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UCLA's plan to sell Japanese garden draws criticism

For nearly half a century, the UCLA Hannah Carter Japanese Garden in Bel-Air has served as a serene stopover for visitors from locations as varied as Newhall, Nashville and the Netherlands.

But the decision by UCLA to sell the steep hillside property and an adjoining house to raise money for endowments and professorships has the garden world in an un-Zen-like uproar.

The Garden Conservancy, an organization based in New York and San Francisco, has lambasted the university's transfer to the Fowler Museum of a five-tiered stone pagoda and other garden objects and has urged the public to contact UCLA Chancellor Gene Block.

"We've been asking the university to slow down and think about a relationship with the community that would keep the garden open," said Antonia Adezio, Garden Conservancy president.

UCLA's Brad Erickson, executive director of campus service enterprises, said the university, facing steep budget cuts, deliberated at length before determining to sell what it called surplus properties that served no academic or research purpose. He said officials conferred with neighbors and experts in Japanese culture before making the "difficult decision."

In November, the university announced plans to sell the two acres containing the Georgian Colonial house on Siena Way and the garden on Bellagio Road. The properties, north of Sunset Boulevard, are near the Hotel Bel-Air about a mile from campus. Erickson expects the properties to generate about $15 million.

The garden was donated by Edward W. Carter, a retailing magnate and former chairman of the UC Board of Regents, and his second wife, Hannah Locke Carter, under a 1964 agreement that the university would maintain it in perpetuity. In 1982, the parties agreed that proceeds from the sale of the house would be used to fund certain endowments and professorships.

Carter, who took a few stores called the Broadway and turned them into the prototype suburban department store chain, died in 1996. Hannah Carter left the Siena Way house in 2006 and died in 2009.

A year later, the UC Regents asked the Superior Court of Alameda County, where the university system is based, to allow the properties' sale and to lift the "in perpetuity" requirement. The regents argued that "changed circumstances" made continued ownership and maintenance "impracticable." The court agreed.

That is a sore point for Jim Caldwell of Woodside, Calif., one of five children of Hannah Carter.

"There was no communication with any of Hannah Carter's children," he said. The family became aware of UCLA's intentions, he said, after a Bel-Air neighbor sounded the alert. "We are greatly saddened by this shameful behavior and hope that the university will choose to take the garden off the market," he said Friday in an email to UCLA's Academic Senate.

Caldwell recalled that his mother spent a lot of time in the Japanese garden. "Whenever we went down there with her, she was pinching off dead blossoms from the azaleas," he said. "She really cared for that garden so deeply … and the artifacts." The garden features five bonsai plants that she tended.

Erickson said this week that bid packages would be available in early February and that bidding would begin in May. State law mandates a "publicly announced sealed-bid sales process where we accept the highest-value bid," Erickson said. Interested parties may bid on the home only, the garden only or both. Coldwell Banker Previews International in Beverly Hills has the listing.

"It's not the case that we're selling the garden with the intent it would be destroyed," he said. "It's my expectation personally … that someone would buy it and maintain it." Erickson said he had heard from interested parties but declined to identify them.

Kendall H. Brown, a professor of Asian art at Cal State Long Beach, described the garden as "the biggest and best private residential [Japanese-style] garden built in America in the immediate post-war period."

In 1959, oilman Gordon Guiberson and his wife, Verabelle, commissioned landscape architect Nagao Sakurai of Tokyo and garden designer Kazuo Nakamura of Kyoto to create the setting in honor of Guiberson's mother. The main gate and some other structures were built in Japan and reassembled at the site.

Completed in 1961, the garden was named Shikyoen, which translates loosely as Garden That Reminds One of Kyoto. In 1969, heavy rains damaged the garden, and Koichi Kawana, a UCLA professor and campus architect, designed the reconstruction. The garden includes a Hawaiian section covered with ferns and bird of paradise palm trees.

Erickson said the university had long wrestled with how to deal with the garden, which costs $120,000 a year to maintain and $19,000 for staffing.

Because of limited parking and neighbors' concerns, the university admitted only about 2,000 visitors a year. As guest-book comments attest, they were invariably delighted by what many deemed a hidden treasure, with flowing streams, a waterfall, a koi pond, a tea house and weathered stone sculptures nestled amid bamboo, Japanese black pines and blooming magnolia and camellia trees. In addition to the pagoda, workers removed a wooden and gold leaf Amida Buddha, a stone water basin and a Korean stone lantern.

R. Michael Rich, a Bel-Air resident and UCLA research astronomer, decried the removals. "Everything was site-specific … selected by the garden designers and placed very thoughtfully in every location," he said. He was relieved that an ancient carved stone depicting Buddha seated in 16 positions, originally slated for removal, will remain near the garden entrance. Erickson decided to leave that piece in place after workers said they would need a crane to excise it.

Garden advocates say they hope an aficionado of the Japanese aesthetic — tech magnate Lawrence Ellison's name has been floated — might buy and maintain the property. "The garden is nationally significant," said Judy Horton, president of the California Garden and Landscape History Society in Los Angeles. "It should not be altered or destroyed."

martha.groves@latimes.com

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