Historic Tokyo Bench Restoration

US Ambassador's Residence in Tokyo, Japan
US Ambassador's Residence in Tokyo, Japan

Not for Me

Sometimes my work involves finding others to do it! This project is a good example. It involves the re-creation of 2 outdoor benches from their original 1929 designs - huge, beautiful, and complex pieces.

Even though I’ve made furniture and would love to do it again, and wrangle my favorite and brilliant colleague Al Chapman to join me, this was out of our league because of several daunting tasks such as bending 2” thick wood and Japanese joinery. So, we decided to pass on this one. Thus, my task was to find very special craftspeople.

History of the Benches

In 1929 the American architects Antonin Raymond, the father of modern Japanese architecture, and Harold Van Burren Magonigle designed the US ambassador’s residence in Tokyo. This is one of America’s most historic buildings. It is the first ambassador's residence built by the US government. Even more significantly, it is where Emperor Hirohito met General MacArthur shortly following World War II to renounce his divinity, forever changing the geopolitics of Japan and the world.

Completed in 1931, the residence stands as a marvelous example of early Japanese-American design with Moorish and Oriental influences.

The construction of the residence was a unique collaboration of American architects and Japanese builders. The design included two gardens each featuring a large wood bench.

Original 1929 Architectural Drawing Showing Bench Design
                                                                   Original 1929 Architectural Drawing Showing Bench Design

Over the past several years the residence and gardens were meticulously restored to their original beauty. The restoration of the benches is the final and most important part of this project. The benches are prominently located in gardens often used by the ambassador for special occasions. The original benches deteriorated by the 1960’s and were replaced by concrete seats.

As concrete, the benches are cold, stark, and uninviting objects within the warm and colorful gardens. Restoring the original benches will finally return both gardens to their original beauty, and reclaim their status as centerpieces in spaces frequently used for diplomatic events.

Original Half Circle Bench
                                                                                                  Original Half Circle Bench

Existing Half Circle Bench
                                                                                                   Existing Half Circle Bench

Unique Collaboration

My task here was not only to find uniquely experienced craftspeople, but also design an exciting proposal to attract donors. I estimated the price tag for this project to be about 100K. Sounds like a lot, but this includes research, shipping, and painting. Yes, painting. The original benches were painted and this project calls for strict matching of the original. Further research will reveal the original colors.

My team at the Office of Cultural Heritage suggested some kind of Japanese-American team to honor the original partnership - Americans designed the property and Japanese craftspeople built it, including the benches.

So, the adventure began finding the right people from 2 different countries willing to bid on this project and work together!

Miraculously, a woodworker sent me a message about another project I’d written about here on my website - see ‘Dusting the Buddha’ - and mentioned his experience with Japanese construction techniques. I asked him to look at this project. Then another miracle! He works with an extraordinary Japanese craftperson, and together they've achieved wide acclaim in over 40 years of collaboration. Their high-profile projects include some of the most famous oriental structures in Japan and the US.

Unique Proposal

I’d found the perfect team, and they presented a fabulous proposal to blend old and new in the spirit of the original architects. They proposed to apply the finest traditional furniture-making techniques with modern durable materials. The result will be an exact match of the original design lasting maintenance-free for many decades.

There is another benefit of this collaboration: it is actually less expensive to utilize US labor and materials even adding shipping, compared to the costs of Japanese labor and materials.

Peter Wechsler will construct the benches in his workshop in Maryland and then ship them in pieces to Tokyo. There his colleague Hatsuo Kanomata will assemble, install, and paint them.

Kanomata and bob
                                          Master Craftsmen Peter Wechsler (left) and Hatsuo Kanomata - a 40-Year Collaboration

Exacting Specifications

Both benches will be fabricated as per the original drawings. The semicircular bench will have five sections, and the other curving bench three. Materials and construction methods will be chosen for maximum durability.

The end pieces and legs will utilize Bruynzeel Oukume plywood - a high quality certified marine grade plywood used in high-end boat construction for its extreme weather resistance and durability.

The ornamental cut-outs found on both benches will be achieved by a CNC machine.

Facade of the Residence
       Detail on the facade of the residence repeated on both benches - this may be a stylized gingko leaf since the largest                                                                                         gingko tree in Japan is located on the property

All the glue used will be the highest-grade marine epoxy and all screws stainless steel. All screw holes will be countersunk and plugged.

Wood dimensions for the seats and backs will be 2” thick and laminated out of Port Orford cedar.

Three decorative wood squares on the back and front of each 5’ section will be applied with epoxy.

All the vertical and horizontal pieces supporting the seats and seat-backs will also be cedar. Following traditional furniture-building techniques, they will be mortised and tenoned into place.

It's Begun!

The project was approved. Funds have been found. Peter and Hatsuo plan to complete the project in 2021.

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