Consulting team members immediately saw the need for expert assistance on restoration of the Mukai Garden. They brought in Seattle landscape architect Karen Kiest who has worked on numerous Japanese gardens in the region.

Kuni with north garden, 1950ca

To begin the garden restoration, Kiest helped the committee understand the space, the use of the facility, and create a site plan that outlines a process and respects Kuni’s intent. Kiest, the committee, and community gardeners worked together to:

  1. Research how the Mukai family used the site and gardens
  2. Identify the plants that Kuni Mukai installed as well as other garden features
  3. Consider how restoring the gardens will revive the history of place and people in lively and relevant ways
  4. Plan for circulation, parking, and accessibility
  5. And ensure the restoration would adapt to uses of Mukai as a community resource

Kiest identified the many symbolic elements of the strolling garden based on Japanese design, while working to discern Kuni’s intentions. She also noted the American style lawn and Western garden features such as the street lamps that still light the outdoor areas.

With the restoration plans in hand, a general contractor was hired to do this work with much input and direction from Facilities Committee members and especially Bob Horsley and Benno Bonkowski. The infrastructure work was done first and included repaired drainage, downspouts, utilities, electrical upgrades, and water and stormwater needs.

The Facilities Committee took on restoring and planting the west fields and lawns which are showing signs of future lushness. Volunteers removed derelict vehicles, demolished the collapsing and unsafe storage shed, and removing the junk from years of accumulation.

The Pond

For this specialized restoration, Turnstone Construction was hired to restore Kuni’s water feature. “Turnstone Construction is the best in the country at this kind of project. They are excellent at making concrete look like rock and at hydraulics,” said Bob Horsley.

“People will be blown away by what the new yard and garden will look like.” – Bob Horsley

Kuni Mukai’s garden design evokes the sea, islands and waterfalls of Japan; the craftsmen at Turnstone Construction could capture the magic of Kuni’s original vision. Watch Turnstone’s crew bring the pond back: https://youtu.be/fwhuXF0XwCU (3 minutes).

The Joyful Garden

Scott Arima working on irrigation system at Mukai, May 2019

To revive Kuni’s garden, the facilities committee hoped to attract Japanese landscapers and contacted several Japanese American owned landscaping companies. They were thrilled to hire Scott Arima with Mt. Fuji Landscaping. Scott became interested in Kuni’s garden and the opportunity to restore a pre-war Japanese American rockery. His crew has been working to install the irrigation and plantings and lawn to prepare for the Vashon Center for the Arts Annual Garden Tour. When it turned out the water pressure was lower than planned for, Scott had to increase the irrigation piping and pumps to ensure the watering system worked as planned.

Boulders transforming Mukai, May 2019

Karen Kiest, the power behind the vision that tied together the garden and site research and planning, is still involved in the project and will visit when the final plantings are in place to witness history revived.

Planting the north hill garden, June 2019

So far, the work has focused on the north garden. The garden’s south water feature was a pond that can be seen in old photos and was uncovered when Scott was placing the irrigation piping. There are no plans to restore that garden as yet, which was destroyed during the building of the right of way at the south end of the property.

When Kuni designed the garden, she included flowering plants: azaleas, bulbs, perennials. Perhaps she was designing what she liked or used plants she had access to; there are few records on how she decided which plants to include.

Karen Kiest & Scott Arima at Mukai, June 2019

Using the materials they had at hand, the plantings, lawns and sidewalks are B.D.’s merging of Western culture with Kuni’s Japanese influenced garden.

Now that this stage of the garden is complete, visitors can look back in time, experience the garden today, and watch how Mukai Farm & Garden will change and mature. Plan to visit in different seasons!

Mukai house and garden, June 2019

Other Japanese garden restorations

Kuni’s mountain and pool design is echoed in the gardens uncovered at Manzanar, an internment camp in the Owens Valley, California. The National Park Service is using a similar process for the estimated 100 gardens constructed in that camp by incarcerated Japanese Americans. An archeologist and volunteers are working to restore those gardens with a plan on how they will be researched, restored, maintained, and interpreted. See photos of the Manzanar gardens and other restoration projects.

A building or landscape cannot speak to us on its own, but requires guides, interpreters, and facilitators to help visitors reflect, share their stories, and move toward a new, deeper understanding of a place. – Liz Ševčenko, International Coalition of Sites of Conscience

For more on those gardens see: Restoring the Historic Japanese Gardens of Manzanar, November 2, 2015.

Mary Rabourn, June, 2019