Promoting “friendship through flowers,” Ikebana International is dedicated to the art of Japanese flower arranging. Dating to the fifteenth century, the various forms of ikebana are minimalist and find beauty and spiritual inspiration in simplicity. The group’s website (ikebanahq.org) provides an excellent starting point for information on the history, styles, and rituals of this centuries-old art form.
The Ikebana International Memphis Bamboo Chapter #44, which is celebrating its 55th anniversary, and Memphis Botanic Garden are joining together to host the first-ever “Japanese Gardens of Memphis” tour on Sunday, April 10. The three Japanese-style private homes and gardens on the tour will be open to the public from 1 to 4 p.m., with docents at each site explaining the elements of traditional Japanese floral design. Jimmy Ishii, owner of Sekisui, will present special tea and sweets at each home.
On the tour are the homes and gardens of Patti Lechman and Bert Sharpe on Waring and Amy Batson on Green Meadows, and the garden of Valerie and Thomas Arnold on Walnut Grove Road. At 4 p.m. attendees are encouraged to visit Memphis Botanic Garden’s Seijaku-en Japanese Garden which is celebrating its own fiftieth anniversary. Festivities will focus upon Japanese traditions, design, and horticulture, and at 4:30 p.m. there will be a dedication and ribbon-cutting for the Garden’s newly rebuilt Half Moon and ZigZag bridges.
Lechman and Sharpe generously invited this magazine into their home for a colorful preview of what visitors can expect on the April 10th tour. Theirs is a mid-century-modern home, built originally for Dr. and Mrs. Thomas N. Stern in 1962 by famed Memphis architect Francis P. Gassner. Lechman and Sharpe were guests of the Sterns on several occasions and fell in love with the home — an attraction that stemmed from their mutual love for Japan and its culture and architecture.
As luck would have it, their dream became a reality when they were able to purchase the place in 2013. They have spent the last two and a half years “gently but firmly bringing it into the twenty-first century,” according to Lechman. She kindly provided me with information about the house taken from A Survey of Modern Houses in Memphis, Tennessee from 1940 to 1980, produced in 2012 and edited by local architects Keith Kays, Martin Gorman, Lee Askew, and Louis Pounders: “The floor plan of this house is an inventive and unique approach to residential planning. The bedrooms are located to the front, street-facing side, of the house and shielded by a low garden wall. … A large skylight punctuates the center of the house and accommodates an interior garden as well as providing daylight to an otherwise dark interior hallway serving the bedrooms.”
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The lovely little grove of bamboo is viewed from the hall, separated from the master bedroom by a screen made of Chinese doors.
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The skylight punctuating the home’s center allows for an interior garden in the wonderful little atrium.
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The entryway makes visitors feel they have been whisked away into a wonderful world of Japanese architecture, art, and culture.
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The glassed-in porch is perfect for growing orchids and bird-watching.
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Nick Esthus, curator of the Japanese Garden (left) with Chris O'Bryan, arborist, stand together on the Half Moon Bridge to survey their domain.
Photography by Andrea Zucker
Harmony with nature is a key element of Japanese style, and the couple loves the home’s integration of inside and outside, with double sliding glass doors leading from every room to a covered veranda. Volumes could be written about all that Lechman and Sharpe have done to the front and back Japanese-inspired gardens, in consultation with Nick Esthus, curator of the Memphis Botanic Garden’s Japanese garden, Chris Cosby, and Chris O’Bryan.
Lechman told me that originally the grounds contained mature azaleas, camellias, hydrangeas, aucuba, and holly as well as a significant stand of bamboo, mature oaks, pine, dogwood, and a magnificent magnolia. They have since brought in additional hydrangeas, Japanese maple, fruit trees, and numerous perennials, including ferns, hosta, and a variety of flowering plants in keeping with Japanese gardens. In addition they have added a dry creek bed, two bubbling stone fountains, and a moss garden. Numerous bird houses and feeders make the yard something of a bird sanctuary.
In addition to the allure of the home’s architecture and its lush grounds, the fact that these homeowners are themselves well-known local artists in their own right adds a special element to their home. Sharpe was chief of design and installation for 21 years at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, and the couple lived downtown for many years on South Main, where they had a gallery and were pioneers of the district’s recent renaissance. Not surprisingly, their home is chock full of wonderful pieces, some of which they have collected on their regular trips to Japan, while others are those of well-known local artists, alongside their own creations.
As we toured the home, Lechman and Sharpe pointed to Eames, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Roe furniture and Noguchi lighting fixtures, as well as to Sharpe’s own sculptures and ceramic works and Lechman’s woven knotted fibre pieces. There is art on the walls created by their dear friend, the late Robert McGowan, as well as by Mahaffey White. Their home is an amazing mini-museum and, clearly, the talents and tastes of this couple are quite simply off the charts. For example, in addition to her work as a weaver, Lechman has also taught photography and made jackets from antique kimonos. She confessed that her mother had once said, “Give Patti a manual and she can do anything!”
The guest room and the small Japanese style tea room (chashitsu) which overlooks the tea garden (roji) have tatami mats, and cork floors were added in the living and dining rooms and the remodeled kitchen. The screened back porch was glassed in for year-round bird-watching and to assist the growing of Lechman’s orchids. Sharpe told me the two-car garage is insulated and climate-controlled for a ceramics studio which is in the works.
Japanese flute music filled the house, contributing to the air of peace, serenity, and beauty. The consummate congenial hosts, Lechman and Sharpe performed a tea ceremony for us and also provided cups of ice-cold saki. All in all, it was a beautiful experience which didn’t feel one bit like work for this writer!
All proceeds from the Japanese Gardens tour will be used to support ongoing maintenance of the Japanese Garden at Memphis Botanic Garden and its mission of giving Memphians a natural retreat in the heart of the city. (Additionally, monthly Ikebana flower-arranging classes are offered to the public at the Botanic Garden.) Tickets for the April 10th event are $12 in advance ($15 at the door); for more information, call 901.636.4100, or go to memphisbotanicgarden.com.