Brackets in the Bell Tower Gate at San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden

by Eric Friedman,

In this article I’ll describe how I came to build a model of a roof bracket from the Bell Tower Gate at the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco and how the model is being used to highlight the wonders of East Asian joinery for the Garden’s many visitors.  I’d also like to extend a warm welcome to Kez members to join me for a tour of the oldest public Japanese garden in America.

Midwinter Fair - a historical drawing of the Gate at the 1894 FairAt the entrance to San Francisco’s Japanese Tea Garden stands the Bell Tower Gate. Thousands of visitors pass through every day, under a heavy tile roof supported by traditional brackets. Rebuilt in the 1980s, the Gate’s predecessor had been in place from the Garden’s very beginnings as George Turner Marsh’s Japanese Village in the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition.

To my knowledge, only one other structure in the area – the much less visited Chinese Pavilion, also in Golden Gate Park – uses brackets. I feel that the Tea Garden’s Gate presents a unique opportunity to raise awareness about the beauty and technical refinement of our craft. 

Close up of a bracket on the exteriorIn addition to being a Kez member, I am also a volunteer with San Francisco City Guides, a partner program of the San Francisco Public Library, leading free walking tours around the city.  One of my tours is of the Tea Garden, where I coordinate a team of around 30 volunteers. So helping visitors fully appreciate work like this Gate is actually my (volunteer) job!

But there are challenges: the roof brackets are ~25 feet overhead; the Hinoki has darkened with age; the roof casts a deep shadow over the joinery. In short, they are difficult to see.

And so I decided to build an eye-level model using what I learned in a class on brackets with Richard Wiborg, in Jay van Arsdale’s workshop. Richard was a patient mentor and Kez member JP Li’s photos and videos of Richard’s own work were invaluable.

But there’s no substitute for seeing the real thing, so up the ladder and inside the tower I went!

Close up of inside the bell towerGarden Supervisor Steven Pitsenbarger graciously allowed me to climb up the Tower for photos and measurements.  I will note in passing that Steven uses Japanese ladders for his work and that those are just as well thought out as the chisels, planes, and other tools that Kez members love.

We went inside the tower by one of the bell-shaped lattice panels that tell you that this is indeed a Bell Tower Gate (shōrōnomon). There I encountered a surprise: the brackets die at the wall plane, turning into wedged tenons that enter a post atop a wide plate that extends over the columns of the Gate. This makes sense, as having a more conventional arrangement would have resulted in a tower with a very crowded interior. I chose to leave this detail out of my model, as it would be a distraction from the main message: joinery. I also ignored the panels that are used to keep rodents and other creatures from reaching the tower interior.

Close up of the modelTo translate these findings into a plan, Richard introduced me to an essential work in Chinese called Dou gong (bracket) by Pan Dehua.  This book has detailed diagrams for constructing brackets from different periods.  Two key insights were: (1) working from a centerline is essential; and (2) brackets can be constructed at arbitrary scale — the drawings are expressed in proportional units.  My model is roughly 1/3 the size of the original because I chose to use 1/10” as the base unit, allowing for easy measurement with a decimal ruler.

The joinery consists of lap joints, cogged lap joints, dovetails, and slip tenons.  The Gate’s brackets have a notable simplification over Pan Dehua’s drawings: the arms parallel to the wall plane and the cantilevered elements perpendicular to the wall plane are all the same height.  This greatly simplified construction of the lap joint housing.  It also meant that I didn’t need to relieve and profile material to bring the bearing blocks for the next tier into plane.  I was not sorry about this!

View of the Gate today with my little cabinet in the foreground and the real brackets in deep shadow, illustrating the problemInitially I intended the model to be used only to educate other volunteers, but Steven proved very willing to support a temporary installation at the Garden, for which I quickly fashioned a display cabinet.  I’m excited by the location Steven and I found for the exhibit because it permits visitors to see the bracket and the Gate from one spot, enabling a deeper understanding of the original than might otherwise be possible.  My colleagues and I have been using the model with tour groups for a few weeks now and I am definitely seeing looks of greater appreciation now that they have something close at hand on which they can train their eyes.

The model is on display at the Garden until May 13, 2024.

Two recommendations for anyone interested in this topic are: The Evolution of Buddhist Architecture in Japan, by Alexander Coburn Soper, and The Roof in Japanese Buddhist Architecture, by Mary Neighbour Parent.  These titles offer insights on what to look for when visiting temples and palaces in East Asia.

Eric + ModelFinally, I would be honored to welcome Kez members on one of my public tours of the Garden, for which times are published on the City Guides website.  My times are listed with my name, Eric F.  Besides the Gate, Kez members may especially enjoy seeing the very lovely karehafu, kumiko panel, and elegant carvings on another historically important structure.  Just as intriguing are the recently restored Pagoda and also the Temple Gate, both of which played a surprising role in San Francisco’s 1915 World’s Fair and which are now part of an exciting new linkage between San Francisco and the traditional crafts of Japan.

When not making shavings as, Eric Friedman is a San Francisco City Guide leading free walking tours: Japantown | Japanese Tea Garden | Boom and Bust. Bring a friend!