On March 18, 2020, near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ornate, custom-designed bronze gates created by internationally renowned sculptor George Tsutakawa are stolen from the Washington Park Arboretum. The gates were commissioned in 1971 by the University of Washington and the Arboretum Foundation to honor those who supported the arboretum over the years. They were installed in 1976 at the north entrance to the park and later gifted to the City of Seattle. The theft is discovered on March 19, 2020, when the gardening team arrives for work in the morning. Within nine days, one of the gates will be recovered, largely intact; the other has been cut up for scrap and is beyond repair. Although Tsutakawa died in 1997, his family has the original design plans, and son Gerard, also a metal sculptor, will agree to fabricate a mate for the surviving gate. A free public celebration to mark the installation of the refabricated Tsutakawa Memorial Gates is held on September 14, 2022.
The Crime Unfolds
The Memorial Gates, made of solid bronze, were a community treasure and an integral part of the Arboretum’s landscape. Commissioned in 1971 by the University of Washington and the Arboretum Foundation, created by noted American sculptor George Tsutakawa (1910-1997), and installed in 1976, the gates were massive, some 20 feet wide, so heavy they were kept open. The intricate design called to mind the foliage, flowers, and fruits found throughout the Arboretum.
Sometime during the overnight hours of March 18, 2020, the bronze gates were stolen along with several sections of copper downspouts attached to the visitor center. Left behind were bolt cutters. The theft occurred just two days after the Arboretum’s visitor center was closed to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arboretum curator Ray Larson remarked on the challenges the thieves faced in removing the massive gates. "It would be a pretty enormous task to haul them out. People are just shocked, and appalled. It was so brazen. Our hope is that someone may have seen something" ("Bronze Gates Made by George Tsutakawa Stolen").
In the following days, two men attempted to sell scrap metal at a recycling facility but company employees, tipped off by a police circular alerting scrap-metal dealers to the theft, contacted detectives instead. The employees provided the physical descriptions of the two men as well as information on their vehicle. On March 26, 2020, the detectives located a person of interest and brought him in to the East Precinct for questioning. During the interview, they were able to uncover where the gates were hidden. The following morning, police and staff from Seattle Parks and Recreation went to the spot and found the gates. One had been destroyed, cut up for scrap. The other was mostly intact. In mid-April 2020, the second thief was apprehended.
When the gates were installed in 1976, the Winter 1976 edition of the Arboretum Bulletin exclaimed: "The antique bronze gates, subdued in the reflected sunlight, are cunningly designed but so sturdily built as to resist time and its erosion" (Engle). That same year, the artwork was gifted to the City of Seattle, and the gates came under the purview of the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture.
George Tsutakawa was born in Seattle in 1910 and attended public school on Capitol Hill until he was 7, when his father Shozo, a prosperous businessman, moved the family to Japan. Tsutakawa went to school in Japan for 10 years and then returned to Seattle as a teenager. He helped his uncles run a produce stand at the corner of Rainier Avenue and Jackson Street while he began his art studies. He received a bachelor of fine arts from the University of Washington in 1937, served in the military during World War II, married Ayame Iwasa in 1947, and earned a master of fine arts from the UW in 1950.
"George Tsutakawa’s legacy runs deep in the fabric of the Pacific Northwest. His work is recognized as a unique merging of Japanese and Pacific Sound aesthetic traditions" (Jingco). During his professional career, which spanned six decades, Tsutakawa created more than 75 fountains and sculptures, taught art at the UW for 30 years, earned several honorary doctoral degrees, and had 21 of his works accessioned into the permanent collection of the Seattle Art Museum.
Tsutakawa Gates Replacement Project
Following the theft, shock, disbelief, and outrage reverberated throughout the neighborhood, arts community, and the city. Even days later, emotions were running high, as attested by Tess Forte, Arboretum Foundation events and corporate sponsorship manager: "About a week after the Gates were stolen, I was walking by the empty posts and saw that someone had placed a painted stone there with the words ‘Stay Strong’ on it, and I burst into tears. It was like a rose rising through a crack in the pavement. The Memorial Gates have welcomed generations of visitors to the Arboretum, and their return will be a celebration of the resilience we have all witnessed this past year and a half" (Forte).
Soon after the gates were recovered, Jane Stonecipher, executive director of the Arboretum Foundation, contacted George’s son Gerard (b. 1947), who had helped his father fabricate the original gates. Gerry Tsutakawa agreed to recreate the gates, using his father’s original plans and drawings. The recreated gates were made of 150 individual pieces of steel, each of which had to be cut, welded, and finished by hand.
The Arboretum Foundation set a fundraising goal of $150,000, which was exceeded by $10,000 in August 2021. Additional funds came from the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture ($28,000) and King County’s 4Culture program ($7,500). A total of $20,000 was set aside for future maintenance and upkeep.
In spring 2022, Gerry Tsutakawa started working on the replacement gates. They were installed in summer 2022 in a more secure and visible location at the Arboretum. "The two sections are enormously heavy and will remain open most of the time, welcoming visitors to the grassy shores of Azalea Way -- a new location and one much better suited to the artistry than the previous spot, which opened onto the visitor-center parking lot" (Crosscut).
A celebration event for the unveiling of the new gates was held September 14, 2022, with live music, taiko drumming, and speeches.