Had it not been for our neighbor Jerry, who is a wealth of information on must see places around Scottsdale, we might never have seen or heard of Louis Lee’s Oriental Rock Garden. So with Jerry as our tour guide, we recently spent a few hours visiting the Asian market, having lunch, and photographing the view outside the walls of Mr. Lee’s private hillside residence, northwest of Scottsdale. While the garden is currently closed to the public, much of the facade is visible from the street. Still, what we saw was a remarkable enterprise for one man!
This was not your typical rock garden. While the wats we visited in Thailand with their extravagant ornate architecture towered in comparison, this was an eccentric one-of-a-kind yard art shrine with Asian wat-like influence. Ironically, the garden was an attempt to avoid the care of a lawn, but Mr. Lee dedicated nearly every day for almost 50 years to his masterpiece, caring for it right up to the time of his death in his early nineties.
What started as a retaining wall, became more expansive and decorated by the year. Using rocks from the area, concrete, tile and brick – and having no other plan in mind than inspiration and imagination – Mr. Lee began embellishing his structure with arches, partitions, winding pathways, seats, planters and desert plantings. Even a goldfish pond was added. He gave it Eastern flair with smiling Buddhas, Samurai warriors, foo dogs, Asian elephants and folk art. Whimsical items too numerous to count can be seen displayed prominently and tucked into nooks and crannies. Recycled items and remnants of China, dinnerware, pottery, bottles, trophies, shells, vases, license plates, golf balls, toys, and you name it, are everywhere. An elaborate mailbox and Christmas lights complete the scene.
Louis Lee was 15 when his family emigrated from China to the US in the 1920s. He purchased his home on the outskirts of Phoenix in the 1950s and resided there until his death in 2006. Today that area is a highly desirable neighborhood. Although the house is obscured by his labor of love, the legacy of his unconventional masonry monument continues to greet neighbors and passers-by. What will become of this intriguing streetside landmark remains to be seen. The home is still in the Lee family and certainly the spirit of Louis Foo Lee still prevails.
Appropriately, not far up the street, the praying monk on Camelback Mountain can be observed. Monks kneeling in prayer were a frequent sight in the wats of Thailand, and the red sandstone rock formation that resembles the silhouette of a man kneeling in prayer is not difficult to visualize. The shape of Camelback Mountain resembles the hump and head of a kneeling camel. From farther away, the praying monk looks more like the camel’s eyelash. It is believed that a cave discovered on the mountain was once a sacred site used by the Hohokam around the 14th century. Not surprising, Camelback Mountain is designated as a Phoenix Point of Pride.