Ruth Shellhorn: Midcentury Landscape Design in Southern California

Between 1933 and 1990 Ruth Shellhorn
created close to four hundred landscape
designs in Southern California — from tiny private gardens
to expansive campuses, from shopping centers
to Disneyland. No single school dominated
her many creations. She moved freely among the
modern, the traditional and the exotic
styles of design. She was as thorough
as she was creative. She had the technical
chops to compete in a field long dominated
by men. On the site she was both
formal and down-to-earth – she wore hats and dresses, but never hesitated
to pick up a shovel. In a region that launched
American’s passion for outdoor living, she
used her many talents to capture the essence of
the Southern California look. 1887 – the Southern
Pacific Railroad laid tracks to Southern California, then
lured easterners to the region with the promise of sun, beauty
and a sense of possibility. The dry climate was
Mediterranean, but promoters and developers touted the region as lush
and sub-tropical. And, as a result of
irrigation with imported water, Southern California did indeed
take on a subtropical look. [Kelly Comras]
It was called
the “California Look”, the “California Atmosphere”,
the “Feeling of California.” This look of lushness,
bold textures. But then it also includes
this whole notion of blurring that distinction between
indoors and outdoors. There was this feeling
of excitement, this sense of limitless
opportunity. [Narration]
Ruth Patricia Shellhorn
spent her life immersed in the California
landscape. Born near Pasadena in 1909, she
was fortunate in her parents — two college graduates who
encouraged her education, and in her neighbor,
Florence Yoch, the landscape architect
whose work on Hollywood sets and Hollywood mansions was
known across the country. Florence Yoch became a
role model for young Ruth, who left home in 1927 to become
a landscape architect herself. Shellhorn studied first
at Oregon State College where she won awards for
academic achievement, then at Cornell University,
where she studied design, engineering, regional
planning and horticulture, and where she demonstrated
remarkable skill in drafting and design. Cornell’s program was rigorous
and expensive – out of money, she withdrew from Cornell just
four units short of a degree. [Kelly Comras]
She came out of
college and back to practice in Southern California in
1933, depths of the Depression. What jobs were available
were mainly being given to her colleagues from
school that were men. But she had an attitude
which was, “OK, I’ve hit a particular bump,
I’m going to go around it.” [Narration]
Back in California, Shellhorn opened a
private practice, and for ten years
paid the bills by taking on many
small jobs — drafting for Florence Yoch,
writing for magazines, designing small gardens
for home owners. She established a connection
with the local chapter of the American Society
of Landscape Architects, and re-established
her connection to Southern California. [Kelly Comras]
She made it her
business to connect with a lot of the local nurseries
and botanical collections that were growing at the
time, the Huntington Gardens. Early on she developed what
she called a humble attitude about landscape design. She rejected the notion that
a designer would come in and impose design on the land. And she felt very strongly that a landscape architect’s
role was to try and bring together
the needs of the client, but also a huge respect
for what the land was. [Narration] In 1943
Shellhorn was hired by the Shoreline Development
Study to design parks, trails and parking lots
along an eleven-mile stretch of the California coast. The Shoreline study
gave Shellhorn a chance to work full-time on a
major design project. What’s more, the lead architect on the study was also
directing development of the new Bullock’s suburban
department store in Pasadena. He hired Ruth to work
with him on the project. Soon after, she was in charge. [Kelly Comras]
Bullock’s was really a
stroke of luck for her. Shellhorn, who was
relatively young, took on this job, and it was a
perfect job for her because it was a
big planning job. She ended up working on
nine Bullock’s projects over the years. [Narration] Bullock’s
was not the only change in Ruth’s life in the 1940s. She moved her practice
from Hollywood to Pasadena, and she married Harry
Keuser, a bank manager who encouraged Ruth
to keep working. In a reversal of the
typical role of the era, Harry went to work for Ruth. [Kelly Comras] He was not
a landscape architect. He didn’t have a
college education. Yet he made the work
that she did possible. They ended up hiring their
own construction crew. Her husband learned Spanish so that he could
work with the crews. He took drafting classes. And Ruth had a blade of steel running through her
when it came to the meticulous
execution of her work. In the beginning as a young
woman telling contractors what to do, they would
just ignore her. They would pinch her
cheek and call her honey. And they wouldn’t
do what they said. And when they did that,
she said, “You’re fired.” [Narration] Shellhorn created
a Southern California oasis at Bullock’s in Pasadena,
but it was a suburban oasis, surrounded by suburban
boulevards. [Kelly Comras] Bullock’s,
Pasadena, was the first regional
shopping center that fully acknowledged
the automobile. The property was designed
to make this an experience that began even before the
driver approached the property. Ruth Shellhorn used trios of tall Washington palm
trees near the entrances so that people knew
from several blocks away that they were approaching
that Bullock’s. When they turned into the
property they were met with shrubbery and
ground covers. And it felt like you were entering almost a
vacation spot. At the very beginning
on Sundays none of the Bullock’s stores were
open, but people would come down anyway and they treated
these places like parks. People would come
and have their wedding pictures taken there. They treated these places like
something far more special than a shopping center or
a shopping development. [Narration] Shellhorn’s work for Bullock’s attracted the
attention of other developers in Southern California. [Kelly Comras] This guy called
and said, “Will you work on my amusement park?” And she said, “I’m sorry. I don’t do amusement parks.” [Narration] But this guy was
