Plants, Stone, California Landscapes


The Stonework of Manzanar

Manzanar Cemetary Monument

Manzanar Cemetery Monument

I’ve been meaning to post about this for a while, but I wanted to first reread Farewell to Manzanar, Jeane Wakatsuki Houston’s memoir of her childhood in the internment camp. I hadn’t really thought about that book since reading it back in eighth grade, but while I was out on the east side I visited Manzanar, an interesting place to visit despite the fact that there’s not a lot there any more. Whether for practical or more guilt-oriented reasons, the site was almost completely erased after it closed in 1945. All of the buildings were dismantled and hauled away, leaving only some concrete foundations, the large auditorium, two stone sentry posts built by a stonemason internee Ryozo Kado, the cemetery with its concrete monument (also built by Kado), and the remains of a few gardens built by the internees. Now, the place feels barren and desolate, which is, I guess, appropriate.

The park service has done a lot of work to put together a visitor center that gives a sense of what life might have been like in the camp. Their website says they will have a virtual tour online in the future, but for now the wikipedia page or this article in Lost Magazine have the most info and links that I could find on the web. Farewell to Manzanar, though, is the best source. I don’t remember the book making much of an impression when I was young, but this time I found it quite compelling, perhaps because the story is relevant to our country’s recent history.

Manzanar Stonework

Entry Pillar

Kado’s work is all very meticulous for someone who was essentially a prisoner. He created almost everything that remains at the site, which may I guess have been a motivation. There’s a saying: If you want it to last, build it with stone. His stonework makes this memorial possible.

Military Police Sentry Post at Manzanar

Military Police Sentry Post at Manzanar

The lintels are made of concrete finished to look like wood, apparently a signature of Kado’s work.

Concrete with Faux-Wood Finish

Concrete with Faux-Wood Finish

The posts at the sentry station resemble a tree trunk, while the ones in the cemetery have a smooth finish as if they were scoured by sand or water.

Manzanar Cemetery Monument

Manzanar Cemetery Monument with Posts

Manzanar Block 34 Garden

Manzanar Block 34 Garden

There are the remnants of several traditional Japanese gardens built by the internees. I don’t know of any photos that show the gardens in their prime, but they look like they were quite complex, involving water features, landscape boulders, and masonry. Kado was one of the main creators, and some of the concrete ponds were lined with more of his faux-wood masonry. This article talks about the park service’s archeological efforts with the gardens, including more details about Kado and a number of photos of the garden ruins. In person, the effect is quite powerful, especially for someone like myself who creates gardens for a living.

Garden at Manzanar

Garden at Manzanar

Houston talks about the gardens in her chapter about revisiting the ruins of Manzanar.

‘It is so characteristically Japanese, the way lives were made more tolerable by gathering loose desert stones and forming with them something enduringly human. These rock gardens had outlived the barracks and the towers and would surely outlive the asphalt road and rusted pipes and shattered slabs of concrete. Each stone was a mouth, speaking for a family, for some man who had beautified his doorstep.’

Photos #5 and #6 from Wiki user Mav.

Update — 99% Invisible has a podcast telling the story of the establishment of Manzanar National Historic Site, as well as some great photos by Ansel Adams and Dorthea Lange and creator of the podcast. It looks like the park service has done a lot of work developing the historic site in the eight or so years since I was there.


6 Responses to “The Stonework of Manzanar”

  1. November 22nd, 2009 at 9:08 pm

    Brad B says:

    I remember driving past Manzanar as a kid with my family and thinking how incredibly desolate and sad it seemed. I read the book in a class later on and couldn’t shake that image from my mind. I didn’t remember the quote about the rock gardens. And thanks for the pics.

  2. November 22nd, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    lostlandscape(James) says:

    I’ve only stopped at Manzanar once, before they rebuilt some of the site as an interpretative exhibit. I remember the sentry post and something that might look like a garden to an archaeologist. I think it was April, maybe May. Away from the garden areas I spotted two trees. One of them was a plum(?) in full pink bloom. I took a few photos of it with Mt. Williamson(?) in the background. The black and white photos weren’t great, but there were a couple slides that I liked and showed to some people. Encountering the trees was amazing, and I’ve looked for the slides on an off for a few years now. They’re somewhere around this house…

  3. November 23rd, 2009 at 9:06 am

    Susan Tomlinson says:

    I wonder if working with the stone gave someone comfort. I know that building things always offers me solace; I hope that instead of being a burden, it offered the same for the person or persons that built those structures.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  4. November 25th, 2009 at 9:01 pm

    ryan says:

    Yeah, pretty desolate and sad.
    I would like to have seen some things in bloom. When I was there the trees were looking like they needed water. Apparently, it was full of fruit trees on irrigation, but then LA took all the water, gave some back during the internment camp years, and then took it back.
    I’m sure it must have been some comfort to build things. I think I would have been bitter about building things in an internment camp, though.

  5. November 27th, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    buenorific says:

    There is a book about gardens made during wartime called ‘Defiant Gardens’ by Kenneth Helphand. He talks about gardens in extreme situations as being an assertive act of resistance representing a desire for survival. The lasting stonework at Manzanar is definitely a testament to survival, transformation, hope and a marker of history otherwise too easily forgotten.

    Helphand has a website with pics: http://www.defiantgardens.com

  6. December 13th, 2009 at 9:57 am

    ryan says:

    Thanks for the link. There are some interesting garden photos at that site.

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