SEATTLE — Sunlight filters through jars of green tea lined up on a concrete ledge — tea is the essential sustenance for a group of artisans from China who arrived in Seattle this month to build a courtyard in the traditional style of Sichuan province.
They're paving the floor and fitting the red columns of an elaborate gateway that will serve as the entrance to the Seattle Chinese Garden, believed to be the first Sichuan-style garden in the United States.
The project was started 20 years ago to mark the establishment of sister-city ties between Seattle and Chongqing, now a municipality with more than 30 million people. It's designed as a space for local organizations to explore Chinese culture, language, arts and horticulture.
The 4.6-acre garden, at the north end of South Seattle Community College, is still a work in progress, but it's opening for public tours and throwing a welcome party Sunday for the artisans.
To build "Knowing the Spring Courtyard," the 21 artisans are applying some of the same methods and materials they've used for centuries. One marks a line with ink and a brush while two others pull a wooden-handled blade back and forth to make a cut.
Feng Dacheng, an architect with the city of Chongqing and the garden's chief designer, said the traditional methods have proven their value over time. In the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, "a lot of the traditional buildings held up pretty well," he said. "The contemporary ones fell apart."
But to comply with building codes in Seattle, they'll have extra strength from square metal posts, which will be wrapped with round wood columns to achieve the ancient look.
"It's an American heart in a Chinese body," said Yangming Chu, the project's director.
"It feels like wood, but the interior is solid and modern," he said. "This is like bombproof."
Making a traditional Chinese garden fit American rules was but one challenge in the garden's history. Others have been raising funds and maintaining momentum throughout economic ups and downs. The nonprofit Seattle Chinese Garden Society raised close to $8 million from donors. Chongqing donated the labor of the architects and artisans and the materials, including decorative stones from the Yangtze River, handcrafted roof tiles and wood for the trim, while the city of Seattle, King County and Washington state contributed $2 million over the years for infrastructure costs. The nonprofit has raised 80 percent of the $4.5 million to build the courtyard.
Getting the artisans to Seattle to finish the four-month project is a huge milestone, Chu said.
Unlike the private gardens in eastern Chinese cities such as Suzhou, Sichuan gardens tend to be public places, with more abundant space and a style that is "rustic, free and country-like," Feng said.
Rain is one element Seattle shares with its sister city, making the long eaves of the traditional roof good shelter for people strolling under it, he said. Hand-carved drums of gray stone at the base of each red post are like shoes to add stability and keep water from soaking the wood.
Feng, who is here on his third visit to Seattle, is anxious to make progress while the weather is good. The courtyard is only a small part of the entire garden, he said.
"My passion for the project comes from my work over 20 years," he said. "I hope the whole garden can be complete soon."
Seattle Chinese garden
Public tours in August:
Hours: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 10 a.m.; Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. Tour lasts 90 minutes, $5 suggested donation. Directions and information: www.seattlechinesegarden.org