Thursday, February 21, 2008

Fate of famed Phoenix Rock Garden unknown

In the 1920s, at the age of 15, Louis Lee emigrated from China to New York. Eventually, Lee made his way across the country to Phoenix where he lived until his death in the summer of 2006. In 1958, Lee began building things in his front yard, purportedly because he didn't want to bother with a lawn. "He was never much into dirt," according to his son Errol. He started with small rocks but soon added to his creation with bottles, statuary, and other objects. He used rocks gathered from around the area where roads were being cut through the mountains. As Lee’s Rock Garden grew, intrigued neighbors began leaving objects at the edge of Lee’s property hoping he could find use for them in the growing construction.

Lee’s property, once at the outskirts of Phoenix, is now in the middle of an upscale, highly desirable neighborhood. Over the years his neighbors have included Senator Barry Goldwater, Hormel meatpacking company heir Geordie Hormel, and rocker Alice Cooper. On site, yellowing, framed newspaper articles feature luminaries who have visited the Rock Garden, including Goldwater who stands with Lee admiring his handiwork. “Lee’s Oriental Rock Garden” as Lee called it, includes many amenities: a goldfish pond, winding pathways, desert plantings, hand-built tables, chairs, and shrines of all shapes, sizes, and materials.

Asian ceramic elements dominate the landscape, including smiling Buddhas, foo dogs, elephants, and Samarai warriors. Arches and ledges of all shapes and materials are covered with bells, shells, vases, plastic toys, seashells, license plates, empty beer and wine bottles, piggy banks, hubcaps, theater masks, and various other embellishments, all intertwined with Christmas lights that illuminate year-round. From the street, the Lee home is completely obscured by the intricate tiers of the Rock Garden. “My Dad worked on his yard a few hours every day since 1958. Louis Lee kept adding to and caring for his special garden for almost 50 years. With Louis Lee’s death, his family has been trying to find a way to preserve the Rock Garden and Lee’s fantastical legacy. The ultimate fate of this uniquely envisioned and much-loved site is unknown.