Japanese Garden 1

The Japanese Tea House (located where the current open pavilion stands) is on the left. Standing in the garden is one of the Japanese-American waitresses dressed in a kimono. The original stroll garden was more densely planted. 

When landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted designed the 1893 World’s Fair on the marshy shore of Lake Michigan, he decided to keep one of the sand ridges, turn the surrounding wetlands into lagoons, and call the ridge an island. He wanted an oasis amid the neoclassical extravaganza of the fair. Aquatic plants including Japanese iris softened its shores, bur oaks provided shade and benches provided rest for the feet as well as the soul. 

Olmsted wrote that he wanted the island to be “held free from buildings and all objects” that prevented a feeling of “calmness and naturalness.” The island’s central location was attractive to exhibitors, who lobbied hard to build there. The Horticulture Department claimed the southern end of the island for demonstration gardens. Fair manager Daniel Burnham and Olmsted decided that allowing a building on the northern end might convince the other exhibitors to back off. They chose the Japanese pavilion as the “least obtrusive and disquieting result.” 

Wooded Island, World's Columbian Exposition

East side of the Wooded Island looking north during construction of the World's Columbian Exposition, August 11, 1891.

There were three arguments in favor of the Japanese pavilion. First, it was the option most likely to match Olmsted’s goal of creating the feeling of calmness and naturalness since, as the Japanese delegation explained, it would be made of natural materials and embrace the natural setting. Second, the emperor was making a permanent gift to Chicago so it made sense to place it on the only permanent land. Third, the Japanese were spending far more than any other international participant, and Burnham wanted to keep them happy. 

Just 40 years earlier, Japan, which had been a closed feudal society, yielded to U.S. gunboat diplomacy to open its ports. To remain independent, Japan rapidly developed an industrial economy. The 1893 fair was a showcase for the country’s progress and culture. Japan was one of the few that exhibited in all 13 themed buildings. In addition, a bazaar sold luxury goods and a tea house by the Marine Café introduced Japanese treats.  

Japanese Garden 2

The Phoenix Pavilion on Wooded Island during the 1893 World’s Fair with the United States Government pavilion across the eastern lagoon to the left and the massive Manufacturing and Liberal Arts Building to the right.


The pavilion, with its celebration of natural beauty and exquisite craftsmanship, was modeled on the 11th century Temple of the Phoenix outside Kyoto, with a central body and two wings. Each room showcased an era in Japanese history. The phoenix was a nod to Chicago rising from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1871. It was also a nod to the phoenix’s meaning in Japanese culture, as a creature that brings a new era of peace and prosperity, which is what the Japanese hoped the fair represented. 

The 1893 pavilion had many beautiful features, but there was no stroll garden on Wooded Island during the fair.  After the fair, a Japanese architect, Shimoda Kikutarō (also known as George R. Shimoda) offered a detailed plan for a stroll garden, but it wasn’t implemented. With hundreds of acres to reconstruct, the South Parks Commission left Wooded Island, with its elaborate flower beds, rose garden and pavilion alone. They were already popular attractions, memorialized in postcards. 

The 1893 fair brought the first Japanese residents to Chicago. Many settled near Jackson Park, in part because of the fair and in part because of the University of Chicago, which established ties with Japan as early as 1893. In 1933, when a new world’s fair came to Chicago, Japan donated 500 cherry trees to Jackson Park. It was an appropriate tribute to the Phoenix Pavilion — the cherry blossom festival in Japan also dates back to the 11th century. The festival was significant in Japan, not just for the ephemeral beauty and celebration of spring, but also because the cherry blossoms signaled that the weather was right to plant rice.

Japanese Pavilion

Postcard of the Japanese Pavilion in 1910 showing the gravel paths and color of the pavilion.

With federal money in hand, the South Parks Commission, in consultation with Alfred Caldwell, decided to resurrect Shimoda’s design. There was one major addition to the design. At the 1933 fair, the Japan Central Tea Association had a tea house run by Shoji Osato. At the close of the fair, he bought the tea house and petitioned to move it to the new stroll garden, where he and his family became the protectors of the fenced and gated complex. Osato hired Japanese-American women from the neighborhood to work at the tea house. Visitors enjoyed green tea, tuna sashimi and American sandwiches while absorbing the beauty of the new garden. Afterward, they could visit the glorious art inside the pavilion.

The landscaping stretched across the island, embracing the pavilion and both shores. By the lily pool, there were three tulipwood sculptures carved by Elizabeth Haseltine: a squirrel, a kingfisher and a great blue heron. They were probably as realistic as her fawn on Promontory Point. For the first time, the large Kasuga lantern appeared in photos of Wooded Island. It’s possible that it was one of the Kasuga lanterns at the 1893 tea house across the lagoon, but it definitely dates at least to 1935. Because there was federal money available, four other new gardens appeared near or on Wooded Island: the Children’s, Iris, Annual and Perennial Gardens. New roses were added to the famous rose garden.

Then, in 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Yielding to hysteria whipped up by the Hearst newspapers, the U.S. government incarcerated, without due process, all Japanese nationals and all U.S. citizens of Japanese descent living on the West Coast. More than 100,000 people were sent to hastily built camps in the desert. Businesses and homes were lost. Shoji Osato was not in the Western Exclusion Zone, but he was a Japanese national celebrating Japanese culture. Osato was soon arrested and the garden, teahouse and pavilion were abandoned. His Irish-American wife, Frances Fitzpatrick moved with their daughter, the prima ballerina Sono Osato, to New York City where she starred on Broadway during the war. His son served in the U.S. Army in France. His other daughter married a U.S. Naval officer. It made no difference. Shoji Osato’s health deteriorated during his incarceration, and he died in 1955. 

Japanese-American community in Hyde Park

A group of teenage girls, former internees, stroll home from Hyde Park High School. The photo is from the Pictorial Guidebook of 1951, part of the organized effort within the Japanese-American community to provide support and identify resources.

In late 1942, the government started releasing U.S. citizens from the internment camps to locations outside the Exclusion Zone. Chicago became the most common destination, swelling the Japanese-American population from 300 in 1940 to 20,000 by 1947. 

It wasn’t easy. At a 2013 reunion of Friends and Family of Nisei Veterans, I met a woman who made the journey. When I said I lived in Chicago, her eyes filled with tears, 70 years after the experience. Though she had a college degree, she couldn’t find a job and she couldn’t find a place to live. The former internees bought their own buildings and opened their own businesses. The area from 43rd Street to 49th Street became a Little Tokyo, with more than 150 businesses, apartment buildings and stores. The community spread south into Hyde Park and Woodlawn. In 1944, the Buddhist temple opened at 5487 S. Dorchester St. Congregants had installed the altar that they had used in the internment camps. Several stores, including the fondly remembered Franklin Food Store, also opened in Hyde Park.

Wooded Island didn’t fare so well. During the war, the garden was neglected and the buildings were set on fire. The biggest blaze engulfed the Phoenix Pavilion in 1946. Remarkably, four of the carved panels and some sliding doors were saved, placed in storage, and promptly forgotten. They were rediscovered 70 years later. The restored panels are now on display in the Art Institute, giving a hint of what was lost when the emperor’s gift burned.

If you see something around Hyde Park that makes you ask, "What’s that about?", let me know at hydeparkquestions@gmail.com. I might be able to find the story.

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