A variety of construction and restoration projects are underway at the Mukai Farm and Garden, where the Friends of Mukai are spearheading the effort and expecting funds to begin work at the adjacent fruit barreling plant next summer.
The property, near the center of the island, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the work there is intended to bring the property back to life and tell the story of the Mukai family, who lived there from 1926 to 1942, growing strawberries and shipping them from their 60 acres all over the United States.
A walk around the property last week showed several workers busy restoring the pond, which was part of the Japanese hill garden designed by Kuni Mukai in the 1930s. It is the only surviving garden designed by a Japanese woman and is considered a national treasure. Other workers were installing sidewalks — which the Mukais first put in — and projects were also underway on other work to improve access for people with disabilities and install new water, electrical and sewer lines.
“It’s hugely exciting,” said Kay Longhi, the president of the Friends of Mukai, noting that planning for this work took about one year. “It’s very gratifying to say to our members and the public, Your patience and contributions have paid off and in ways that you can see.’”
Some of the changes — the sidewalks and other accessibility features — will allow all people to move more safely and easily around the property and home, Longhi added. It will also allow the friends group to rent out the home and garden for special events, such as weddings, workshops and retreats beginning in the spring of next year.
“We will be able to tell the story of the Mukais better than we ever have before,” she said.
Bob Horsley, an islander and landscape architect, has been involved with this project since the Friends of Mukai first formed six years ago. At the property to assist last week, he said the process to renovate Kuni Mukai’s pond and garden was a bit complicated.
“What are you trying to create? Are you trying to create a beautiful garden? Or are you trying to restore what was here?” he asked — and answered: “We are trying to restore what was here.”
For the pond work, the Friends of Mukai hired Turnstone Construction, which specializes in water features and naturalistic environments; it has done work for Northwest Trek and the Woodland Park Zoo, among many other clients.
At the start of the project two weeks ago, all the rocks that bordered the pond were removed and cataloged to be put back just as they were. Turnstone workers then moved on to creating a new concrete shell for the pond and installing a mechanical system that will help make it easy to maintain the pond, including filtering the water and maintaining the water level.
As visitors leave the pond and garden area, they will see other projects underway close to the home and in the American-style lawn, with sidewalks and municipal-style street lights. Much of the sidewalk was in bad shape, Horsley said, but a small portion of the original walkway has been kept. Now, the sidewalk is being extended all the way around the house, creating an ADA-accessible path to a wheelchair lift at the rear of the house and then extending to the front of the garage, where accessible parking will be established.
Redmond-based Emil’s Concrete Construction is doing this work; former board member and current committee chair Benno Bonkowsky stressed the friends were careful in who they selected to do the work.
“Turnstone and Emil’s — they are the best. They were not hired because they were the lowest bid,” he said.
This work is made possible largely through $250,000 included in the state capital budget this year for the Friends of Mukai. The work itself has been a long time coming, as the friends group formed in 2012 and spent four years in a legal battle to take control of the property, when it was neglected by the former owner.
Finally, in the spring of 2016, they won access to the property but had worked on plans in the interim. In 2015, they hired Artifacts Consulting to undertake a historic preservation plan, which has been guiding the friends’ work in phases, former board member Lynn Greiner said.
Now, friends members say they are looking to finish work on the house itself by the end of the year, as well as install irrigation and plant the gardens. Next year will likely also include a focus on the barreling plant, which King County purchased last year and now leases to the friends for nothing, with the expectation they will restore it. Just two weeks ago the friends received word they will likely receive $600,000 next year from Washington State Historical Society (WSHS) to begin restoration of that structure — a “Heritage Capital Project.” Greiner said WSHS is optimistic the fund will be included in the capital budget next year, with the money expected to be available on July 1.
Constructed in 1927, the Mukai family processed tons of strawberries at the barreling plant for shipment. During the 1930s, at the height of the Depression, they employed more than 400 people each year to help with the harvest and the berry processing, according to a recent press release from the friends group.
Greiner, a lawyer who has donated countless hours to the Friends of Mukai, said that she has heard many stories about the building’s use over the years. It housed batting cages not long ago — with the telltale signs of that history still evident — and at least one person told Greiner she recalls roller skating in the approximately 7,000 square-foot structure years ago. Regarding how it should serve the community next, Greiner said the friends group will turn to the island for ideas.
The Friends of Mukai had intended for there to be an open house at the property on a recent weekend — but canceled it when the renovations took up more space around the property than expected. Now, they are looking forward to their next public event at the property: the Vashon Japan Festival from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 22. The day will include a traditional Japanese street festival featuring a children’s village, games and art. There will also be Taiko drummers, Bon Odori dancers, local artisans and more.
In the meantime, the projects will continue. Last week, from the dining room of the former Mukai home, Bonkowsky spoke about the house and property and its value on Vashon and beyond.
“It preserves agricultural history, cultural history, Japanese heritage and the immigrant story. That is why this is such a significant place,” he said.