Louis Lee's Rock Garden.
Louis Lee's Rock Garden.

Louis Lee's Rock Garden

Field review by the editors.

Phoenix, Arizona

When it came to yard decoration, Louis Lee was a man obviously seized by unrelenting inspiration. His suburban property in eastern Phoenix is a densely layered wonderland unmatched in our experience....

Lee moved with his family from China to America in the 1920s, began building a rock garden in his front yard in 1958 -- reportedly because he didn't want to bother with a lawn. (It was a smart choice, as Arizona has a large supply of rocks.) "He was never much into dirt," his son, Errol, told us. Louis kept adding to his Garden for almost 50 years, and didn't stop until he died, age 92, in 2006.

Corner Buddha.

Along the way, Louis began working in media other than rocks. He filled his small yard with hundreds of arches, built of adobe brick, and covered them with glued-on bric-a-brac: bells, vases, plastic toys, seashells, golf balls, licenses plates, empty beer bottles, piggy banks, hubcaps, sports trophies, theater masks, fragments of dinnerware, and a picture frame made from a toilet seat. Louis gave his garden an Eastern flavor with hundreds of smiling Buddhas, foo dogs, gaudy Asian elephants, and an occasional Samurai warrior. From the street, the Lee home is completely obscured by the intricate tiers of the Rock Garden.

Christmas lights are strung among the displays, nearly invisible in daylight. First-time visitors will experience a kind sensory overload -- Lee's compositions are not simple (or conventionally focused), often overlap, and offer an impulsive, random mixing of the sublime and the ridiculous every few feet.

One display, labeled "Golden Pond," features a small statue of a kabuki actor, a Chinese scholar, and a horse. Another has the torso of a shirtless man wearing a fedora, placed in front of a segmented window display of Uncle Sam, and above a tiny baseball trophy. In places, it looks like Lee impulsively grabbed all the family drinking glasses and chinaware and anchored them in concrete.

Bottle and dolls.

An American flag on a pole gaily flaps over it all, perhaps reflecting Mr. Lee's pride that he lived in country where dementia concretia is not only tolerated, but encouraged through such a bounty of building material (A smaller but kindred outdoor display, Sunnyslope Rock Garden, is only a few miles away.).

Louis Lee must have been a small man, for the walkways in his garden are shockingly narrow, as if made for scaled-down visitors. All of the low archways, scratchy protuberances, and porcelain statues perched on brick and stone require a very light touch when walking. Are the Buddhas laughing at you? Probably.

Errol Lee has vowed that his father's Rock Garden will be preserved in his memory. Louis lived in what has become an upscale neighborhood, so his yard is probably safe from vandal wear-and-tear -- but we fret about future neighbors, who might prefer sharing the street with a more conventional front lawn.

Louis Lee's Rock Garden

Directions:
Northwest of Scottsdale in Phoenix suburb of Paradise Valley. I-17 exit 205 onto eastbound W. Glendale Ave. In about 3 miles Glendale turns into Lincoln Drive. Continue for 3 miles. Turn south onto Tatum Blvd for 1/2 mile, then west on McDonald Drive 1 mile. Be careful -- McDonald abruptly turns north into a residential street. House is at the end of McDonald, on south side.
Hours:
Private property. Currently closed to tours.

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