Landmark: De Sabla Japanese Teahouse and Garden

Words by Andrea Gemmet

Photos by Robb Most

Words by Andrea Gemmet

A stroll on De Sabla Road in San Mateo takes you through a tree-lined neighborhood of ranch homes with two-car garages. But as you approach the Hillsborough border, one property stands out from all the rest. Instead of a front lawn and a picket fence, the serene lines of a Japanese teahouse peek over the wooden wall, the curbside landscape of carefully placed stones and neatly trimmed shrubbery hinting at the traditional tea garden within. This piece of Peninsula history dates back to the early 1900s and is the last privately owned Japanese garden created by famed designer Makota Hagiwara that’s still in existence. After building Golden Gate Park’s popular Japanese Tea Garden, Hagiwara’s designs were in high demand at the turn of the 20th century, as wealthy Bay Area estate owners ditched formal Victorian gardens and embraced the Japanese aesthetic.

Cover Photo: Eugene Zelenko / Photo: Robb Most

The San Mateo garden got its start around 1902, when Henry Pike Bowie was inspired by his extended trip to Japan, but it really took shape after he sold it in 1906 to industrialist Eugene de Sabla, one of the founders of Pacific Gas & Electric. De Sabla brought in Hagiwara to create an elaborate one-acre garden with waterfalls, a stone Buddha statue and a bridge. As early as 1907, the San Francisco Call reported on society folk attending a “beautiful garden fête” at de Sabla’s estate, El Cerrito. The Ryoku-style teahouse, meant to evoke a rustic farmhouse, was completed around 1909. Only occasionally open to the public, the de Sabla Japanese Tea House and Tea Garden and is one of fewer than a dozen sites in San Mateo County to have earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.