In a city of lush gardens, the Hannah Carter Japanese Garden in Bel-Air is neither the biggest nor the most accessible. But it is among the rarest examples of post-World War II Japanese private gardens in this country. Featuring paths of varied textures that wind past pines, a waterfall and a stone pagoda, among other features, it is a melding of Kyoto and California. Designed in 1959 by the renowned Japanese garden designer Nagao Sakurai, its mere creation was considered part of a renewed respect for Japan in the United States.
Edward Carter, a retail magnate and long-serving University of California regent, signed an agreement in 1964 to buy the house for UCLA and directing the school to buy the adjacent garden with money he donated. The agreement stipulated that the garden be maintained in perpetuity. For Asian art experts and preservationists, the garden is a work of art. It is also worth millions, which is why UCLA is putting it and the residence on the market. UCLA officials estimate the garden could bring $5.7 million and the house another $9 million.
Perpetuity is a long time. Today the university finds itself desperate for discretionary funds for its core academic programs, and the garden, officials say, serves no academic purpose. Public access is limited as well. Parking is nearly nonexistent. And the university has spent more than $1 million in the last decade to meticulously maintain the garden — one reason its value remains intact. For all those reasons, a court is allowing UCLA to sell the garden.
Preservationists are understandably worried that the garden could be plowed under. We’re worried too. But the fact is that the university, which has seen its funding cut repeatedly in the state budget and has tripled its tuition in the last decade, needs all the money it can get. So officials should go ahead with the sale.
By state law, all offers must be made by sealed bids, and the university is obligated to take the highest one. However, officials have wisely pledged to work before the sale with preservationists and potential bidders to encourage buyers inclined to keep the garden. Fundraising is a daunting task for preservation groups these days, but the university and preservationists should aggressively work together to identify potential buyers who are interested in maintaining the garden and allowing some public access. The garden can be purchased separately from the house, and there could be potential tax breaks for a buyer who keeps it. Brad Erickson, who is overseeing the real estate transaction for UCLA, said he has already talked to potential buyers among the Bel-Air neighbors who expressed interest in keeping the garden. This is one time — to borrow from Voltaire — when a coalition of forces is necessary to cultivate a garden.