One morning I headed off with a writing colleague to chase down an important document at the Brooklyn Museum. I also took an unexpectedly long walk — more than 80 blocks, as it turned out, from my hotel at E. 45th Street to W. 122nd Street. My destination was Sakura Park on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
We hear a lot about the cherry trees Japan donated to Washington in 1912. But few people know a similar shipment of trees was planted in New York around the same time. It was the project of a group that called themselves the Committee of Japanese Residents of New York. They arranged to donate a couple thousand cherry trees in 1909 for the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, marking the centennial of Robert Fulton’s demonstration of a steam-powered boat on the Hudson River and the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of the river.
The committee of Japanese residents included Jokichi Takamine. Early in the 20th century he was one of the founders of the Japan Society in New York, which Eliza Scidmore joined. He lived in an elegant Beaux-Arts townhouse at 334 Riverside Dr. (between 105 and 106th Streets) that became famous for its splendid interior featuring Japanese design and furnishings. A longtime acquaintance of Eliza Scidmore, Dr. Takamine also played a critical role in bringing cherry trees to Washington.
The cherry trees bound for New York in 1909 never made it to their destination: The steamer carrying them from Japan was lost at sea. Ironically, the initial cherry trees sent to Washington also hit a major snag, when they had to be destroyed because of infestation by pests and plant diseases.
Both projects got back on track when Japan agreed to send replacement trees. Dr. Takamine spoke at an April 1912 dedication ceremony in New York. Those trees were scattered around Upper Manhattan, mostly in Central Park and Riverside Park. Some were planted in a park annex east of Grant’s Tomb, originally called Claremont Park and renamed Sakura Park. It’s located just north of the massive Riverside Church.
With the image of Washington’s Potomac Park in mind, I was expecting to see a large sweep of cherry trees. But Sakura Park is small, a two-acre neighborhood park in Morningside Heights. In 1960 it got a torii, or stone lantern, donated by Japan. Crown Prince Akihito, now the emperor, attended the dedication ceremony along with his wife, Michiko. Sakura Park was refurbished in the 1980s, with a pavilion added for concerts by students of the neighboring Manhattan School of Music.
That trip to Brooklyn?
I went specifically to get a copy of the 32-page art catalog listing nearly 300 Oriental treasures that Eliza Scidimore collected during her travels and sold at auction in New York in 1925. She used the proceeds to pay for a permanent move to Geneva, Switzerland, where she entertained many American and Japanese visitors and followed developments at the League of Nations. She was living there at her death in 1928.
In Brooklyn I also headed off with my colleague Bonny Miller to visit the fascinating Green-Wood Cemetery, now a National Historic Landmark. Established in 1838, it became widely renowned for its magnificent park setting — and was the fashionable place to be buried. By mid-century it attracted more than half a million visitors a year, rivaling Niagara Falls in popularity. Among its 560,000 graves are those of such famous people as Boss Tweed, Horace Greeley, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Leonard Bernstein (whose grave is marked with a surprisingly small stone set into the ground). We stopped by because the subject of Bonny ‘s research, a pioneering American woman composer named Augusta Browne, is also buried there.