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 the work! 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 involving the daunting tasks of bending 2” thick wood and Japanese joinery. So, we decided to pass on this one. Thus, my task in this project was to find a very special team of 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 not only as the first structure built by the US government as an ambassador’s residence but also as the place 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 which included a backyard garden featuring 2 large wood benches.

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

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

As concrete, the benches are lost as cold, stark, and uninviting objects within a warm, colorful, and oft-used garden landscape. 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 would include research, shipping and painting. Yes, painting. The original benches were painted and the project called for strict matching of the original. Further research would have to be done to discover the original colors.

My team at the Office of Cultural Heritage in our State Department - we care for all the art in our embassies and ambassador residences - 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!

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 and, another miracle, he asked if he could do this with his Japanese counterpart whom he had worked with for over 40 years. Together they had achieved wide acclaim for their exacting skills and high-profile projects, among them 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 and their bench design, applying 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 50 years.

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 in 5’ sections as per the original drawings. The semicircular bench will have five sections, and the other curving bench three, with different radii matching the original drawings. 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 Found on the Property

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

Wood dimensions for the seats and backs will be 2” thick as per the original design. They will be laminated out of Port Orford cedar for maximum durability.

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

All the vertical and horizontal pieces supporting the seat and seat-back will also be cedar for maximum durability matching the photos and original drawings. Following traditional furniture-building techniques, they will be mortised and tenoned into place.

It’s Begun!

The project was just approved. Funds have been found. Peter and Hatsuo start the project in early 2020 and finish by that fall.

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