Friday, October 2, 2009

History, Culture & Vandalism at Fairmount Park

THE JAPANESE HOUSE IN FAIRMOUNT PARK is an unusual attraction in that it combines culture, Japanese history, Philadelphia lore and horticulture. As site manager Matt Palmer says, the house has a different meaning for every visitor who arrives.

Tours at the house delve into the history of the site, history of the house, historical context about medieval Japan, architectural information, and anecdotes about famous Philadelphians like John Morris, John Kelly and Frank Rizzo.

The location is near the site of the Japanese Bazaar exhibit featured in the 1876 Centennial celebration. Shortly after the Centennial event, an Asian-inspired lotus pond was built where the Japanese house now sits. In 1905, a 300-year old Japanese Gate House that had been displayed at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exhibition was installed by the pond. That house, known as Nio-mon, slowly deteriorated from neglect, and ultimately burned down in 1955.

The structure that is there now was installed in 1958, having been donated to Philadelphia by Japan. The house, known as Shofuso, was originally built by the Japanese government in 1954 to be exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The house is built in the traditional style (hiroki bark roof, tatami mat floors, etc), with architectural references that point to the style popular between 1550 and 1660. The house is representative of a nobleman's home of that era, featuring a room with a built-in desk, typical of high ranking priests, scholars or maybe even samurai.

For nearly 25 years, the house was tormented by vandals who tagged the shoji screens, stole priceless works of art and otherwise abused the building. In the 1980's a grassroots movement formed an organization that maintains the site, which is technically owned by the city.

While vandals continue to break into the house, it is much less of a problem than it was in the 1970's.

The site receives around 12,000 visitors per year, and many people spend much of their time walking the gardens that surround the large pond. If you step near the edge of the pond, colorful koi rush to the surface, assuming you are there to feed them.

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