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GARDENS : California Essence : Seventy Years Ago, Florence Yoch Brought Us European Landscape Design

August 20, 1989|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine

THE DECADES OF the 1920s and '30s were one of the most active periods of California garden design, a time when many grand Los Angeles, Pasadena, Beverly Hills and Santa Barbara estates were built. Landscape architect Florence Yoch helped develop the style of the time--a casual but distinctively Californian interpretation of classic European gardens. She became an important link in a chain of garden design that leads from the villas of Italy and the Moorish gardens of Spain to the Mediterranean landscape of Southern California.

Yoch's ideas and designs have been rediscovered and are proving inspirational to young landscape architects and designers--to anyone, for that matter, who is trying to make sense of a plot of ground. So it is timely that James J. Yoch, now a professor of English at the University of Oklahoma, should document his cousin's work in "Landscaping the American Dream: The Gardens and Film Sets of Florence Yoch, 1890-1972" (Harry N. Abrams Inc./Sagapress Inc.). Yoch's inspiration came also from the formal gardens of France and the wilder, flowery gardens of England. She was particularly taken with the work of English garden designer and author Gertrude Jekyll, whose books she carried to her various jobs. But she developed her own distinctive styles. "Patrician gardens," as James Yoch calls them, were designed for the wealthy but restrained Pasadena and Montecito clients. There were gardens for movie moguls with "the swagger appealing to Hollywood." And there were movie set gardens, including the gardens in "Romeo and Juliet" (1936), the rice terraces cut into the hills of Chatsworth for "The Good Earth" (1937), and the grounds of Tara in "Gone With the Wind" (1939). Later, in the 1950s and '60s, she developed "the wilder, asymmetrical Monterey gardens."

But it is Florence Yoch's small gardens that are perhaps her most intriguing work, and they seem to have been her personal favorites. James Yoch notes that of the particularly pretty garden for the Misses Davenport (1922), she "typed a proud message on the back of her photograph: the garden 'illustrates what may be accomplished on a narrow city lot. The house and garden are on a lot only 60 feet wide.' " He continues: "The simplicity of smaller sites may have appealed to Yoch more readily than the sprawling ranches of her wealthiest clients, for she continually defined intimate spaces in even the grandest schemes. Smaller gardens ... required more ingenuity on the part of the designer and more imagination from the viewer."

Certain trends in garden design--among them, the concept of the garden as an outdoor room--that are becoming popular once again are apparent in Florence Yoch's work. Author Yoch notes: "Yoch was notably successful even during the 1920s in designing compact, low-maintenance gardens for forward-thinking Californians who wanted charming outdoor rooms." Descriptions of these "outdoor rooms" and old photographs offer a great deal of solid advice and insight on the design of gardens.

When in search of design ideas, "Yoch took the time--often several days--to be in gardens long enough to feel the walks, see the changes of light, hear the sounds of fountains and birds," writes James Yoch. "She never placed her confidence in drawings for she was convinced 'that you can't do a decent job just on paper.' " On construction documents, the note "Consult Miss Yoch" appears in every margin. It is not that she couldn't draw (many of her drawings are in the book); she believed that gardens were more dimensional than any sketch could demonstrate.

In "Landscaping the American Dream," there is also ample advice on gardening in Southern California, beginning with the timeless but still unheeded observation, "The man in a hurry is not a good gardener." Of her Beverly Hills garden, Mrs. David O. Selznick observed that "Miss Yoch didn't stint there (on soil preparation) or on any of the sensible priorities. Money was sunk where it didn't show, so we had a grand new house, a splendid tennis court, a few nice trees, and many tiny plants. Miss Yoch said we were to practice patience and let them grow--a big order in that overnight town."

Present-day gardeners will be intrigued by some of the information in the back of the book. For the George Cukor Garden, for instance, there is a "Plant List for Spring Border, September, 1936" which includes tulips with names such as 'Lemon Queen' and 'Altesa,' ranunculus and dimorphotheca, snapdragons named 'Buff Beauty' and a rose named 'President Herbert Hoover.' Florence Yoch usually included a complete set of instructions with each garden she designed; "Garden Maintenance Directions for Mrs. Preston B. Hotchkis" has a gardening calendar that is helpful even today.

"Her penchant (was) for the notable feature that gives a garden its special character: the worn stone, the shadowed fountain, the venerable tree," writes James Yoch. Her choice and siting of plants was always inspirational, the reason that these European-influenced gardens look so at home here. As Florence Yoch believed: A successful garden is one "in which every plant is significant and happily used."

Copyright 1989 by James J. Yoch. Reprinted by permission from "Landscaping the American Dream: The Gardens and Film Sets of Florence Yoch," published by Harry N. Abrams Inc./Sagapress Inc.

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