The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is one of the premiere museums in the United States, if not the world. I’ve visited there many times for various reasons – there’s so much to see! They have a superb collection of Japanese swords and guards for instance, and a temple room constructed by Japanese carpenters in the 1910’s which houses Buddhist sculptures and paintings.

A few years back I learned that there is a 10,000 square foot Japanese dry stone landscape type of garden located at an exterior corner of the museum’s main building, a garden called Tenshin-en. The word means ‘Garden at the Heart of Heaven’, though in some ways this is but a happy coincidence as the garden was actually named after a person of the same name, Okakura Tenshin, aka Okakuro Kakuzō, the author of The Book of Tea. Okakura-san was the curator of the MFA’s Asiatic collection in its formative period.

The garden was funded and constructed in 1987, here’s a look at part of it:

The perimeter of the garden is bounded by a masonry wall and has a kabukimon, or ‘crown beam gate’ at the entrance and a small roofed kiosk to the left:

The gate was fabricated in Kyoto out of Hinoki and then brought over and assembled by Japanese carpenters.

A closer look:

A view of the inside gate area in wintertime:

I’m not sure precisely what unfolded, but somehow the gift of the garden fell organizationally between a few cracks at the MFA, not quite the purview of the Asian Art Department nor the Facilities and Maintenance Management side. There was no plan in place for maintenance and upkeep, and as many of you know, Japanese gardens are quite maintenance intensive. After 25 years or so, the garden was not in the best condition, and the gate was highly deteriorated. Here’s a few recently taken close-ups of parts of the gate to give you a sense:

Posts are being eaten by fungi:


I’m being gentle with these photos – there are worse looking parts yet. The posts on the kiosk have also deteriorated to the point where they will require replacement, though, thanks to the roof, the rest of the kiosk is in excellent condition.

25 years is not a very long lifespan, though it is about what one might expect for a wooden structure in that material placed largely out in the elements. While there is some copper flashing on the gate, it is on the minimal side and certain aspects of constructional detailing have made the gate more prone to detrioration than otherwise.

I believe the main posts are pretty much shot through with rot and the gate’s structrual integrity is definitely waning. The gate doors are toast.

After I saw the gate for the first time in 2009, I tried to contact the right people at the museum to let them know the gate was in a perilous state and offer my services to repair or rebuild it. I got nowhere after repeated attempts, ending up with a “we’ll keep your information on file” .

So I put the gate towards the back of my my mind and moved on. Last year, I was looking at webpages on Julie Masservy Moir’s site to see what she was up to of late, and saw a picture which showed a crew of people who had been engaged in pro bono clean up work on the Tenshin garden. I realized that Julie, who is based in New Hampshire, would likely know which MFA staff members had some oversight of the gate and garden, so I followed that up and thanks to Julie’s introduction, a few weeks later I had a meeting at the MFA with staff there to discuss the gate condition. My persistence had paid off.

That meeting led to a request for a proposal for a new gate, a document in which I also detailed some ways we could make a longer-lasting kabukimon construction, and suggested a maintenance schedule for the long term. Many months later that proposal was put together with several others concerning the garden and submitted to a funding entity in Japan. Then we waited many more months. Eventually, word came a couple of months ago that the funding had come through!

Several more months have since passed, and after many hurdles have been crossed, everything looks to be a ‘go’. I’ll be meeting with staff at the MFA in the 3rd week of this month to discuss things further in terms of scheduling.

Since more months have elapsed than anticipated as this process has rolled along, the projected installation date for the new gate has been pushed to April of 2015.  The timing is to coincide with the seasonal opening of the garden. It will mean that fabrication will take place during the fall-winter period of 2014.

Now, part of what will stretch out the time frame for this project is the wood. We will be using Port Orford Cedar, and since the gate requires some largish sections the time it will take to properly dry them out is going to be on the scale of several months. The longer the better really. I anticipate doing most of the drying using dehumidification, which is a gentle and slow process, and there is a facility a mile or two up the road from my show with a large dehumidification room.

I will endeavor to reclaim material from the old gate to use in the new one, though I fear the amount salvageable will be modest. Put it this way: I am planning for the worst, and hoping for the best in that regard. I’m anticipating a trip to Oregon in the next month or two to look at some Port Orford logs at a mill there.

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to design and build a traditional Japanese wooden structure – especially one that will be publicly viewable. I’m excited to have a chance to engage in a project with a prestigious museum as well, and look forward to seeing this project through to a successful completion. Also, unlike many recent projects, I will likely not have a non-disclosure agreement to deal with, as the museum is a non-profit entity, and I should be able to blog about the construction and installation.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way. On to post II.

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