Walt Disney, who’d been at work for two years on what he
hoped would be America’s amusement park. For Disneyland he needed
a landscape architect to tie together some very
different attractions — including Fantasyland,
Frontierland, Adventureland and Tomorrowland. He called Shellhorn
in March of 1955 — he planned to open the park just four months later,
in July. [Kelly Comras] She was thinking
she really was not going to want to do it. But he was so enthusiastic and
she said his enthusiasm was so infectious, she agreed to
go and meet him in Anaheim and she fell in love
with he enthusiasm and she agreed to do the job. She joined an elite
all male team, with two landscape
architects already on board, Jack and Bill Evans. She came on very
late in the game. All of the fixed elements
were either already built or being built. But she discovered that there
was no real pedestrian plan throughout the property and so
she started working on that. [Narration] As with
Bullock’s, Shellhorn set out to shape the
visitor’s experience, this time creating a
pedestrian plan inspired by the make believe
nature of the park itself. She designed islands
of flowers and foliage that mirrored the park’s
exotic and whimsical themes. She narrowed the walkways to
create a feeling of suspense in some places, and elsewhere
broadened them to evoke a sense of wonder at the
enticing vistas. She helped dramatize
the park’s centerpiece, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle,
with strategic grading of the surrounding moat,
and she collaborated with the design team
to tie the many parts of Disneyland together by
placing full-grown trees of the same species
in different locations throughout the park. [Kelly Comras] Jack
and Bill Evans, who had been collecting
trees all over Southern California had a massive nursery
on the property, and she was able to do
what she called “shopping.” So she and Jack and Bill Evans would go into this
giant nursery and they would select
the trees that were going to be used throughout
the property. Of course she did not
do all of this alone. She was working with some
very talented people. [Narration] Shortly before
opening day, Disney announced that a Victorian
bandstand would replace the simple flagpole at the center of the park. [Kelly Comras] And Ruth
said, “Absolutely not. It’s too big. It’s going to obscure the view
of Sleeping Beauty’s castle.” And Walt Disney said,
“We’re doing it.” Halfway through construction
he came and he looked at it and he said, “It goes out.
You were right.” And he told her I trust you. [Narration] After Disneyland, the Shellhorn practice
and reputation grew. In 1955 the Los Angeles
Times named Shellhorn a Woman of the Year. One year later, she was working
on her largest commission to date: the expansion
of the University of California Riverside,
50 miles east of the city of Los Angeles. The campus sits at the base
of the Box Springs Mountains and its climate
is extreme, with triple-digit heat in the summer and freezing temperatures
in the winter. But the gently sloping
landscape was dotted with natural rocky outcroppings
and traversed by arroyos, dry riverbeds lined with trees
that delighted Shellhorn — she them called “rivers
of green.” [Kelly Comras] The university
wanted to fill those arroyos, make them level and put
parking lots over them. And she thought this place
should be preserved while it’s developed. The campus architect George
Vernon Russell came on board and he agreed with her. And the two of them became
kind of a team lobbying for several years to
keep the university from filling in those arroyos. [Narration] Their
lobbying succeeded. The arroyos became
major elements in the overall campus design. She added deciduous trees to
the plan to provide deep shade in the summer, and created
rocky garden beds of cacti and succulents that cut down
on maintenance and water use. She worked with the architect
to create covered walkways that protected pedestrians
as they crossed the campus. [Kelly Comras]
And those covered
walkways created opportunities for small courtyards where
people could sit and talk. There was the effort to
avoid monumental gestures. The buildings all
stayed relatively low and the campus had a sort
of a horizontal feeling and more intimate spaces. The university has grown and
changed an enormous amount. But what you do see is
the preservation of all of these natural features. The arroyos, instead of
being filled in, have bridges and walkways that go
over and through them. Parking lots are tucked
into little niches. In some respects she really
was looking at UC Riverside in the way that we today think
of as sustainable landscapes. She did anticipate in large
projects there was never going to be enough water that could
handle a heavy water usage on a campus the size
of Riverside. So she devised gardens,
quite beautiful but very low water usage. Today, it looks almost
prescient what she did. But at the time, I think she
was doing this a little more on intuition. [Narration] In 1971,
Shellhorn was named a fellow of the American Society
of Landscape Architects, one of only 145 fellows
nationwide. She continued her practice
for another two decades, designing school campuses,
retail centers and dozens of private gardens in
Southern California, some of which survive today. [Kelly Comras] When you look at
a residential garden designed by Ruth Shellhorn, you do
not see a particular style. She didn’t do Japanese gardens. She didn’t do modern gardens. She didn’t do English gardens. She felt that the architecture
and the client and the site and the program should dictate
how the project would evolve. [Narration] In 1978 Ruth
Shellhorn took on a project that was, in a way, a tribute
to her mentor Florence Yoch — the restoration of a
Pasadena garden designed by Yoch five decades earlier. Shellhorn worked on the garden
until her retirement in 1996. In 2005, seventy-two years
after she left Cornell, the University determined that she had indeed satisfied
graduation requirements, and awarded her degrees
in both architecture and landscape architecture. Ruth Shellhorn in died in
2006, leaving behind a legacy of gardens, campuses and parks
that reflect her imagination, her commitment to
client needs and to those
of the land itself.

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