Kelly Comras Lecture on Ruth Shellhorn: Mid-Century Landscape Architecture
Landscape architect, lawyer and author Kelly Comras gave a very inspiring lecture on Ruth Shellhorn, one of the most well respected mid-century landscape architects in Southern California. Kelly did extensive research and interviews with Shellhorn, before she passed away in 2006, for her book Ruth Shellhorn. “A woman of grit and determination, Ruth faced a number of gender based hurdles which she handled with much grace, in a field dominated by men,” Kelly explained. During her 57 year career, from 1933-1990, Ruth created close to 400 landscape designs, ranging from private gardens to the landscaping of shopping centers, nine Bullock’s department stores, and the master landscape plan for the University of California, Riverside. Some of the residential gardens she designed still survive today, but her most enduring legacy is her collaboration with Walt Disney for Disneyland.
Ruth was born in 1909 in Pasadena. She was much influenced by a neighbor, legendary landscape architect Florence Yoch, whose work on Hollywood mansions and movie sets was well known; Yoch became her role model. Ruth studied horticulture, engineering, design and regional planning at Cornell University, and in the midst of the Great Depression, she did not have the funds for the remaining four units to receive her degree, and sadly had to leave Cornell. Back in Los Angeles, she opened her own practice, and married. Her husband went to work for her, learned Spanish, supervised the construction crews and helped make her work possible. Ruth’s big break came with her collaboration with the architect Welton Becket who designed the Bullock’s department stores. With her use of palm trees, benches, glossy foliage, and lush plantings, customers felt they were entering a vacation spot. Ruth created such a special environment that people used to come even on Sundays, when the stores were closed, to enjoy the space. With the subtropical, luxurious landscaping as a background, they took wedding pictures and brought picnics.
Scholars agree that Shellhorn’s collaborations with Becket put Los Angeles on the map, and when Walt Disney needed a landscape architect for a plan to tie all the major components of Disneyland together, four months before its opening, Becket recommended “Shellhorn, and only Shellhorn,” Kelly said. When Disney contacted her, Ruth said, “I don’t do amusement parks.” However, when she met Disney, “Ruth fell in love with his infectious enthusiasm, and agreed to do the project,” Kelly explained. Joining an all-male team, Ruth was responsible for the original pedestrian plan. Disney wanted to build a Victorian bandstand, instead of a proposed flagpole, in the central island of the Town Square. Ruth thought that the bandstand would overpower the surrounding buildings, and obscure the view of Sleeping Beauty Castle. Disney started to build it anyway, and half-way through, when he realized that Ruth was right, he ordered the bandstand out, and replaced it with the flagpole. From then on, he trusted Shellhorn completely, and Ruth told Kelly, “There were no more incidents.” She designed the plantings around Sleeping Beauty Castle, and detailed the final landscape plans for the Town Square, Main Street and the Plaza Hub. She created islands of flowers and foliage, and used trees and inventive plantings to unify the park.
After her work on Disneyland, Ruth’s reputation grew. The Los Angeles Times named her “Woman of the Year” in 1955. Shellhorn’s work captured the essence of Southern California living. Sensitive to the site, and the sense of indoor-outdoor living, her gardens had a lush tropical feeling. She used glossy green plants to give a rich texture, a sun-splashed plant palette, and subtle greens, and created a feeling of a refined, tropical oasis. She was also prescient in her use of plants that did not need much water to thrive.
Worried that Shellhorn’s papers might be destroyed after her death, Kelly worked with Ruth and persuaded her to donate her archives to UCLA. While doing her research, Kelly contacted Cornell University, and discovered that Ruth did have enough credits to satisfy her graduation requirements for two degrees in architecture and landscape architecture. Cornell presented Ruth with the original certificates, and although she received many awards during her lifetime, these earned degrees “were the most dear to her heart, and she hung them in her studio,” according to Kelly.
We are thus so grateful to Kelly Comras for preserving the extraordinary legacy of Ruth Shellhorn, a remarkable woman! After the lecture, Kelly signed her book — it is full of illustrations of Shellhorn’s innovative, lush landscapes.
Coincidentally, we were fortunate to have in attendance at the lecture, Joan St. Clair, who knew Virginia Robinson and reminisced about those times. Joan, who was then in her 20’s, was frequently invited to Virginia’s wonderful luncheons in the Pool Pavilion. These elegant affairs took place on Thursdays, and a white-gloved butler used to wait on the guests. Joan remembers famous guests playing on the tennis court, and she also knew Alfredo de la Vega who was very close to Virginia. Joan concluded by saying that “Virginia was very vivacious and so adorable!”
Thank you to Chair of Garden Classes Lisa Gimmy for arranging this wonderful lecture for all to enjoy!
Post by Linda Meadows
Friends of Robinson Gardens member