Restoration work completes on iconic pagoda at San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden

Zen Restored

Restoration work completes on iconic pagoda at San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden

The five-tiered wooden pagoda at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. (L Hoffheins/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

The tiered roofs and bright red paint of the five-tiered wooden pagoda installed in the Japanese Tea Garden at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park stand out against the site’s lush, zen-informed landscape complete with bonsai trees, azalea draped waterfalls, and a hedge modeled after the likes of Mount Fuji. The tower was first erected as the Palace of Food Products during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition and, somewhat miraculously, has survived over a century, recently emerging from a two-year-long restoration effort that involved replacing the roof shingles on all five levels, repainting its red exterior, and again activating its long-silenced bells.

The pagoda was never meant to fare outdoors. Unlike most pagoda constructions, tiered ornamental towers common in East Asia built to serve religious or memorial functions, this structure was initially housed indoors during the 1915 exposition and subsequently relocated to the Japanese Tea Garden, which is the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States having been built for a previous world’s fair held in San Francisco, the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894. The structure rises 52 feet in total; the tower itself is 36 feet tall and bolstered by a 5-foot concrete base and 12-foot spire.

Today the Japanese Tea Garden, a 5-acre property with native Japanese vegetation, koi ponds, seasonally blooming cherry blossom trees, and a number of traditional Japanese structures, acts as an inviting public green space for locals and visitors alike. The space was first designed as the Japanese Village for the California Midwinter International Exposition. Following the fair, Japanese landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara expanded the landscape to 5 acres, solidifying its future use as a public garden. Hagiwara lived on the site until he was sent to an internment camp in 1942 never to return. This event prompted a series of new additions, and demolitions, in the following years in a move meant to remove any Japanese affiliations from the garden.

underside of tiered pagoda roof
The deteriorated wood shingles were replaced with cedar and redwood ones. (Michael Dales/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

Among these changes were the razing of the Shinto Shrine and the removal of the Torii Gate. The pagoda was also not immune to change. In 1943, it moved locations within the garden to its current spot near the Temple Gate, a similarly ornamented structure also brought to the site following the conclusion of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

Restoration work on the pagoda kicked off just before the pandemic. The structure was shrouded in scaffolding during the painstaking restoration process, which involved closely matching the rotted building materials with products that would allow the monument to survive another 100 years. As reported by the The San Francisco Chronicle, Steven Pitsenbarger, chief gardener at the site, said demolishing the pagoda and constructing another in its stead would have been “easier” than the $1.1 million renovation work, which was primarily undertaken by the Recreation and Park Department’s carpentry team.

The deteriorating roof shingles on each of the five tiers were replaced with reclaimed redwood and cedar from old water tanks at Camp Mather, a city-run summer camp near Yosemite National Park. The previously lead-based paint was also stripped and replaced with a water-based latex; the shade is Shiaru, a deep reddish orange. Custom-fabricated copper and brass hinges adorning the pagoda now replace the original ornamental elements and its brass bells will sweetly sound for the first time since the 1915 World’s Fair.

While the work on the pagoda itself has wrapped up, the larger $2 million renovation effort at the Japanese Tea Garden has not yet come to a complete close. Next, the concrete plinth upon which the tower is situated on will be faced with rock sourced from a Japanese quarry. This fall and continuing into next year, the second phase of the project to revitalize the landscape and adjacent bridge at the Japanese Tea Garden will commence.

The pagoda restoration is a testament to the hard work undertaken by the City of San Francisco Recreation and Park Department and the volunteer organization Friends of the Japanese Tea Garden. Just 3 miles east of Golden Gate Park, another enduring symbol of Japanese culture in Fog City is also slated for a facelift. Japantown’s Peace Plaza, a sprawling public space anchored by a concrete pagoda designed by modernist architect Yoshiro Taniguchi, was recently awarded state funding for an expansive improvement project. That renewal effort is estimated to complete in 2025.