An Eternal Light Lost: Helen Keller’s Japanese Garden Lantern

On June 28, 1944 a truck delivered six enormous crates to Helen Keller’s Easton home on Redding Road. She had just celebrated her 64th birthday and was excited to learn that the boxes were from her good friend and art dealer Shinzo Shirae. Though held up for several years in an American warehouse due to the outbreak of WWII, the crates were originally shipped from Japan. She had visited this country several times since her first humanitarian trip in 1937 and had always wanted a Japanese lantern in her yard at Arcan Ridge. The granite sculpture sent to her weighed over three thousand pounds and when assembled, was eight feet tall. Identified as a Kasuga Doro, it is thought to be from the Tokugama Period (AD 1615-1898) and this example is dated in surviving archival notes to the late 17th or early 18th century. It consisted of a hexagonal base with a lotus petal design, a stone shaft topped with a hexagonal lamp with corner scrolls and a decorative finial. There were relief carvings along the lantern housing and an opening to place a lamp and oil. It was installed in her backyard with a 15 watt electric light bulb fitted inside the stone housing so that it would always remain lit. It was referred to in her letters and even by her contemporaries as the “Eternal Light.”

Outside of her interest in Japanese art and culture, why was this piece so important to Helen? The imagery of the “Eternal Light” appears often in her writing. For her, it was everything from an emblem of knowledge to the indomitable spirit of mankind and more generally she uses it frequently to symbolize the heavenly afterlife. Paralleling a similar lantern set up in honor of Anne Sullivan Macy in Japan, perhaps this monument also held some connection to her lost teacher and companion. Upon her own death, Helen’s lantern is listed in the inventory of her belongings. Unlike many of the fine pieces in her house that were bequeathed to loved ones or auctioned, there did not seem to be an immediate plan for the “Eternal Light” after Arcan Ridge was sold.

At first it was offered to the United Nations and then for the gardens of her alma mater, Radcliffe College. Neither institution wanted the piece. Suggestions and offers from various locations were considered, but in the end, it found a home here in Easton in front of the only school named after Helen Keller for sighted children. Dedicated in 1965, Helen was too unwell to attend the ceremony but she was delighted to learn of its foundation. The Helen Keller Middle School seemed like the ideal place to erect the “Eternal Light” in her honor.

The placement of the stone structure did not go quickly. Once the school board agreed to accept the piece, funds were acquired for its relocation and contractors and architects were consulted. While this planning took place, the antique lay in pieces in a storage shed on the school grounds. Skilled masons were hired to drill holes in the granite shaft so that steel dowels could secure the separate sections of stone and electricians to run the wiring so that it could be illuminated. In May of 1973, five years after Helen Keller’s death, the monument was dedicated at the school. Set up with a low brick retaining wall delineating a Japanese style garden, the lantern sat at the center of a crushed gravel courtyard. Plantings were overseen by the Easton Garden Club which included among other species a red jade crabtree and a Japanese black pine.

easton hse keller lantern dedication photo

After researching this piece in the archives of the Historical Society, I was hoping to see the “Eternal Light” somewhere on the school grounds when I visited as a new parent this year. There seems to be no trace of the hardscape of its installation though perhaps the spring will reveal if any of the plantings from the garden remain. Subsequent building improvements in 1989 and 2001 may have changed some of the layout. Was the stone monument damaged and discarded? Did anyone know the historic value of the piece, let alone the sentimental value it had to one of Easton’s most famous citizens? I am not sure we will ever have answers to these questions but at the very least we have a cautionary tale for our town about the care and conservation of its historic relics.

 

easton hse 1969 japanese lantern

 

  1 comment for “An Eternal Light Lost: Helen Keller’s Japanese Garden Lantern

  1. Eleanor Boba
    January 23, 2019 at 12:39 pm

    Such a sad story. How quickly history is lost.

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