On February 12, 2021, members of the Virginia Robinson Gardens participated on Zoom to hear a fabulous lecture by world-renowned fountain designer Jim Garland and a presentation by Alison Terry, liaison for the Southern California chapter of HALS (Historic American Landscape Survey). Alison explained that HALS is a federal program within the National Park Service whose primary goal is to provide a permanent, publicly accessible record of significant cultural landscapes. Alison said, “For the Virginia Robinson Gardens, it is significant because it represents a rare, intact example of an estate garden with classical Italianate elements.” As Beverly Hills’ first estate, it has a rich social history as well.
The documentation will consist of measured drawings, large-format and drone photography, and a written history. Alison added that she is very excited to work with her team of 22 volunteers who have a great depth of knowledge of landscapes. They range from historians, arborists, fine artists and recent graduates to Disney Imagineering retirees. Click here for the full list of volunteers.
Landscape architect and Friends member Lisa Gimmy and Alison approached Superintendent Timothy Lindsay in 2017 with the idea for this project. The purpose of this project, Alison explained, is threefold. First, the information will be submitted to the Library of Congress. Second, HALS volunteers will work with Tim to fulfill the requirements for museum status for VRG in regards to the exterior. Third, this document will help with long-term maintenance and will also interpret the Garden from a landscape point of view.
Lisa then introduced Jim Garland who gave a similar talk to Robinson Gardens back in 2016. Jim founded Fluidity Design Consultants, a water-based design and engineering firm in 2002, after 20 years of practice in water design, architecture and urbanism. He has designed water features for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Hearst headquarters in New York City, the Myriad Gardens in Oklahoma City, Grand Park in Los Angeles, and international projects in South Korea, China, Dubai, Singapore, and Qatar among others. He is currently working on the water designs for projects in St. Petersburg, Russia, the Gulf War Memorial in Washington D.C., and the new Amazon headquarters in Arlington, Virginia whose astounding design features a central helix structure occupying a garden 350 feet in height.
Five years ago, Jim toured Robinson Gardens and on viewing the water features, he said “they are intimate fountains, very well organized, and very finely crafted.” (When Tim came to the Gardens in 1998, none of the water features were working, and under his leadership and with the help of the Friends, the fountains were restored.) Jim added that Robinson Gardens is in a special category because of its collection of fountains. Villa d’Este in Italy and the Alhambra in Spain both have collections of fountains.The ones in Villa d’Este are so stupendous and spectacular, “it is like an opera; you can almost hear the angels singing,” Jim enthused. “At the Alhambra, the least amount of water is doing the most amount of poetic delivery.” It has a restraint and is quietly impressive. Jim continued, “Robinson Gardens has a meaningful, wonderful connection to the Alhambra, its 600-year-old ancestor.”
At both the Alhambra and in the Italian Terrace Garden at Robinson Gardens, there is a water feature where a stream of water splits into two, cascading down both sides of a set of stairs. “What is amazing, intimate, and terrific, is that you hear the sound from both sides stereophonically at the Alhambra.” It is acoustically rich in a way that a single stream going down the staircase could never be. Jim said that the one at Robinson Gardens is an extremely nice variation of the Alhambra version and that the single stream is even superior to that of the Alhambra because “it is more visible and extremely delightful. It is fun to watch the waves at the top and how it affects the subsequent waves down below.”
In conclusion, Jim stated, “The collection of water features at Robinson Gardens is significant here in California. It is very well designed, beautifully integrated into the spaces and noteworthy in terms of the fountain collections here in the U.S.” In addition, Jim is working on a book (to be named Fountain Safari) covering a 2,000-year history of fountains worldwide. Last but not least, see below his superb essay on the fountains of VRG written in 2016:
A Robinson Gardens Fountain Story by Jim Garland
I recently shared the surprise of many first-time visitors to Robinson Gardens, wondering how something so impressive and delightful could be kept such a relative secret. Quickly enough this reaction was overtaken by discovery. The curious silence of the palm garden, the seeming endlessness of the landscape’s jig-sawed sections, its easy mixing of symmetry and asymmetry, the exotic, large trees—and the property’s many fountains with their playful complications, wove together a special elegance and identity.
My work as a fountain designer has allowed me to visit and study many of the world’s famous fountains, and I know how difficult they are to get right. Everyone seems to enjoy Rome’s boat fountain at the base of the Spanish Steps or Paris’ Fountain of the Innocents, or the Spiral Fountain in Sydney’s Darling Harbour, and the professional tries to understand why, but much remains a mystery.
The fountains of Robinson Gardens remind me very much of those of the Alhambra, in Granada, Spain. I believe their playfulness is partly due to their beguiling self-awareness of this point.
The Alhambra’s reflection pool at the Court of the Myrtles engages in perfect stillness a symmetrical, arching, layered façade of refined architecture flanked by plantings, much as does the emerald swimming pool at the top of the Robinson Gardens lawn. Admittedly, there is no Californian parallel to the Alhambra’s Court of the Lions, but how could there be?
The cascade of inverted roof tiles centered in the steps of water feature #2 of the garden’s south section’s sequence of nine fountains relates to the Generalife’s handrail fountain, and the manner in which the cascade is centered in the staircase references directly the Alhambra’s eastern stair above the Partal. It is here that Robinson Garden scores its first win, as the sparkling flows’ happy dog tail wag is far superior to the Alhambra’s simple drips.
While watching I thought, ‘Sure, this is nice, but at the Alhambra there are twin flows and the sound effect is in stereo!’ That vanity was short-lived, as Robinson tapped back in the next section down where a pair of lion masks stream into bracketing basins, achieving a perfectly respectable stereo sound. ‘Sure’, I thought again, ‘but the stair integration at the Alhambra is nicer’. And then Robinson Gardens leaned in with another double effect with dual cascades integrated into the stairs’ two sides—just like at the Partal’s western stair. To be fair, the Alhambran version looks better in darker, flat-faced brick, but RG’s actions and sounds are brashly superior.
The Alhambra is seven hundred years old. It was built by the Moors and reflects their deeply felt values of craft, architectural beauty, inspired poetry, refined garden arts and unmatched fountain skills. The palace and grounds of the Alhambra have been celebrated for centuries. It is no small thing for a garden in Los Angeles to compete with any of its remarkable details. Ultimately, perhaps, the comparison is unfair, as the age and graces of the Moor’s apotheosis may not be surpassed on its own terms, and the formula of creating heroic poetry with the slimmest amounts of water may have been perfected at that time. But we need also to give credit where credit is due, and the fifteen water features of Robinson Gardens are a significant and valuable treasure.
Post by Linda Meadows
Friends of Robinson Gardens Board Member
Editor of the VRG eNewsletter, the Happenings