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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Middlegate Japanese Gardens: A Garden Gone, but not Forgotten

Second Street (St. Louis Street) entrance gate.
Harold Haliday, Costain, photographer, 1935
If you were to visit the gulf coast town of Pass Christian, Mississippi sometime before 1969, you might have had the pleasure of touring MIddlegate Japanese Gardens.  At its main entrance, it was guarded by two Komainu dogs flanked by a blue-tiled gate inscribed with Japanese characters cut on either side meaning "Middle" and "Gate."

Upon entering the garden, you would have found yourself walking along an azalea-lined pathway leading to a grand Torri gate, revealing a Shinto temple. Along your journey over bridges and through winding tunnels of overarching bamboo, you would have passed a babbling fountain, two monumental Japanese stone lanterns, and a statue of Kannon, the Japanese “Goddess of Mercy.”
Bamboo walk, photographer unknown.

A small red, lacquered “wishing” bridge with gold and white koi glistening in the sun underneath the water would have led you to a blue-tiled tea house in the distance. Before leaving the bridge, your eyes would have been drawn to an enormous bronze Buddha sitting on a lotus blossom twenty feet in the air. You might have ended your visit by entering a gazebo covered in Confederate jasmine flowers for a few minutes of serenity in Middlegate Japanese Gardens.
Buddha statue, Frank Evens Farwell, photographer.

The vision for Middlegate Japanese Gardens was born after a 1924 trip to Japan by Rudolph and Lynne Watkins Hecht. Enchanted by Japanese art and gardens, the couple began creating plans for a three-acre Japanese-style garden at their summer home in Pass Christian, Mississippi.  Over the next decade, the Hechts transformed their property into an oasis with the assistance of architect Rathbone DeBuys who translated Mrs. Hecht’s design ideas into formal plans.  

With the help of Dr. Gyoju Odate, their interpreter from their Japanese excursion, the Hechts acquired numerous Japanese artifacts for their garden, including an 18th century bronze Buddha and a stone lantern once owned by a Japanese emperor.  

Mr. and Mrs. Rudolph Hecht and Lynne Hecht with Mr. Odate in Miyama, Japan, May 1924, photographer unknown.
In response to an overwhelming amount of public inquiries, Middlegate was opened to the public in the mid-1930s.  The Hechts frequently held family events and even hosted dignitaries from abroad in their capacious sunken garden.  After the Hechts passed away, the garden continued to flourish under its new owners who carried on the tradition of public visiting hours.  Visiting hours came to a halt in 1969, due to Hurricane Camille, and were not resumed. The final blow to the garden came in August 23rd, 2005, when Middlegate was decimated even further by the destructive path of Hurricane Katrina.
Left: Fountain, Sunken Garden, and guest house in background. Frank Evans Farwell, photographer, date unknown. Right: Sunken garden with steps leading to guest house after Hurricane Katrina.Lynne White, photographer.
Fortunately, design plans, images, and documentation of the Hecht’s paradise reside in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Gardens.  Perhaps Kannon, the “Goddess of Mercy,” had a hand in this small silver-lining of a very dark cloud.  By preserving both historic and contemporary records that document the storied life of this garden, the potential to rehabilitate it to its once former self is perhaps a worthy possibility.  Without documentation, the Middlegate Japanese Gardens would only live on in memory.
Left: Tea house, photographer unknown. Right: Tea House after Hurricane Katrina. Martha Levert, photographer.
All images above from Middlegate Japanese Gardens, Archives of American Gardens.

Savannah Gignac, Intern
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens


  1. Great job Sav Wav!Sad story.

  2. Garden decor doesn't only improve and enhance the beauty and magnificence of the plants in your garden, it as well provides a wonderful atmosphere to the exterior of your house. If you appropriately choose the right decorations for it, your visitors will definitely appreciate your house even more.